CSI: Food

I have undergone some unpleasant eating experiences in my time. Decades have passed since I repressed my gag reflex to swallow rancid, sandy goat fat in the depths of the Mauritanian Sahara, but many more will pass before I forget it.

In China, once upon a time, I was sufficiently unwise to utter the phrase ‘Oh, I eat anything!’, which led to me expanding my repertoire to both chicken feet and chicken heads, though mercifully no bear paw, tiger parts or genitalia. (Thanks, China!)

Because I like challenging my own personal food taboos, I have forced items from dog and snake to crickets past my protesting emotions and because I am a moron I routinely nibble raw chillis to see if they’re the heat I want for my cooking.

However… When it comes to fine dining, I have rarely had a truly bad experience. Indifferent, yes. Over-ambitious, yes. Room for improvement, yes. Dull, yes. Overpriced, hell yeah. But rarely proper abysmal.

In fact, I’m always rather mystified by how food critics find such memorably execrable dinners. Do they go looking for them, in the manner of Pete Wells versus Guy Fieri? Do they prowl through the TripAdvisor top ten, sniggering, until they find a corker? Do they have teams of junior researchers, like the ones who find the victims for Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares? Or are they just insanely picky?

On Friday, I lost my bad fine dining virginity. And how.

It was the Bag Lady’s idea. Well, in fact, it was Miss Korea’s idea. I was booked in for dinner with the Bag Lady and the Mother of Four, another lady who stands in loco parentis for Zac when I’m occupied with dengue, or travel, or suchlike. Then Miss Korea suggested to the Bag Lady that they have dinner at a beach club none of us had visited.

I’m a sucker for a bargain. And, at just 400,000 IDR (that’s around USD $30), for four courses with a glass of wine at each round, this sounded like a bargain. The food in the photo looked pretty enough – a riot of colour and texture, complete with edible flowers. The beach club belonged to a legit 5-star resort – I’d meant to take a look when it opened but, after a look at the menu, hadn’t been down. And, while I hadn’t heard of any of the three chefs featured on the menu, it all looked plausible enough.

This is the picture:

Picture of attractive dessert with title Unoaked 2.01

Looks legit, doesn’t it?

The accompanying glass of international wine with any pairing menu in Indonesia will be more of a thimble than a goblet, even if the establishment is on the very best of terms with the smugglers that run booze out of Batam and across the archipelago in speedboats.

Further, Miss Korea said, the wine was international. This was probably the point at which alarm bells should have started to ring. It is sadly true that the accompanying glass of international wine with any pairing menu in Indonesia will be more of a thimble than a goblet, even if the establishment is on the very best of terms with the smugglers that run booze out of Batam and across the archipelago in speedboats.

Also, since foreign alcohol is taxed at around 400% in Indonesia, said glass of international wine will generally be the sort of thing you’d pick up for a fiver, or conceivably a tenner, in your local offie no matter how high-faluting the menu. This is also why cocktail pairing is often the way to go on Bali, unless you appreciate the comedy value of a real live French sommelier solemnly unveiling the Jacob’s Creek complete with tasting notes as you sample your 8-course dégustation.

There are, in fact, some local wines – made with imported grapes – that aren’t actively disgusting, particularly if you haven’t recently drunk wine in Europe, Australia or the Americas: entry level retail for these is around US $13. But I digress. The point is: if you’re giving away your food PLUS international wine at those prices, you are sending up a major red flag.

We began with a stellar Bali sunset, a round of cocktails, and sundry complaints. Miss Korea sent her Dirty Martini – plastic glass – back for more dirty and more vodka, yielding a round of rapid-fire Rohypnol jokes; I fished the ice out of my Negroni; the Bag Lady wisely ordered her French-75 clone without sugar, which was sensible since someone had clearly dumped a vat of antifreeze in the carbonated urine that served as a base wine; and the Mother of Four remained diplomatically silent.

The table collapsed in nervous laughter. I picked up a strand of the nest to inspect it. “It’s crisps!” squealed the Bag Lady. “And they’re stale!”

And so to dine. Our first course was an amouse [sic], “Tahu Berontak deep fried tempura crushed tofu, wok fried vegetables”, accompanied by about a centimetre of “Cape Discovery Brut Cuvée, Indonesia”.

Along came the amouse: a bread-crumbed mini-egg perched atop a quasi-nest of mysterious white things, on a neat black plate as sold by all the best catering supply companies in the early noughties. Were they wok-fried vegetables? Jumbo crispy noodles? Miss Korea and I took forks in hand and probed the nest, which skittered, hilariously, across the saucer.

The table collapsed in nervous laughter. I picked up a strand of the nest to inspect it. “It’s crisps!” squealed the Bag Lady. “And they’re stale!”

It was mystifying. I tried to imagine the scene, backstage at this 5-star resort (rack rate from US $200 per night, which is a lot on Bali), where the chefs opened up a catering size packet of out-of-date crisps, dumped handfuls on the plate, and balanced eggs on top of them, and servers brought them out, and nobody, at any point, realised that this was not a good idea.

The bread-crumbed mini-egg tasted of sour tofu. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it wasn’t a tempura, either.

Also bewildering was the wine. While Cape Discovery is far from my favourite bottle of local fizz, it’s normally perfectly quaffable, particularly if you haven’t left Asia for a while. This stank of sulphites, a burnt rubber waft that I’d never come across before, and I wondered whether they’d actually picked up a bad batch cheap.

“And how was the wine?” she asked, clearly hoping for a win. I maintained a diplomatic silence. Miss Korea gave it all barrels. “It was disgusting,” she began. And continued. And continued.

We were, collectively, deep in analysis of the meal’s many flaws, when the poor marketing girl from the resort came to our table and asked, “How was the amuse?”

“Very amusing,” said Miss Korea. “It certainly amused,” I said, almost simultaneously.

Miss Korea and the Bag Lady launched into a detailed explanation of why stale crisps should not feature on a fine dining menu, even if they did look a bit like a nest.

The poor girl gritted her teeth and made all the usual noises about feedback being helpful.

“How would you change it?” she asked.

“Daikon nest? Spiralised zucchini?” I suggested. (I’m a great armchair cook.)

“The point about tempura,” said the Mother of Four, when pressed. “Is the contrast between the soft, fluffy batter and the ingredients inside. That’s not what’s happening here.”

“And how was the wine?” she asked, clearly hoping for a win.

I maintained a diplomatic silence. Miss Korea kicked every single stereotype you’ve come across about Koreans being indirect and concerned with saving face hard in the nuts with a metaphorical stiletto heel and went in with both barrels. “It was disgusting,” she began. And continued. And continued.

The marketing chick looked as if she might cry. “Would you like to exchange it for a different sparkling wine?” she asked.

Hell yes, we would. She disappeared into the kitchen never to be seen again.

It arrived as two flabby pancakes loosely rolled around some filling in a diarrhoeic puddle of peanut sauce topped by a mournful cherry tomato and some cress.

Enter the second course. The Bag Lady has been vegetarian for a while now, with the odd bit of fish when she feels like it. (One of her dogs had a narrow escape from the people that kidnap dogs for the dog meat restaurants, after which she felt she couldn’t object to people eating dogs if she went on consuming pigs and cows and sheep and chickens, which is a position of admirable consistency.)

A vegetarian menu had, therefore, been ordered.

The second course described itself as “Lumpia Basah home made ‘Javanese’ fresh vegetables and chicken spring roll peanut butter sauce and pickles”, and, no, I don’t know what’s up with the scare quotes either. It arrived as two flabby pancakes loosely rolled around some filling in a diarrhoeic puddle of peanut sauce topped by a mournful cherry tomato and some cress. Yes. Cress.

This raised many questions. Not only: “how difficult IS it to leave the chicken out of your spring roll filling?” But also: “why is an allegedly 5-star kitchen buying in both peanut sauce and pancake mix?” And, further: “why on earth are we paying 10-15 times the price we’d pay at a local warung for a flaccid spring roll in a pool of brown gloop?”

This is the difficulty with Indonesian food. It’s so easy to get a feast of spicy goodness at your local warung for pennies that you really need some serious-ass provenance or cheffery to justify paying restaurant prices. There are a lot of great chefs doing wonderful things with Indonesian food right now, but it does need to be approached with both caution and talent.

Or, as the Bag Lady, who was on a bit of a roll as the meal entered so-bad-it’s-good territory, explained to the manager when he had the unwisdom to come over and see what we thought of the food, “You’ve made this with pancake batter out of a packet! I know the taste, because you get it in a packet, and my kids love it, so I make it for them. I know what pancake batter tastes like. EVERYTHING has come out of a packet…”

You seem embarrassed, suggested the Mother of Four.

“Fuck no,” I said. “I’ve been through childbirth.”

“You’re comparing this to childbirth?” asked Miss Korea.

“If it gets that bad I’ll just make the rubber glove sign,” I said.

The wine, a centimetre of Australia’s Sacred Hill Chardonnay – that’s under US $4 per bottle in an Australian off-license – was palatable.

This raised a range of questions. Signally, what the actual fuck is a foam of anything, let alone sweet basil, doing on a menu that also features stale crisps and bought-in peanut sauce? Are you so short on ideas that literally half your courses have to include tempura? And, what is a pindang sauce?

For the main, we had a choice of “soft-shell crab tempura with South Sumatran ‘pindang’ sauce, roasted baby potato, ‘kemangi’ (sweet basil foam)” or “beef cheeks ‘rawon’ sauce slow cooked in traditional Eastern Java black nut keluwak broth, whipped potato and vegetables, salted duck egg and bean sprout”.

This raised a range of questions. Signally, what the actual fuck is a foam of anything, let alone sweet basil, doing on a menu that also features stale crisps and bought-in peanut sauce? Are you so short on ideas that literally half your courses have to include tempura? And, what is a pindang sauce?

“Sardine,” our server helpfully explained, which sounded risky. For some strange reason, perhaps related to us being a gaggle of cackling bitches, we were hitting a new server every course.

Our main courses arrived in what looked like outsize ashtrays, or, suggested the Bag Lady, “specimen bowls”.

The sardine sauce was less disgusting than anticipated. The lemon basil foam did not belong with any of the ingredients it shared a plate with, or indeed in the same restaurant, but would have been quite nice served with a dessert of some kind. The soft-shell crab tempura was an actual tempura, with nary a breadcrumb in sight. The potatoes were fine.

Rawon, which is basically a beef stew with extra umami from the kluwak nut, was authentic, done well, and paired fabulously with mashed potato. It seems churlish to whine about serving size after two abysmal courses, but, fuck it, I’m going to. Two teaspoons of mashed potato, two dinky cubes of beef, a slice of carrot, half a bought-in salted egg, and a sprinkling of bean sprouts doth not a main course make, however artfully arranged.

The Bag Lady’s vegetarian pasta started promisingly – by which, in this context, I mean “tasted like normal restaurant food” – but revealed startling and repellent patches of pure sugar, an inclusion we concluded could only be explained by someone in the kitchen confusing the salt shaker with the sugar shaker and then not stirring properly.

It was at this point that we began discussing where we should go to dinner AFTER this. Rare as it is to be actively hungry three courses in to a four-course meal, the Bag Lady and Miss Korea could do with dessert, while the Mother of Four and I could do with an entire meal.

The wine, a Vina Ventisquero Reserva Pinot Noir from Chile, was fine. It apparently retails at almost USD $10, so that’s a pretty damn fine wine for Indonesia (unless they’ve been grey-marketing bottles from when the wine-maker was producing cheap wine, which is also a possibility).

Incredibly, almost unbelievably, it tasted like sick. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I mean it literally tasted like vomit, albeit dairy vomit, perhaps what baby spit-up might taste like.

Finally, the pièce de résistance! Dessert! It looked BEAUTIFUL. Exactly like it did in the picture, complete with pretty strawberries and edible flowers. In fact, before tasting it, I even apologised to the manager for whining that the meal looked nothing like it did in the picture.

It was “Es Pisang Ijo ‘Makassar’ refined Makassar pandan banana dumpling with rice flour porridge, vanilla ice cream and mango jelly”.

And, incredibly, almost unbelievably, it tasted like sick.

I don’t mean that metaphorically. I mean it literally tasted like vomit, albeit dairy vomit, perhaps what baby spit-up might taste like.

Which was really, really weird because, at least in my experience, food doesn’t taste like vomit on its way into your stomach, only on its way back out again. Even off food doesn’t taste like sick. It tastes wrong, but not like vomit. (If you’ve eaten food that tastes like sick before, please do let me know.)

By this point, we were all thoroughly enjoying the meal, albeit more as a culinary crime scene investigation (CSI: Food!) rather than anything like dinner. Truly execrable food can make a fine bonding experience.

The culprit wasn’t the lurid green banana dumpling that didn’t taste of banana (or pandan). It wasn’t the sickly-sweet bulk-catering vanilla ice cream. It wasn’t the under-ripe strawberries, the unnerving brown coil of theoretically mango-flavoured grass jelly, or the feathery thing none of us could entirely identify but which seemed to have popped over from a different, and altogether better, restaurant. It was, the Bag Lady, decided, the rice porridge.

“I’ve found the bit that tastes of sick!!!!” she squealed, waving a spoonful of white gloop at me. “Here! Eat it!”

Our wine pairing was Bellissimo Moscato, another local wine and one tailor-made for the Indonesian palate. If you can imagine an Asti Spumante with reduced alcohol and extra antifreeze for tooth-hurting sweetness, you’ve just imagined Bellissimo Moscato, a watery, saccharine affair that’s closer to diet Sprite than wine.

There is a great deal to be said for simple food, done well.

We closed the evening with another first. I’ve had two dinners for work before – notably when I’ve forgotten to try a crucial local delicacy and I’m leaving the next morning, but also when I’ve had three places to eat at for research in a single day – but I’ve never had two dinners socially.

We drove across town to the place we were originally planning to eat, our little neighbourhood French bistro, Les Buku. It’s not fine dining, has limited pretensions, and is pretty much the kind of food you’d find in any decent-sized town in France.

But there’s escargots, oysters, entrecotes, onion soup and, most of the time, tartare, all served with minimal fuss and spectacular warmth.

We ate another dinner, drank our bodyweight in red wine, and toddled home, happy, if overfed. There is a great deal to be said for simple food, done well.

5 Responses

  1. Danielle says:

    Haha, good to have you back. I’ve missed these sharp, witty stories!

  2. Brandy says:

    Thank god you are back!!

  3. Holding my sides hilarious!

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