And there I was after climbing my own food mountain(just completed a 1,000 page metaphysical exploration of caramel’s indecent and covert love affair with salt), all knackered and in need of a good feed. So I took myself off to my favourite hip boutique foodery which specialises in the latest culinary fads and existential tastes.
After ambling down several lane-ways I arrived at where I thought I was going to tantalize my educated palate and lighten my wallet.The multimillion dollar fit out was gone, so too the spacious and echoing ambience and subliminally designed retro frontage. Imagine my surprise at being confronted with a lack of be’stached and tattooed waiters, haughty maitre’d’s and faux fake Danish decor and instead having to settle for a flimsy stool at a laminex counter and sharing elbow room with several other equally astonished patrons.
I was a mere few inches away from a simmering pot o’stock and a chimeric cleaver chopping away at a beautifully glazed piece of BBQ’d meat.
‘Holy O.H & S accident claim waiting to happen,’ I screamed to myself.
I was now sitting at a ‘pop-up’ hole in the wall operation under a see through plastic awning going eye to greasy eye with some guy who I presume was the chef, owner, waiter, cashier and dish pig all ballotined into one.
After barely half a second he moved on to another equally bemused patron and placed a large white bowl of steaming meat and vegetables in front of him. “Meat and two veg!” he said. “Now you, what do you want?” he said brisketly.
“Oh, is there a menu?” I said. My hands flapping about the counter looking for something to critique and assess.
“Look on wall mister!” he said, pointing to my left. And there it was, clear as a dirty smoggy day in L.A., it read:
Meat and two Veg
Fish and two Veg
Tofu and two Veg
‘Oh,’ I said to myself. “Where does the meat come from? Is it organic beef?” I asked, always trying to be ethically conscientious with my eating habits.
“It come from happy cow in field, same as fish and tofu. All very happy.”
I was momentarily taken aback, what field was he talking about? The verdant pastures of Southern Gippsland perhaps, or that little hidden creek in the Yarra Valley.
“Is it Wagyu?” I enquired further.
“With noodles or rice?” he snapped back while serving another bowl of steaming goodness to my right.
“Errr, noodles” I replied. I was curious as to what type of noodles were on offer; soba, rice, wheat or gluten free?
My doctor had advised that because of my Irish heritage I’m prone to gluten intolerance and should cut back on just about everything I enjoy.
“Rice noodle” he said.
“Excuse me, could I get extra garlic too?” I asked sheepishly.
“Ahhh, you bring own menu,” he snapped before turning away and tossing the contents of a wok high in the air.
The diners to my left and right were eagerly shovelling heavily laden chopsticks of food down their throats and slurping at raised bowls that hid their surprised eyes as the stock pot simmered away. The set up was exquisitely simple: rice cooker, stock pot, grill, sinks, small fridge all bathed in the atmospheric glow of two flickering fluoro strip lights hanging from meat hooks attached to the awning. A narrow ‘u’ shaped counter with seven side by side stools on one side and a few haggard chopping boards on the other. There was also a small, refrigerated keg of beer in the corner.
“What’s the beer?” I asked nervously.
“Happy beer of course, good for drinking. Comes from same farm as happy cow and happy fish,” he said. My celiac condition denied me beer unless it came from The Boutique Brothers Beautiful Buckwheat Brewery in Baw Baw.
“Water please. Is it ionised or sparkling or filtered at least?” I asked.
“No! It’s happy water from…”
“Let me guess,” I interrupted, “from a happy stream in a happy field, with the happy cows and all!” I said.
“Ah, you been there too?” he said, rather sarcastically.
Ignoring my naturopath’s advice I relented,“Ok, gimme some happy beer,” I said, barely able to hear anything over the din from my neighbouring diners as they slurped, gurgled, scraped and wolfed down their bowls of happiness.
A light drizzle had started to fall around the tiny restaurant. Everybody subconsciously squeezed in a few inches under the plastic awning as if to get closer to the warmth and smells wafting from the grill.
I started watching the chef whip around his work space. One moment he was ladling stock into bowls, then he’d be slicing meat or fanning a boiled egg onto a mound of half submerged noodles without a moments hesitation. His actions were smooth and subtle, yet energetic and forceful when needed. Not a movement was wasted. Even when he charged a customer $8 for his meal there was something seamless about it.
I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of my choice in restaurant. Thoughts of my favourite meal from Swanky Bubbles Quinoa and Grill came to mind; an entree of Iberian hemp-line-caught Sardines served ‘in the freshly opened tin’ followed by a baked brace of Steiner educated and ‘raw food’ fed spatchcocks with a garland of fair trade Dingleberry flowers and thrice smoked heirloom tomatoes. Naturally, I always order a side of ‘Congan blue’ single origin pureed potatoes with radically activated almonds to balance the flavours out a bit.
“Wake up!” said the chef as he placed a bowl of noodles on the counter bathed in clear stock with a garland of glistening rainbow coloured vegetables and several small pieces of expertly grilled meat atop. I noticed a small armada of clear spheres of fatty flavour orbiting the noodles and was instantly reminded of that scene in Tampopo.
“Garlic!” he snapped while giving me a small garlic press and some peeled cloves.
Twenty minutes later I had scoffed my way to happy farm happiness and was eagerly picking at my teeth trying to extract the very last pieces of deliciousness from between my crowns and thinking about the small happy creek with the happy fish and cows when the chef snapped at me,” you done, you $12, cash only, next customer sit here please”.
“Wha…, oh, yeah, gimme me a second,” I said, squeezing myself out from under the gently dripping awning and gulping down the last of my beer.
“But you only charged him $8 for the same dish!” I said pointing at a guy walking off down the lane-way exhaling billowing clouds of cigarette smoke and burping his approval.
“He no ask stupid questions. Quick, $14 please,” he said.
Another wet customer quickly brushed me aside and was now absorbing the residual warmth from my vacated stool.
“Tofu and two veg with vegetable stock please. what type of tofu is it? Silken or firm? Is it macrobiotic? ” she asked.
I knew what the reply was going to be and I laughed. I wanted more but my belt said no and so, off I went into the soupy inorganic night thinking ‘if only everything could be this simple.’