Squab Alley
March 20, 2005

Work has made it difficult for me to do much cooking myself, and I'm sad about that. Hopefully, things will change soon. Anyway, we still manage to go out to eat quite a bit and recently, we went back to Chez Panisse's dining room.

We had squab.

At first, I was slightly disappointed because as you remember, we had squab before. Now that squab, see, it was my first squab and it was incredible. I loved it. I didn't know meat like that could exist. But this squab? Wow. I wouldn't have believed they could have improved on that first squab but they did.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I need to go back and detail how an eight-hour trip to the East Bay was one of the most amazing nights of our short gastronomic lives.

Being that it was a Saturday and BART is, well, BART, we left our place around a quarter to four. In a torrential downpour. Over in the less-drenching Berkeley, we were able to refurl our sodden umbrellas and stroll slowly down Shattuck toward "Gourmet Ghetto." Now, our reservations weren't until 6:30, but we had other food designs.

First of all, there was the siren call of Cheeseboard Pizza. We could smell it blocks away. "Are we going to get a piece? You know we have to get a piece, don't you? We're going to get a piece, aren't we?" my husband asked for several blocks. See, Cheeseboard Pizza is not something we can get very often and we feel that is our gastronomic duty to avail ourselves of a slice whenever we are within a few miles of the place. We agreed to check out what pizza they were serving that day (they serve only one kind a day and serve and serve and serve until they sell out) and make our decision based on that. The line outside Cheeseboard wasn't too long yet as we checked out the description. I read "Roma tomatoes," "Gorgonzola cheese," and "garlic oil." That decided me. We got in line.

Lest people think we are complete gluttons, we only ever get one slice to share between the two of us. Granted, it's a large slice with that little extra sliver Cheeseboard loves to wrap up with the rest of the steaming, oozing slice, but it's nothing excessive. We sat outside and traded bites, looking directly across the street at Chez Panisse and decided that this piece of Cheeseboard pizza was our amuse bouche. Johnny Apple would be proud.

Once the grease was rubbed from our fingertips and our beaming faces, we set off down Shattuck, away from Chez Panisse. We were now in search of wine. My co-worker's husband works at North Berkeley Wine, which happens to be situated much more conveniently to Chez Panisse than Kermit Lynch's place. Well, much more convenient for the carless, that is.

After checking out Chez Panisse's menu, Chris had already advised my co-worker over email what sort of wine we should be looking for. He was suggesting white Burgundy for the first two courses and an older red Burgundy, Barberesco, or even a Barolo for the squab. Although we know that Chez Panisse has a perfectly wonderful wine list, we wanted to avoid the restaurant markup and since the dinner at Chez Panisse came in the form of a gift certificate, we felt perfectly justified in going all out on the wine. We figured we'd get the most for our money if we brought in our own bottle and paid the restaurant's corkage.

Chris happened to be working and showed us many tantalizing bottles both from France and Italy. After some debate, we settled on a 1996 Domaine du Caillou Reserve Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It was $65.00. Chris, a prince among winos, gave it to us at cost. AT COST! This was wholly unexpected. We were perfectly happy that the $65.00 for the wine would be the only thing we had to pay for that night but this? Was incredible. In the end, we only paid $47.00 for this completely outstanding bottle of wine. That unlooked for generosity, Chris' extensive knowledge, and the charming location of North Berkeley Wines ensures that we will be signing up for their mailing list, reading their newsletters, and most definitely going back.

I love having friends in delicious places.

We got even more bang for our at cost buck when the Chez Panisse sommelier went into paroxysms of delight over our choice. It was his FAVORITE wine from his FAVORITE region and he was just so EXCITED for us to try it with the squab. He also had some wonderful white wine suggestions for us to have with our first two courses. We honored Chris' advice and went with a white Burgundy -- a Merseult -- which was divine. It was all sumptuous vanilla and green apple and just lovely with our food.

Before we got into the serious food, we were brought a Kir as an apéritif. This crème de cassis and white wine drink is a traditional Provençal apéritif and can also be made with Champagne, which then means it's a Kir Royale. I love it both ways, although Kir Royales always remind me fondly of the wedding shower Janis Hardy hosted for me in the 80+ degree Minnesota October heat. No worries, five days later, the temperature dropped 50 degrees to give me the chilly, fall wedding I had been planning.

In between sips from the fluted narrow glasses, we munched warm, herb-spackled Niçoise and Picholine olives and gazed longingly at the menu, anticipating what was to come.

The first course was a Maine lobster and Atlantic cod frisée salad with a blood orange vinaigrette. It was nicely reminiscient of our years in Boston -- the lobster was succulent as only Maine lobster can be, the cod was fresh, meaty, and delicious, and the blood orange vinaigrette was a perfect tangy foil for both of them. The white Burgundy was incredible with this dish and I could have happily eaten that salad for every course for the rest of the night. The next course was ravioli plump with a black truffle and potato-mascarpone filling.


While I appreciated that we only got four of the soft square pillows and that the pasta was so light and delicate that it didn't make us feel at all weighty in the stomach before the next course, the black truffles? Not so much there. I mean, I saw the black flecks and it was Black Truffle Week at Chez Panisse but I can't say that I tasted much in the black flecks that was truffly. When I checked out the menu ahead of time, I was a bit skeptical about truffles in a potato-mascarpone filling, knowing that if not done right, the delicate earthiness of the truffle could get totally lost. I think that's exactly what happened here. There weren't enough black flecks -- or the flecks weren't large enough -- to really give us the sense that we were eating truffles.

Finally, our glasses of white Burgundy drained and new glasses filled with the ruby nectar of our Chateauneuf-du-Pape, we stared down at our plates covered in squab. The little bird was crisp from the grill and glistening with a star anise sauce. We both recalled getting only half a squab last time, but this time we got a whole squab each. And thank god we did. That meat was so juicy, so succulent and so incredibly tender that we never even needed to use our knives. The sides of our forks were enough to break through the pink slices of meat. On the side of the squab was a smooth dollop of parsnip purée along and little chunks of roasted root vegetables. They were richly sweet accompaniments and well-suited to the chilly weather.

The only thing that could top that plate of wonder was what our wine did to it. It was perfect, utterly and completely perfect. It was deep and dark with rich berry flavors that were accentuated by the grilled squab. My tongue has never felt so alive. I couldn't stop tasting the two at the same time: bite of squab, sip of wine. Sip of wine, bite of squab.

Dessert was a molten chocolate cake with espresso-almond praline ice cream. It was delicious, most certainly, but I really would have liked more squab.

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