You look out of the window one day and suddenly say to yourself:
Good God I need cheese.
Well then, I welcome you to La Fromagerie, nestled in the heart of Marylebone, London. I’m telling you, it was wholly unexpected. A tiny tornado which swooped me up into its cheesy little arms and made me forever regret the day I ever left London and all of its stunning side cafes and restaurants. Especially those with good cheese. On the way to Madame Tussauds, we hopped into this little tasting cafe on Moxton Street.
And the smell was intoxicating. Oh, the smell.
Wheels and wheels and stacks and stacks of gold, yellow, ochre, some streaked with blue crannies or creamy ivory. the water could have dripped directly from my slacked jaws. I love the combination of fresh-produce market and small, cosy restaurant. There was only one large wooden table, and about four or five other smaller ones. Light enhanced the rustic grandeur of the area, and the cheeses were dying to be savoured with the perfect wine pairing. Cheese with egon-muller, cheese with figs, cheese with truffle honey, oh me oh my.
To start, some escargots and asparagus soup drizzled with truffle oil and coupled with some good sourdough. The escargots were great with garlic and crushed basil, so each spooned mouthful was a one-job, not excessively oily hit. Soft and squidgy, but not wonderful. The soup on the other hand, was one of the highlights of this impromptu walk-in. The sort you can see yourself having again and again without ever tiring. They make the spindly asparagus a vegetable God, lifting it out of the depths of green despair with the perfect amount of seasoning, beautiful truffle oil and a not too-thick consistency. Buttery, nourishing, luxe.
And this was like magic. Sardine rillette, or a pâté-like paste with crusty, freshly baked German rye and caper berries. I realised that all the bread there was excellent, so all the accessories and couplings were assured good quality enhancement. I slathered on some rillette on the hard rye, squeezed a little lemon and popped a bite. The flavours worked so wonderfully. I felt the satiny texture of the rillette mingle with the earthy warmth of dark rye, dancing in loops and swirls with the lemon. So crusty was the bread it was almost like a toasted crostini. The caper berries were there to make sure that anyone who felt the combination of lemon and rillette was not salty enough could munch on those instead. And I learnt my lesson when I bit on one alone.
Please take a second to admire the lovely man on the right, massaging his temples in an attempt to save what’s left of his sanity. The bottom right blur of a ponytail would be my mother, if any are interested.
I love how in London, there are about a million and one fantabulous places to eat at, all looking fairly humble on the outside, though displaying clear prestige or popularity once you venture inside. Be it little hole in the walls or grand golden signs beaming at you once you step out of a cab (or the tube, which is way, way more fun). But when we’re talking The Belvedere in London, we’re talking real food. Food which might stuff and then blow you up, but great food nonetheless, presented superbly and elegantly.
3 courses for 27.50 quid! Not bad considering the quality, service, ambience and taste. I looked around at the swanky, small groups of people clustered around divine plates which exuded deluxe comfort. I grew more curious by the minute. I first chose the crisp smoked duck salad, which had a surprising oriental twist. The duck was drizzled with a sweet and tangy red sauce, which went wonderfully with the cold and crisp seasonal vegetables.
Presenting to you: Smoked haddock on a bed of Jersey Royals with a poached egg and Sauce Nantaise.
Might be too salty, you know, my dad softly warned.
But…fish. Haddock. Soft flakes oozing good oils and fragrance and goodness of the sea. And of course, that runny, perfectly cooked egg had to be the icing on the cake. It wasn’t too salty, mind you, and the gooey mealiness of the egg yolk and sauce complemented the soft-spoken white fish, which drunk everything up like a sponge. The Jersey Royals were nothing brilliant to speak of (plain potatoes in general I’m no fan of), but they did make a pretty brown resting bed.
And finally, chocolate mousse topped with blood orange sorbet, and might I say it was bloody darn good. I mean, of course it couldn’t be stand-alone mousse, or the whole masterpiece would collapse on its knees. No, this was coupled with thin layers of dark chocolate brownie, giving it stability and textural edge. It was all set off by the burst of sweet tang contained within that perfect sphere of sorbet. Bloody good blood orange. It was even the perfect temperature to dig into!
These meals really are the unforgettable sort. The service was impeccable, and there was even a neat old man twiddling away at the piano the whole time. Talk about stamina.
Too little time, I say. And so I wallow in the woes of this routine world with an expression of doubt but heart of hope. I was up this morning and thinking about the raw freedom of the mornings, as I listened to the whurr of the air conditioner and buzz of the coffee machine. The toaster was ticking and my heart felt light. All before the dawn of another school day, all before a slew of assessments and analysis and faces; which I love, but weighs down heavy sometimes. Only really because the after-effect of a normal Sunday takes its toll and I feel mentally hungover. Then again, what on earth is new? Time passes and these motions carry on with you trapped in the tide. Forced to flow.
But Saturday. Saturday always holds such heart-pounding possibilities whenever it comes to foodie adventures. Coming back to Robertson Quay that afternoon was a familiar yet almost dangerous encounter, since the possibilities were endless. I was nauseous with ringing starvation which drenched my entire body and soul with an aching melancholy. I only wanted to eat and eat and be stained with a brimming satisfaction, though not sickness.
i swear I was heaving and sweating with hunger by the time my mother and I literally rushed into this open Italian restaurant, surrounded by the gregarious native people of Italy and the soft waters snaking down the river. We sat right under the fan, away from the ignorant smokers. It was a rushed decision which went something along the lines of:
“Hey mum look this looks rather appetising I heard Bella Pizza has the best pizza in Singapore but hey food let’s sit down here instead.”
Mother: “Um alright… Italian?” (she knows that would never typically be my first pick)
“Yes, why not.”
Crunch, chew, crunch, chew, back again and maybe chew a bit more just to get the rings of tender rubber down.
But delightful in both taste and texture. That salsa had the right tang without being either too thin and salty. I got the case of one dribble too many, but probably only due to my breakneck pace and clumsiness (I should never, EVER go anywhere too hungry or I’ll ruin a perfectly prim night out. Atrocious.) That calamari of course, was tender and may I even say a little fluffy. It was good squid, and I could see why the only other customers aside from an Indian couple were all Indians, open and full of gung-ho at best. It felt good to know that this is where they come for a quick and true Italian fix.
The mother attacked the latter and I, the beautiful fish. Because well, fish. Also because I wanted to pick at the bread and my mother’s delicately twirled mound of shiny pasta strands (the joys of mother-daughter bonding sessions). For almost $30, I got a minute portion which only satisfied me with the addition of that luscious but slightly too oily balsamic. Thick oil drops lazed about in excess on every inch of the dish, but yes, the fish resembled a shiny piece of ivory silk which broke away in delectable flakes of oiled flesh.
But no. It didn’t throw me off any board. The linguine was better, I thought, with rich and affluent clams sliding out of empty shells. Beautiful little creatures. I’d like to imagine downing 10 at a time, like I would do onions. Lovely, really.
This stuff was good though not excellent, and most definitely not worth the appalling price. Even the gelato only came in three flavours (chocolate, strawberry and vanilla), and at a supposedly homey original Italian restaurant! Come on.
Quality is mostly there though, and I enjoyed the rosy-cheeked, round-bellied waiters bustling to and fro.
Before I blabber on nonsensically, I would like to first tell you about the literature blog Ruru and I set up for the benefit of all literature-loving peers: sjiinookofbooks.wordpress.com. Belles-Lettres was a good way to go. A feminine start to our bright passion! So do go and support us.
So now. Gotta shout it from the rooftop, hollering till my lungs fail and collapse and dissolve into the dense air. Declare it loud and proud. Before I proceed, I must warn you that this post might be extremely non-sequitur, since my mind likes to twirl and fall off a direct one-way path.
I have a very, very fishy fetish. Quite literally, too. I mean I can be fishy at times habits and personality wise but this, my friend, is an entirely different matter altogether. Most people cringe at my ghastly penchant for any animal with an attached edible head and most importantly, brain. For who am I kidding, that’s the best part! No incertitude there I promise.
Little twins. These two guys look very similar, though really they aren’t. One’s from Sushi Tei and the other, Ichiban Boshi. I actually prefer the former, since it bore more crunch and sourness (two things which encourage a great deal of guilty pleasure whenever I do feel like ordering this.) Squeeze on all the lime and liberally apply some crumbled radish or ginger or both. Cast away the knives and forks and all sense of common dining etiquette. Crack your knuckles and exercise your joints a little, just to get ready for the task at hand. Smile and tuck in like how our ancestors did thousands of years ago. We were born to do it like savages.
One bite of fish head warmed and softened by an ooey gooey light grey brain and slighter darker pituitary gland plops angels in the backdrop of this harmonious dream, singing an ecstatic chorus of fishy glee and rounding out my senses, forcing me to even close my eyes just to savour the wondrous saliferous joy of fish head. Fish tail and stomach is good, don’t get me wrong, but the joy of popping those bulging eyes of translucent, wobbly jelly is simply indescribable. You eat around the perimeter of the head before cracking the very middle with your teeth and swallowing the tender chewiness of that brain. Carnal? Yes. But oh so painfully pleasurable.
And why on earth am I suddenly talking about this?
It got me thinking, as I sat down to another round of head gorging last night, as I sucked on crab roe and bit into a chicken head’s brain for the first time in my life. (I am now extremely proud to say that I, Alexandra Lim, am no longer a chicken head virgin.) Heads bring me such inexplicable joy and excitement it’s ridiculous, childish, absurd. Never mind the weird looks my friends give me, or the slight twerk in my heart as a little show of guilt whenever I imagine that animal as an unborn embryo cooped up in its promising shell before the first signs of cracking. But by gum I just love it. Not just me, of course. Many share the same fishy passion as I, though I’m pretty sure the majority don’t. It’s like the whole durian thing again. And may we all just admit that messy eating is the best thing ever.
But how do we really perceive something to be ‘odd’ or ‘strange’ in the first place?
Bring on the TOK (Theory of Knowledge) talks. I was listening to my ex-math teacher Mr S a few days ago, on human perception and ideals in realism, or how we assume things to be the way they are in the real world. Hell, we are humans with two eyes and a nose and mouth. But how on earth can we take that to be normal with our partial comprehension of the ever strange and glorious world which surrounds us, and which we face on a daily basis? All these shapes and silhouettes make up a minuscule fraction of what actually exists, that is, if we take all those scientific conjectures to be full-on true. Incredibly shattering just to think about this one side of a notion. We looked at the story of Helen Keller, who was an extraordinarily gifted woman in spite of being BDD (blind, deaf and dumb). But to her, this never was a disability, since she never could fully or freely experience the other three senses. She was trapped in a mental gate lock which only her helper Annie Sullivan could pull her out of, with unbelievable persistence made doable by the miracle of love. Nothing is strange or odd or a disability if one has never experienced the fullness of life without any shortcoming. We must be pretty miserable creatures since we only possess only 5 out of a possible 1000 senses. Just because we don’t live in darkness and can enjoy stuff like foie gras terrine.
Charles Baudelaire said that ‘strangeness is a necessary ingredient in beauty.’ Looking at it one way, I like fish because ever since I was younger I’d crave the simplistic and pure white flesh of the red snapper or the juicy amber goodness of the common salmon. I saw no joy in much else, except peas perhaps, which my father would pour on the ledge of my high baby chair as a toddling duckling. Pick and mash and mush and happiness galore. Nothing strange about eating fish head, but maybe what gives it an odd edge is the fact that I find it almost to be just like a drug. I have to have it at least twice a week. Ice cream is similar, though not half as much as my love for fish head and gory bits and bobs which people pick out and happily leave on their little places. And I now come to my second honesty claim: I am a dreadful picker.
Can you imagine how annoying it is for me when I’m surrounded by people at a table who don’t lick out the bone marrow of chicken thigh bones or don’t polish up every little strand and nickel of fish hanging limply on their scales? It’s chaotic mental paranoia. I’m almost afraid that by not engaging in this OCD with bony bits, they might actually miss out on a fleeting taste of heaven. So strange but absolutely part of me. This is the sad way my mind works. Only natural to feel my brain cogs turn and clack when I see a pile of abandoned onions or half picked at fish or chicken bones. I become fretful and worried. I think I even started sweating once. No, Baudelaire, this is not a beautiful trait of mine, but I have indeed almost come to embrace it once or twice, as I feel so accomplished when I feel the fish head snuggling in the pit of my stomach, not gone pitifully to waste. But it’s sad how I only enjoy these leftover, unwanted nicks and nacks. As if by eating them comforts the inanimate things into knowing that no, they are never always abandoned.
So to me, this is normal, and to other people, strange.
To people who wear a lot of makeup regularly, such habit comes naturally, but i find it the oddest thing in the world to wake up at 5 every morning just to perfectly conceal that one red smidgen of a dot on your upper cheek.
People like white chocolate, but I (and Ruru of course) find it so one-dimensional.
People throw on a purple or green blouse or dress as and when they feel like it, but I just can’t bear to. Unless I actually feel an aggressive chemical connection, of course. Now that’s an exception. All these things I find strange, strange, strange, but the only thing which separates me from you is our perception of the world and all the existing things in it.
And I find the combination of familiarity in all the stored memories of my existence as well as a cold oddness inherently beautiful.
‘There is no excellent beauty that hath some strangeness in the proportion’ – Francis Bacon