It’s odd to eat lunch on your own at a place like Chez Panisse. Now there’s an opening line not guaranteed to secure the sympathy of the reader. Maybe I could mitigate the impact by pointing out that I am only in the café, not the restaurant proper. Well, no apologies: here I am, at a cozy table, seated on the banquet. To my right a young couple plumb the depths of their feelings for one another—or, really, she seems to be doing most of the plumbing and questioning the accuracy of her readings. He is young, florid, well fed and well dressed but I detect the bloom of perspiration on his brow. The questions hit home.
Across from me, what looks like a mother/son scenario. She: thin, severe, somehow simultaneously elegant and bedraggled. He: scruffy, studiously casual, arrogantly slovenly, slumped in his chair. They are mid-meal. To the waiter, “We’d like a glass of wine.” The waiter: “White? Red?” Him: “Yes.” There is no reaction, no sense that he’s said something funny, just a pause while he waits for the waiter to read his mind. A young software millionaire? I ask myself.
Next to me, the waiter delivers the dishes and says, softly, “ Delicious.” It seems a kind of post-hypnotic suggestion, just in case these water buffalo don’t know what to make of it. “What is this again?” “I dunno, delicious?” “What?” “Delicious. He said it was delicious.” After the waiter leaves the girl says what she really thinks. “It’s too hot,” she says. Well, that’s easily remedied.
My salad has arrived and it is fantastic. Light, subtle, tasty. Almost as good as the salads my wife makes.
Diagonally from me sits a woman, one of a party of four, who could to my eye be Deb Chen of ER fame. I mean, ok, I know it’s not her. I am aware of the typical western tendency to lump all Asians into the same category so, no, I know it’s not really Deb Chen but it looks a lot like her. It makes me think of her, at any rate, and how cocky she was, at least until the moment she let a guide wire slip into some patient’s aorta.
Oh Deb, I judged you then, but my heart is with you now. I feel myself paralyzed, continually on the verge of letting the guide wire slip into the bloodstream of my fledgling freelance career. Where am I? In a restaurant in a town far from home waiting on an old friend who has work. If I stood up quickly and hit my head on this lovely, dark, craftsman-styled beam and began wandering around town aimlessly, with no idea of who I was or what I was doing, who would ever find me and put me straight? It is like being a young man again, with the added wrinkle of having three children and a mortgage.
Arrogant man and his mom receive a friendly visit tableside by an official from a higher strata of restaurant management. They are acquaintances. Friends? Talk ensues between the three but quickly narrows to a back and forth between the mom and restaurant man. The son drifts, loses interest and ends up looking out the window, biting his cuticle. I look out the same the same window but see nothing. Some trees. Blue sky that feels like it’s hanging over an ocean. The man works at his cuticle. What troubles him? I cannot know.
Jing-Mei! I meant “Jing-Mei,” not Deb. Well, she was going by Deb when she let the guide wire slip and ran from the ER in tears. I didn’t think we’d see her again. But she came back next season, calling herself Jing-Mei, and with her new name a confidence restored, bolstered even by the wisdom that comes of failure.
Holy crap, I am hungry. The people to my left, ladies lunching, are sharing their plates—steaming pasta on one side, a lovely cheesy pizzeta on the other. Oh for a long fork and the courage.
At my back is a solid partition of the same dark wood that frames the windows, rising to about six feet in height. Behind that is a service station for bread and water. The restaurant official who had been chatting with the mother and son across from me is back there now and I can hear a scrap of what he’s saying to one of the servers:
“If you can’t find someone to help, you make two trips.”
She says back, “I know but (inaudible, unintelligible).”
“I’m not having a discussion,” he replies. It looks sharp on the page and I suppose it was a little, oh, abrupt, but I admired the way he said it. He was just letting her know what was actually happening. You know, giving her the recipe for success: I’m blending the dry ingredients. I’m not beating them. I'm sure she left the station entirely unconfused.
I think if I were going to kill myself, I might do it right here, in the Chez Panisse café, at lunch, just before dessert is served. I would use a hand gun and be careful to send the slug up towards the ceiling so as to avoid taking anyone along with me. I think it would be a good time to go and it would have, I imagine, a fine effect.
Sometimes you have a glass of something—or rather, I do; I will speak for myself here—and at first sip it’s clear that someone, somewhere has poured his whole heart into making this thing. Such is the case with this glass of Barsac. This morning I went out into the world feeling fine and well-educated, yet the word Barsac meant less than nothing to me. Now and forever more it will recall this day, this hour and this taste—a kind of concentrated intensity that makes me imagine falling asleep in the sun after a morning picking grapes.
Also, I may be getting a little drunk. Hello, ladies. Are you going to be finishing that pizetta?
As I had come to suspect, the young man across from me is probably not the boy-genius software developer taking mom out for a nibble. She just ponied up the credit card, which is the first clue. Second clue is how he and the waiter got talking—they were classmates and my man is, he says, currently out of work, living with his mom for a while but about to go down to work on an organic farm south of here somewhere.
But you know what? Forget about that kid. I love him but he’s history. The new news is the marvelous, friendly way the just-arrived peach sorbet knocks boots with the Barsac. Is this even legal? Jury is still out.
I look at this bowl. Three balls of sorbet, a compote of raspberries with four more or less intact berries—no, wait, six, seven; a couple hid beneath the long crisp sugar cookie in the shape of a tongue depressor but with the opposite effect. Anyway, the point is this bowl looks like life. Not exactly like life in everyway you can imagine, but in some respects, yes, very much like it. To wit, contained, remarkably good over all, and soon to be gone.
I marshal my bites and I wonder. Would an unlimited supply of this dish improve matters? No. It would ruin them. You know it would.