Inside, I feel the difference, the Michelin star. The waiter arrives with a bread basket. Perusing the menu, I cut a chunk from the butter to eat like cheese on the bread. The bread is hearty, the butter cold and salty. I order the Chez Panisse Zinfandel, Napa Valley ($10). It is smooth and luxurious, a perfect pairing. "This is the French way," I tell Isabella and Tina (who have come with me). "Eating cold, salty butter on bread with a good red wine." She immediately adopts the method, and when our waiter (Berkeley-polished, we decide) asks if we would like a second basket, we eagerly agree.
We get the tomato and eggplant soup with yogurt and dill ($10). Isabella dips in and the Venetian red soup coats her spoon like custard. "This is the most delicious thing I have ever tasted," she enthuses. We all slowly spoon the rest of the bowl into our mouths, savouring the layers of flavour and appreciating its thick reduction and fragrant fresh dill.
Then, poached eggs with crispy sweet corn polenta and wild mushroom ragu ($24). If I told you it was the best thing I have ever eaten, you may not believe me. But I can't think of any other way to describe it. The eggs are delicious, the polenta soft and mashed potato-like with a slightly charred, crispy outside. This isn't a lunch to rush through. This is a meal to pray over. We linger over every bite, tasting and reaching for words to describe each flavour and texture. It tastes of absolutely fresh ingredients, nurtured and prepared slowly, with love and precision. We don't want it to end, so we order shaved summer squash salad with lemon, mint, pistachios and pecorino ($12). It arrives looking exquisitely pretty, offering the best of the garden with sweet tasting mint, thinly sliced zucchini, perfectly roasted pistachios, shavings of pecorino and lemon dressing so delicate we can't find a hint of oil.
Suddenly, I'm thinking of my mom's hambone broth. She braises a hambone for days just to get the right base for her potato dill soup. It may be a very different dish from what we’re sampling at Chez Panisse, but it’s prepared with the same depth and care. I can taste it now. How can I tell my mom that it took travelling all the way to California, to Alice Waters’ world-renowned restaurant, to appreciate the privilege she extended me my whole life. I think of my mother, and of all the years I took her cooking for granted.
"I'm sorry I didn't always appreciate your amazing home cooking, Mom,” I think to myself. “I’m grateful and I thank you. You deserve a Michelin star.”
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