Fengshui on a Plate: Careful With Those Asparagus Spears

IT doesn’t take much culinary savvy to know that asparagus tips must never point in the direction of the diner when a dish is served at the table. It’s bad plating, it’s bad fengshui.

If this should ever happen to you, however, there are two things you could do. One, forgive the faux pas and just close an eye, maybe two; and all at once, the angst and exasperation you get from shoddy plating disappears like a sin absolved. Two, you could auto-correct the situation yourself by turning the plate, so that the asparagus spears, sitting at five o’clock, would find its way to eleven o’clock.

This was exactly what my lunch companion K did as she stretched her arm from across the table to right the wrong. Alas, with a wrong made right, a new wrong was born. Either way, there was little recourse for my poorly plated entrée—a panfried seabass with asparagus and ratatouille.

At first, the seabass sat on the side of the plate closer to me, but at K’s deft 180-degree plate turn, it had shifted to the north-east side of the plate so that the spotlight was now on the ratatouille at the south-west corner—arranged in a ring-molded mound where a cube of eggplant or two had tumbled off the side.

“Oh, Viv, let’s not be so fussy,” K said. “Let’s just eat!”

And that’s just the kind of voice we tend to adopt while eating out in Singapore restaurants—more often than not. It’s the best and sanest way to stay immune to the kind of gnawing disappointment you get from blowing money on food and service that don’t live up to their perceived value.

K is a realist and a selective optimist with a logic I should adopt more readily and more often: It’s a $28 plus plus set lunch, and really, they’re expecting us not to expect so much. She has a point. But then, this is a “restaurant français,” part of a somewhat distinguished restaurant group no less, which prides itself for its “professional yet personable service.”

So I kiss great expectations goodbye, but still, I had to send the entrée back for two faults: the fibrous stumps of the asparagus hadn’t been spotted and sawed off, and the seabass had been sitting and searing on the frying pan for a little too long. The dish does come back, but not before the waiter, Tim, gets booted out of the kitchen by a peeved chef who seemed hell-bent on teaching me a lesson.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he says, “but the chef would like to recommend that perhaps you go with the chicken or the risotto instead?”

But why couldn’t I have the fish?

“Because the seabass is thin, and it tends to get overcooked very easily.”

It’s just the kind of response that makes you want to say, To hell with the risotto and the chicken, it’s the fish that excites me, precisely because it’s thin and delicate.

The dish comes back now, and K has almost finished her wild mushroom risotto, which—to give them credit—was finely executed. I notice the asparagus are of a thicker variety, peeled, fiber-free, and cooked to a more vibrant green than those from the dismal first attempt. And the seabass? I couldn’t exactly fault it, except that it hadn’t been salted at all.

You wonder why, given that this was a rectification, no one, not even the manager, had come to the table to ask a very simple question: “Is everything OK?” No one had come forward too to offer a grind of pepper either, by which time I had found it too enervating to ask for salt.

Nothing could possibly go wrong now as our meal wraps up, but our framboisier, the raspberry cake—mine only, thankfully—shows up with a small chunk of its left bottom corner missing. I tell the wait staff—not Tim, but Mario. He gives me a bewildered look, protesting, “But, ma’am, this cake is fine,” until I hold the plate aloft and invite him to take a peep. A raspberry had fallen off right there, I learned, after he returns with a flawless slice. To think that neither the pastry chef nor Mario had spotted it. Strange? Or ho hum?

I should be ashamed of whining so much, for shortly after coffee and dessert concluded, Vincent, the manager, shows up with two glasses of champagne. He smiles, speaks to me in a fluid, melodious line of French, of which I understood everything except the last bit.

The French may have been just that added “personable” touch, for he had discovered I spoke French shortly after I had arrived at the restaurant, when I walked past a tiny bar area in a brightly lit stairwell at the back end of the restaurant, en route to the girls’ room. There he had been, in a white undershirt, five past noon, with his working shirt draped behind his bar chair, having a pre-service chat with the lead hostess and the chef, a heavy-set man who seemed too shy to turn to say “bonjour” the way Vincent had.

Presently, as the bubbly treat fizzes before us, we sense an air of contrition. Yes, he had heard all about the issues, and yes, he said the magic line: “Please give us another chance.” But did he say that lunch was on the house? We didn’t want to be presumptuous, so we asked for the check—not from Tim or Mario, but Ken this time, who returned to tell us gingerly that lunch was indeed on the house.

I had in mind to write the whole episode before the bubblies showed up—warts and all, name of the restaurant included. But after we left without having to pull out our purses, I couldn’t bear the thought. Besides, Vincent did make his request loud and clear: “Please give us another chance.” I’m taking his word for it.


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