Monday, September 06, 2004

For the Pleasure of Their Company

31 Dec 1999. The eve of the next Millennium. The tele was showing these islanders from Kiribati who had rowed for weeks across the Pacific Ocean to get to some god-forsaken island that would be the first to greet the sunrise. We were all expecting the cable to go off, the lights to go out, and satellites to fall from the sky, at precisely midnight (thanks to the much-feared Y2K bug). Dinner was home-made spaghetti alfredo, courtesy of HM. I remember that fondly. How often do you eat an alfredo sauce that has been prepared with a $20 hunkola of parmesan reggiano? More importantly, it was a celebratory meal at the end of a particularly impoverished period of minimal income. I had a new job, we were under our own roof (albeit a rented one) - things were looking up.

Anthony Bourdain's search for the epiphanous meal is something that resonates with me. Which meals do I remember best and which do I cherish the memory of?

The freshness of the ingredients, the skill of the chef, the aesthetics of the presentation - these culinary qualities notwithstanding, it is context that sets the best of meals apart from the others. The time, the place and the company - all play a part in the creation of the perfect meal.

Eating at Princess Terrace today was memorable for reasons other than the food. That's not to say that the food was anything to sniff at. The Princess Terrace Penang food buffet is an institution; its reputation for authenticity certainly precedes it. Put to the test, I really couldn't quibble. The choice of menu items was spot on - Penang laksa, Hokkien prawn mee, Penang-style char kuay teow, duck leg mee sua, asam prawns, kerabu bee hoon, everything was there. And the taste was distinctively Penang, with ample use of shrimp paste and Nonya-inspired flavours.

So the food was good, but what set the meal apart was who I was eating with. I gather everyone was a regular, from former Penangites hankering for some hometown food, to "salary" men and women in the ugliest of officewear, to white-haired academics discussing anthropology, to Peranakan families in full force. Imagine visiting your Peranakan classmate's home during a Christmas or Chinese New Year gathering. As you check out the buffet table, total strangers come up to you and tell you, with all the familiarity of long-lost relatives, to try this or that. You overhear everyone's life stories, as they chat merrily away at the top of their voices. The room was positively FRIENDLY. Even the chef was out front, working the room. It was entertaining to say the least.

There aren't many places like this left in Singapore today. The only other restaurant, with that old-world feel and charm, that comes readily to mind is Shashlik. That sort of ambience, if you will, cannot be created with money.


Saturday, September 04, 2004

The Battle of Good vs Evil

Today I watched the first two episodes of "Carnivale". Am now waiting for the next three episodes to complete downloading, so I thought I might as well capture my initial reaction to the series in the meantime.

Let me get the Clea reaction out of the way first. She's got lots of screentime here, unlike most of her other appearances. Objectively, I can't yet say that she's got the range of really outstanding actresses like Jodie Foster and Julianna Moore; haven't seen enough of her to make that call. Still, she is so intense, so extremely watchable, so.... hot. (Is that a profound observation or what? *smirk*) Needless to say, I'm looking forward to more :)

About the series, I think anyone who enjoys magic realism will appreciate the world of the series, where comatose women can communicate psychically with their daughters and blind men can "see". As for the storytelling, you'll have to be a masochistic fan of storytellers like David Lynch to not be frustrated by the lack of answers. The structure is linear enough - the difficulty is the lack of backstory and the pace at which the audience is given clues. Personally I am enjoying it, trying to guess who and what fits in where. Hey, if I can enjoy watching "Lost Highway" (which to this day I still don't understand), this is a piece of cake.

I particularly like the ambiguity of who's good and who's evil. We know it's a battle of good vs evil, but I don't think it's going to be as straightforward as that. Brother Justin may be the preacher who seems to have the direct line to God, but he strikes me as being the evil one. Feels evil, if you know what I mean. The carnies however, ostensibly the freaks, seem to be the normal ones. Perhaps, the Management is God. So Ben Hawkins has the "unnatural" gift of being able to heal and raise the dead - does this make him the evil one? If there is a twist, the role reversal reminds me of Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy and good ol' feminist revisionist versions of the Eve/Lilith story (was it Sara Maitland's short story that I first read?), both of which I enjoyed tremendously.

If this seems like so much intellectual wanking, it probably is. Still, this is nothing compared to the deeply serious debates ensuing on the Carnivale website, about the symbolism and significance of everything and anything on the show, right down to the names of the characters. So, for the cynical or the unbelievers, I suggest you watch out for the beautiful cinematography and lovely attention to circa 1930s Depression-era detail instead.

I'll return to my star-gazing now, if it's alright with you.


Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Ah here we go

This blog was a long time in the making, mostly due to this blogger's innate laziness. As always, anything I actually start is usually at the expense of something else I should have been doing but absolutely didn't feel like doing at that point in time. So since I was supposed to be doing work that I had brought home, I started a blog instead.

Today was as good a day to start this blog as any, if not better than most. This is something I've been meaning to do since I don't know when, mostly to capture what I enjoy most in life. Today I gave up the fight with work and ended up doing three of my favourite things. Was it a good day? You bet. I was so relaxed I actually volunteered to iron all the backlog of laundry. HM (housemate) said she hadn't seen me like this since the last school holiday in June.

So what put me in such a good mood? I had a scrumptious meal at a fine dining restaurant, I re-read one of my all-time favourite books, I watched a good movie.

Lunch was at Les Saisons. It being my first time there, we did the set lunch. My theory is that, if a restaurant can feed you well on a limited budget, you can expect even better with the ala carte menu and the specials. I had the foie gras starter, the braised beef cheek main course, the caramelised banana dessert and coffee. HM had the carrot and coriander soup, the grilled cod entree and a chocolate fondant dessert. Both the foie gras and the beef were excellent - melt-in-your-mouth-tender - but the cod won. It was flaky and fluffy and ever-so-delicately seasoned. Yummy. The service was good (attentive without being irritating). My verdict: Not yet michelin star quality but excellent value for money - very competent cooking at affordable prices ($118 for two, inclusive of taxes). Well worth a return visit.

Watered and fed, I lazed around, and re-read "To Kill a Mockingbird". I've been doing this once a year, sometimes twice, ever since I was in Secondary Two when we did the book for Lit class. I think it was the first book I read where the breadth and depth of the issues provided such ballast to the personal. Very shiok reading. And I always thought Atticus was the coolest dad (hey, so I'm a nerd).

Then the movie. Ok, I admit I downloaded and watched "21 Grams" for the shallowest of reasons. I had wanted to watch it when it played on the cinema circuit last year but as usual managed to miss it under the onslaught of work. Quite forgot about it until I started my Clea DuVall obsession last week. That *eyes rolling* started when I watched "But I'm a Cheerleader" again. Hey, love that scowl and those cheekbones. Wish HBO Asia would bring in "Carnivale". Oh well. I'm just going to download the first season for now.

Clea's only got a bit part in this one, but the movie turned out to be pretty good anyway. I won't go into the details of the plot here (you can check out I thought the acting was very good - Naomi Watts in particular. Sean Penn's character I didn't quite understand, i.e. where he was coming from. I know there is some debate about the effectiveness of the cut and paste narrative structure (or lack thereof), but it kept me involved, which was quite necessary 'cos the film was so overwhelmingly depressing that it would have been tempting to switch off. In that sense, it reminded me of "Traffic". Anyway, it left me shaken, especially the "freak" accident where Naomi Watts' husband and family were wiped out. Called HM just to tell her to be careful on the streets (how lame, I know).

Now it's back to school. I'm looking forward to next week- school holidays! There are exam scripts to mark, bosses to meet, but the rest of the time is mine :) Here's to a week with Clea, yea!