Thursday, March 16, 2006

Wine, Whimper and Song

The best thing about living in Singapore is the fantastic variety of local delights. Nothing beats the hawker food in Singapore. Chinese, Malay, and Indian food has opened the way to more exotic fare such as Japanese, Thai, Korean and even a few European fare at the hawker centres and food stalls. Greater variety ... more hawker food adventures. What else can a girl ask for?

Something about sitting on the steel-legged metal and plastic stools, harshly white tiled floors and T-shirt and shorts-clad stall-keepers bearing delicious, honest food just appeals to me. Way too many times, I’ve vacated an over-rated fine dining establishment in disappointment (or sometimes outright disgust) to seek out a down-to-earth hawker centre or food stall for some delectable tucker.

I can only presume that, at heart, I am a glaringly common and simple woman. Or that I have spent so much time in the company of pretentious people and situations that I gravitate towards what I deem is real and relevant.

A few nights ago, I had a business meeting of sorts in Thomson. Years ago, I used to live in that vicinity on a previous stint in Singapore. However, it has been many years hence so the estate might as well be new to me again. I was rather pleased as this gave me an opportunity to explore the area and learn about the choices of food available.

A photographer and musician friend brought me to an intimate and cozy wine bar nestled above a row of shop houses. Despite having just had dinner, I was still nosing around the maze of stools and food-laden tables. The aroma and the colours were relentlessly seductive and I could tell that it was the kind of true-blue Singaporean hawker fare that would lure foodies from all parts of the island. Robert assured me that we would adjoin to one of these shops for supper after paying a visit to the wine bar. It was the only way he could rouse me from my dazed stupour as I ogled the food.

I’d heard of Wine Flair many years ago when a girlfriend tried to entice me to visit when she was somehow involved in the marketing of the place. Unfortunately, being familiar with this particular girlfriend’s attempts at event organising and her abysmal taste in alcohol, I was determined never to step foot into Wine Flair, regardless of my deep affection of her. However, that was many years ago and she no longer had any involvement there. So when Robert suggested that I check it out, I decided it was time I cast aside my prejudice.

I had passed Wine Flair many times without realising it. I’d always mistaken it for a Chinese seafood restaurant or karaoke bar because of the gaudy gold Venetian blinds lining the broad windows of this second-floor establishment. The realisation that it was a wine bar sat as uneasily as the truly horrendous, loud swatches above dark maroon sofa chairs with dark khaki armchairs. To be fair, the décor and lighting were dark enough that nothing else really rushed up to hit you between the eyes.

I took a quick circuit around the room and deduced that this was a casual neighbourhood hang-out for young yuppies. The predominantly Chinese crowd of early twenty-somethings struck me as aspiring bon vivants with beer taste and wine budgets. While the wine selection was fairly limited to new world wines of younger vintages, which I realised is more accessible to young Singaporeans' palates, I noticed that no one was having wine. Instead, the usual Chinese alcoholic suspects of Tiger beer, vodka, gin and Johnny Walker were lining the tables with mixers of orange juices, tonics and sodas. A lot of yum-senging was going on and I had to check I had not accidentally crashed a Chinese wedding.

And speaking of tables, I was horrified to find that they were unfinished pine side tables from Ikea. That’s not the problem. These tables were wrapped in transparent plastic to protect the surface. Wrapped and stapled down. On the top. It’s unfinished pine side tables from Ikea. What are you protecting it from???

Despite these bizarre elements, the joint was easy-going and had an unpretentious bonhomie that was rather endearing. Almost as if you were visiting a friend’s home and he just happened to be a wine, pool and karaoke enthusiast. And that’s exactly how the owner struck me. An incredibly affable bloke, Roy had an easy charm and down-to-earth personality that immediately put you at ease. Much like his little establishment. You could tell that the clientele were there to let their hair down and did not care if it was not quite the latest hip, trendy hangout.

I’ve frequented a number of places where the décor is deplorable, the air quality toxic, the service clueless and the concept puerile. But the owners, managers and/or staff are true salt of the earth or possess such charisma that you overlooked these defects. The only thing I will not forgive is appalling music. If the music is bad, I can only “give face” a couple of times before running away to recover from the cruel assault on my ear drums.

The music at Wine Flair is much like watching American Idol. Except there is only one singer unless you count the many clientele who would beg Roy to let them sing despite his strained amiability and everyone’s cringes. The dusky skinned singer had a passable voice and stage presence but like many American Idol contestants suffered from some poor song choices. But the impromptu karaoke nearly turned me into a Simon Cowell. Yes, I did have to take fortifying gulps of my vodka ribenas as I whimpered piteously in a dark corner, rocking back and forth trying to find my happy place. And you may ask why I was drinking vodka ribenas in a wine bar?

Being the only girl in the group, I had to conform to the general male consensus to imbibe the more macho vodka. Also, Wine Flair is undergoing some minor revamp and thus, not all their wine selection was on display. More importantly, Roy’s wife was not around that night and she is the wine expert. Rather than risk drinking plonk alone, I decided to return on a night after the renovations were competed and when she was around so we could have a nice evening discussing and tasting some of new selection. I would have liked to try a couple of the wines - Wine Flair’s existing wine menu was predictably uninspired yet intermingled, like a rare, hidden gem, among the common varietals were some unexpected finds.

But aside from my dislike of drinking exceptional wine alone, I was worried about my ability to taste my supper properly after single-handedly demolishing an entire bottle. Priorities, people … priorities …

I was very eager for supper by the time we rolled down the narrow stairs at the back of the shop house and made our way to a shop house coffeeshop that Robert proclaimed had the best bak chor mee and laksa. I was quietly skeptical as I remembered the last time Robert declared a laksa as the best in Singapore, Johore and some say, Batam. Let's just say it was not pretty.

When our food arrived, it smelt heavenly. However, the cooks must be the messiest men ever! I bet they were the kids who could not colour within the lines in playschool! Sauce was slopping everywhere and it looked like someone had plated it with their bare hands. But the smell! To hell with presentation, I tucked in with a zeal.

The bak chor mee was as amazingly divine as Robert claimed. As he was the regular, he did the ordering and apparently there is a love-hate relationship between the lady proprietor and him. When he asked for extra laksa leaves, I believe they decided to take the mickey as half the bowl disappeared in a whimpering cower under the weight of the bright green invasion.

I liked the laksa. It was by no means the best but definitely among the top ten in Singapore. However, the undisputed star was the bak chor mee. The noodles were perfectly cooked. Al dente with a springy bite without the rubbery and over-kneaded texture, they were generously slicked with a glossy, rich sauce. The mince pork, liver slices and fish cakes were well balanced and delicious even if not outstandingly remarkable. Yet the entire dish worked. It was only with incessant nagging that I dutifully swapped the bak chor mee with the laksa with Robert since we were all sharing. But I did not give it up without a fight. Baleful and resentful glares were exchanged until more food arrived.

Tender squares of silken tofu wrapped in crispy cocoons of fine, golden crust and a crunchy cracker of meat-filled wanton. A golden globe staring unblinkingly into the fluorescent ceiling, stewing in the hot broth steamboat. I expected a simple supper. Instead Robert plied us with a midnight feast in the Thomson gardens of good and evil.

By the time we left the coffeeshop, we were deliriously sated. Waddling to the car, what did we talk about? Food. It’s true. People in Singapore talk about food morning, night and day. What a place, what a place, what place!


Anonymous sha said...

has singapore tourist board contacted you yet? lol

6:34 am  

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