Eating out with others is always an adventure. It helps if you are dining out with close friends whose tastes and preferences are well established nuggets of information and everyone automatically or easily agrees on a choice of cuisine or restaurant without undue hassle.
But when you are breaking bread with a relatively new friend, who just happens to be vegetarian, it becomes a much more interesting proposition. Mal and I had arranged to meet at the Durian aka The Esplanade, Singapore’s attempt at building a cultural icon, one Sunday evening to watch some friends perform at the outdoor atrium.
Most of my friends are not particularly interested in that particular genre of music and the ones who are would be on their only one night of break from performing. Mal just happened to be the only other person who would willingly give up his night of rest to watch another group perform. Thus, we two die-hards met in the early evening to watch the show.
The sun seemed to set rather early that day, casting a purple glow over the burnt golden evening hue. Something must have been in the air too as mild-mannered Mal became an absolute animal in the midst of a particularly jamming rock song and after failing to entice me to join him in his madness (I couldn't as I was wearing an extremely mini denim skirt), started headbanging and jumping around with a 60-something-year-old Chinese man. It was hilarious, especially as the old man outdanced and outlasted Mal. Finally, Mal had to admit to the shameful fact that he had been bested by an old codger.
Our friends were cracking up on stage from watching Mal and his geriatric dance partner. I think that may have been the reason they wisely called an end to that set. Mal was completely knackered and starving after that and we decided that we would catch a bite to eat before the next set.
I knew Mal was a vegetarian. We went out for a meal a while ago and it was only after I had suggested a couple of carnivorous venues and he just nodded and smiled genially, that he let on that he was fine with the suggestions as long as they had a salad bar.
And oh, by the way, I’m vegetarian.
Duh! Why didn’t you tell me that earlier?
That occasion, I managed to find an Indian restaurant nearby that was a favourite of mine because of its wonderful rooftop view – Indian restaurants are brilliant for vegetarians. This time, though, we barely had 45 minutes for dinner before the next set. I was hard pressed to think of a good vegetarian restaurant that was quick and in the vicinity.
Mal hastened to assure me that he was perfectly comfortable with any restaurant as he was not fussed about his food. Finally, due to time constraint and because we were both dead hungry, we decided on the Glutton’s Bay at The Esplanade.
Glutton’s Bay is supposed to be the best of best in hawker food. To be honest, I am not that keen on the short stretch of theme park-like hawker stalls. I have an intrinsic problem with anything which I consider, rightly or wrongfully so, institutionalised. And to even attempt to do that to hawker food just offends every sensibility in my street food hungry body.
But, I was game if Mal was so we trekked the short distance to Glutton’s Bay and were dismayed to see how crowded it was. Just as we were reconsidering our options, Ms Beady Eyes spotted an empty table with a single chair and quickly dashed over to “chup” the place before any one else could. While Mal was still reeling from my Chariots of Fire routine, I had managed to snag another chair from of a table of happy, smiling tourists.
Hey, welcome to Singapore! You need that chair? No? Cool, can I have it? Brilliant – have a great meal and ta!
Yeah, I’m fast that way.
Obviously Mal and I could not share a meal. Being the gentleman he was, he let me go first to browse the stalls while he kept guard over our table. It wasn’t very hard as they had closed off half the place for a filming of one of Singapore’s Mediocre’s … I mean Mediacorp’s, incessant barrage of variety shows.
I picked the stall with the shortest queue which did not look like its food was the reason for the brevity. It so happened to be the line for oyster omelette, a dish I adore but seldom indulge in because it is just so unhealthy. All that grease! All that starch! All that luscious little sacs of briny sweet seduction! All that crisp-edged, spongy golden egginess! All that … please … a moment of silence as I drool shamelessly …
Right, now that we got that out of the way … I dutifully queued up patiently at the stall and while I was there, I noticed that the stall keepers were a young husband and wife team. But the food porn ladened lightbox proclaimed that it was one of Singapore’s best oyster omelette stall with a rich history of excellence and one of the oldest stall with the original recipe, etc.
I scrutinised the couple. The husband looked barely older than me – hey, I am NOT that old! And the wife looked like she was in her 20s. It just did not add up. Doubt and skepticism crept into my mind. Still, I had been queuing for a while now and I was reluctant to relinquish my place so I decided to give them a benefit of the doubt.
Watching them work was fairly interesting as although they worked with their backs facing each other the entire time, there was a comfortable ease and warmth emanating from them that had nothing to do with the blazing fire charring the heavy bottomed wok. I would have been highly bored if I had not engaged the couple behind me into conversation about the merits of black or white carrot cakes – other dishes offered by the oyster omelette stall.
I loved the fact that it was served on a fragrant sheaf of leaf and that the oysters were plump, succulent and fairly large. It looked quite appetising and I happily carted this back to our table as I apologised profusely to poor Mal for leaving him on his own for so long.
Since I am an infamously slow eater, I started on my omelette while waiting for Mal to return with his food. The first bite told me that while the fire had appeared to flame flamboyantly high, the hawker had not adjusted the temperature correctly in the process of frying the oyster omelette. When she ladled the starch and the eggs onto the griddle, the heat was not high enough to give the omelette a crispy, firm, caramelised crust while retaining the moisture and tenderness within. Instead, it was slightly soggy and the crust was leathery.
Fortunately the oysters were wonderfully fresh and bursting with all the juiciness of the ocean. There was enough shredded coriander leaves to lend a refreshing bite that countered the richness of the dish. The chilli sauce was tart and spicy – a wonderful complement. It would have been wonderful if not for the inadequate omelette base. What a waste.
Mal’s choice fared little better. When he told me he was ordering char kway teow, I gave him a jaundiced look and a raised eyebrow.
Er, dude, you do realise there are sausages, fish cakes and cockles in that dish, don’t you?
Apparently, he’d ordered char kway teow sans these. I paused in mid-gobble to consider this. So, that’s like fried noodles with … fried noodles then? It sounded beyond sad but ever curious, when his dish came, I took a morsel and chewed thoughtfully.
Salty, way too sweet, firm noodles and … nothing else. This was a straight carbo dish with nothing else to lift it from the doldrums of gluten overdose. I felt really sorry for M and asked if this was how he ate all the time. I wondered why he had not ordered a plate of stir-fried vegetables instead. Mal’s response was that he was very hungry and that he was not particularly fussy about food. Food was just a way to fill himself up. For shame! And him a doctor too!
How can we be friends?!! This will not do. While I am not vegetarian, years of association with people who are has given me some leads on some fantastic vegetarian restaurants in Singapore. I bossily informed Mal we could not be friends if he was going to be so cavalier about food and that I was going to feed him properly if it was the last thing I did! I am so Peranakan sometimes.
So you might see some posts here in the next few months as I go on a quest to educate my clueless friend that being a vegetarian does not mean living a life without the joy of food.
We departed Glutton’s Bay underwhelmed by it. I was not surprised as I knew it was a tourist trap with over-priced hawker food that you can find better, cheaper and much tastier in so many other places. It was the reason why I avoided it before and this experience did not change my mind in the slightest. To me it is another Newton Circus, except the latter has more variety and the advantage of being 24 hours.
The oyster omelette scored a 7/10 for taste and a 4/10 for health. Mal’s char kway teow kosong scored a 5.5/10 for taste and a 5/10 for health. So, will I go back to Glutton’s Bay? Not if I can help it. I give the venue a 8/10 for its open-air and bustling ambience and close proximity to the theatre, a 6/10 for its selection of food, and a 4/10 for its value which I deem as the cost of the food divided by the quality of the food.
Overall, it scored an average of 6/10, certainly undeserving of its title and a poor representation of Singapore’s food to tourists and culture lovers.