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Critic's Notebook

Yet Another Amazing Meal at Berkeley's Chez Panisse

March 29, 2001|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

BERKELEY — Last week, when an old friend heard I would be up northfor a few days,she called to ask if I would like to come to the Parsi New Year's dinner Niloufer was cooking at Chez Panisse. She went last year, she told me, and it was truly wonderful, each dish a marvel.

Niloufer is Niloufer Ichapouria King, an anthropologist and food scholar who moved to this country from Bombay in the '60s. I've had the chance to eat her food on a couple of occasions, and for the opportunity to taste her cooking again, no question that I'd shift any reservations around.

When we arrived in front of Chez Panisse, I noticed the oddly beautiful fish stenciled in white up the steps and around the courtyard. A particularly elegant form of graffiti? A fish lover's protest? In Berkeley, it could be anything.

Seated downstairs at a table for six, I appreciated once again the warmth of the dining room with its redwood walls and copper lamps. From my seat I could see the waist-high fireplace where the meat is grilled and glimpse cooks at work in the handsome kitchen.

Niloufer and her husband David King, it turns out, had stenciled the fish on the steps. And David had decorated the menus with a smear of gold and red.

Niloufer's family is Parsi--which means "of Persia"--followers of the old religion of Zoroaster and "descendants of a small band who fled Persia after the fall of the Sassanian kingdom to the conquering Arabs in the 7th century. . . . Parsi food today is a synthesis of what refugees from Iran brought with them to India, the local cuisine of Gujerat, in particular the use of lentils and Indian Muslim or Moghlai cooking," writes Niloufer on a sheet that accompanied the menu.

Her New Year's menu celebrating the spring equinox--March 21--began with a tiny glass of pomegranate-flavored wine and a platter of pickled "watermelon" radish drenched in lime, potato wafers, cashews with ajwain seed, and a gorgeous, green cilantro coconut chutney and lots of cumin-laced pappadams.

Then came a bowl of the ritual dal (red lentils) perfumed with cumin and garlic. A snowy piece of halibut steamed in a banana leaf was embellished with a startling green chutney.

The main course was so delicious I wanted to cry: meltingly tender kid goat that she had braised, then painted with a secret spice mixture, and grilled over the wood fire. Long, elegant grains of basmati rice had been simmered in the meat's juices and decorated with a quail's egg and flake of edible gold leaf. This pulao would trump risotto any day. We kept going back for another bite of goat, a bite of pulao, a bite of the brilliant stewed spring greens. Some of us had to ask for seconds on the goat.

All in all a rare and exquisite evening. It is events like this one--and all the countless special menus and guest chefs through the years--that have kept Chez Panisse vital. Alice Waters and her staff have always been willing to step outside the boundaries and offer something special and intriguing. That could be one of the reasons Chez Panisse will celebrate its 30th anniversary this August. I plan to be there.

And next March, I hope to celebrate my second Parsi New Year at the same table. Now if Niloufer would only write a cookbook.

*

* Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. (510) 548-5525.

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