On an early September afternoon, my first Chez Panisse experience started off perfectly fine. The dining room was still papered with the menus collected during the past 40 years of the Chez Panisse experience. There were menus for meals in honor of Hillary Clinton, the Dalai Lama, and other famous people. You looked around thinking, "Now that's pretty cool wallpaper — they should keep that up."
It started off memorably in the way that for anyone interested in food, it was a necessary checklist experience, if not an experimental, otherworldly one. There was a pizza with wild nettles and Pecorino; a pizetta with gypsy peppers and capers; and a pipérade — wood oven-baked peppers, tomato, and eggs with paprika and garlic toast — all respectable. That all changed with the fried Wolfe Ranch quail with shell beans, amaranth, and tomatillo salsa. There was a delicate fry, the bird was juicy, with garlicky wet beans beneath, and tomatillo tang — a dish to recall fondly for its execution, comfort, and paired flavors. And for these reasons this dish made my list of most memorable meals of 2011.