Thursday, 29 September 2011

My culinary experiences (Part one)

When it comes to eating out I’ve always thought that I have reasonable skills. I’m familiar with the basic etiquette, like using your cutlery from the outside, folding the napkin neatly on your lap and not making those funny noises that the kids enjoy so much. That little bowl with the warm water and lemon slice is not a fancy new soup and you don’t pick your nose,...uhm, well, if you absolutely have to then at least do it when nobody is looking. That just about sums up everything I know about dining out. But one is never too old to learn. I discovered this little known fact shortly after my loving wife and I arrived at the company annual dinner.
It is always a very sociable affair where they give us the opportunity of discovering what it feels like to chomp in a fine establishment – one where there are no disturbing noises, there is not too much salt on the fries and one that does not have a big yellow “M” on the roof. We don’t often get these opportunities and so eagerly accepted the invitation.

As always it was a very amiable evening. It started with the customary “cocktails & mingle” formality where you gather around in small groups of three or four, and each person tries their utmost to either sound extremely intelligent, or appear profoundly interested. I usually end up in the second camp because, let’s face it, I’ve never exactly been the life of the party. Once drinks were enjoyed by all we ambled across to the tables in preparation for the feast to begin. Shortly afterwards a fine young specimen of the waiter species started to take down our orders. This is where the “Big M” scores some extra points over the “Nest Hotel” where we found ourselves, because at the “Big M” you at least understand what it is that you are ordering.

The hors d'oeuvres options I was confronted with included "Jerusalem artichoke veloute drizzled with truffle oil", "Twice-cooked pork belly, caramelized ginger and apple puree", "Seared scallops on pomme puree and crispy prosciutto" and "Traditional Hopkins River beef tartare with garlic croutons". When the other people around the table saw the menu they all said "Oooh!", and "Aahh!", while I thought "Huh?!?". I know something about Jerusalem but have never heard of "veloute", the "Pork belly" creation simply sounded wrong and the "seared scallops on prosciutto" sounded like something out of a torture handbook from the Middle Ages. I therefore chose the last option, the "beef tartare". Of all the choices this one seemed like the most innocent and least dangerous – or at least it was the one where I understood most of the words. I just wasn’t too sure about the “tartare” bit, but it sounded like that tasty white sauce that you get at Ocean Basket – the one that they never give you quite enough of. Apparently it isn’t. No, my dear reader, I implore you, learn from my mistakes.

Just before “the dish” arrived someone asked me what I ordered, to which I answered, “that, uhm, beef...thingy...”. Somewhat surprised he said “Oh, I didn’t know you liked the raw meat dish. Sounds great! I was going to order that too but rather...". His voice faded into silence and the room became quiet. In an instant my mouth was dry and I yearned for something strong, poured three finders deep over ice. "What ?!? Who said anything about it being raw??" And so I learned that the "tartare" is not that nice white sauce that you get with your fish but that it is in fact French for "lump-of-raw-mince-on-your-plate", with a raw dove egg on top, spruced up with a few pieces of dry bread and a vinaigrette sauce without which they undoubtedly wouldn’t be able to sell it. Within an instant the fine “Nest Hotel” establishment transformed into "The Nest Correctional Centre and Torture Chambers". As part of my "Practical guide to surviving in Australia and living to tell the tale", I can give the following advice for such a situation:

Scrape the slimy egg off to the side. Scoop up a mouthful and swallow. Try to quickly establish the routine of scoop-swallow-scoop-swallow. Don’t chew and think happy thoughts about red balloons, yellow daisies or dolphins. If you are lucky the portion won’t be too big. If you are not so lucky, or find you cannot get those last few morsels over your lips you will have to make another plan. This is one of those times of severe adversity where it is required that you think quick and be both creative and cunning. For example, contrary to popular belief, the vase on the table can be used for more than one purpose...

The rest of the evening went by without too much drama. The main course and dessert was exceptionally agreeable. But then again, when compared to the starter I would have happily devoured just about anything placed in front of me! After this evening I have a renewed appreciation for the “Big M”. It may be noisy and they may not be serving real meat, but at least it is cooked!

In part two that is to follow soon, I will reveal more valuable advice about your options and the do’s and don’ts when it comes to takeaways.

Until then, au revoir.

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