They lay pale and forlorn in a bowl, some clinging together and impossible to separate as though they were ashamed to face the world.
As indeed they might be, for these potato crisps (or “chips” as the Americans insist on calling them) were profoundly dull of flavour.
The idea was to smear them in a horseradish cream topped with lump fish roe.
This was like a taramasalata dip served at a mediocre buffet at a suburban golf club.
Fast forward less then 24 hours and we’re trying hard to forget a hugely underwhelming meal at the über-trendy Michelin-starred State Bird Provisions in San Francisco and are eating at the no where near as fashionable Chez Panisse across the Bay in Berkeley.
Crisps (or “chips”) feature again.
This time they’re made from pink fleshed spuds and are cooked perfectly so that they’re crisp and flavoursome, an ideal foil for the chicken, green beans, chanterelle mushrooms and gorgeously balanced jus that accompany them.
These two crispy encounters have, I think, helped me to focus on what really matters to me about restaurant food.
And that’s respect for ingredients, coherence and a kitchen that’s technically skilled but unburdened by ego.
Back to State Bird – a buzzy urban space in a not-too-gentrified neighbourhood.
The concept at State Bird, opened in 2011, is that there are a small number of dishes that can be ordered from the menu, but mainly it’s about choosing small plates for the staff who amble with trays and trolleys from table to table.
There’s a bewildering array of ingredients with Far Eastern, Mediterranean, Caribbean, Latin American and even Germanic roots.
It’s fast and it’s confusing and – worse – there’s a temptation to order almost blindly so that flavours conflict as the meal progresses.
This is children’s party food for a Silicon Valley generation grown wealthy thanks to the dot.com boom.
Flavours are undeniably bold if not downright bullying at times.
And cooking is not always as precise as it should be.
Deep-fried and breadcrumbed quail – the State Bird of the restaurant’s name – was in parts over-cooked, though served with beautifully soft white onions spiky with vinegar and fragrant with sage.
Beans were too al dente.
A dark fruit dessert alleged to be a a profiterole was a ghastly mound of stodge more akin to badly made cobbler.
But a sort of biscuit sandwich of olive oil ice cream with pecorino was inventive, thoughtful, technically accomplished and a delight.
Not as delightful, however, as the simple lunch next day at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ cafe and restaurant which has inspired the whole farm-to-table movement after its opening in 1971.
How it no longer possesses a Michelin star makes me wonder whether the blubbery tyre man may not been afflicted by some form of gluttony-induced lunacy.
Here a starter of carrots of different hues and cucumbers of various shapes and textures came in a warming ginger dressing, with parks of flavour provided by chervil.
The chicken with crisps, precisely cooked beans and chanterelles was the sort of dish that I wanted never to finish.
A galette of pluots (that’s a sort of plum) was heaven – the fruit tangy but sweet, the flaky pasty here and there blackened with leaked juices that had caramelised to that bittersweet state that causes me to swoon.
A scoop of properly soft lemon verbena ice cream worked in blissful arnony.
At both we paid around 200 dollars for two with drinks.
I know where I’d happy splash out my bucks next time – Chez Panisse.
A place that knows what it’s about – and that’s about allowing ingredients to shine simply and bright.
1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709
State Bird Provisions
529 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA 94115