Saturday, 13 October 2012

In Italy, In Singapore

“Italian restaurant here,” says the cab driver.

“Okay,” I reply, fumbling with the unfamiliar currency, trying to pay him while checking the GPS on my phone.

I leave the airconditioned cab and stand in the street. Seconds later, my glasses have fogged up, the sweat is pouring down my forehead and stinging my eyes. I cross over to the restaurant and check out the signage. “Pasta Brava” is what I read.

I’m in the wrong place. I told the cab driver that I needed to go to the Italian restaurant on Craig Road and he has brought me to an Italian restaurant on Craig Road but this is not where I need to be. Surely there can’t be two Italian restaurants on the same street?

I decide to walk a little further up the street, consulting my GPS while trying not to trip over the uneven paving outside the run-down shop-houses. Two minutes later, I see it. The relief of being in the right place is second only to the relief of being able to step out of the humidity and into the cool, dim, cellar-like interior of In Italy.

Proem (feel free to skip)
My very first job was as a teacher in Singapore. I was young and inexperienced but enthusiastic. For two and a half years, I worked in a government school in the Novena district and devoted myself to my students. And at the end of that time, I finished my contract and returned to Australia, hoping that ‘my kids’ would be okay, that they would grow into amazing people and do well for themselves, that they would find careers they loved, that they would travel and see the world. It’s hard though, to really envision a future for someone when they are only 14 years old. As an educator, all you can do is hope that you have done your bit well.

When I left Singapore, there was no social media of any kind. People were using email but mainly for work. Letter-writing was on the way out. So it was that I lost contact with most of my former students until, about 2 years ago, a sudden surge of Facebook interest put me back in contact with them again.

The last time that I saw Felix he was a cheeky little kid with a big grin and spiky hair who wore the standard blue-and-white school uniform you can see in schools all over Singapore.  Now he is Chef Felix, the grin is still cheeky, the hair still spiky (although more modish stripes shaved into the sides) and the uniform is his chef’s gear with his name embroidered upon it.

He has organised for me to be seated at the counter and booked me in under my former name – when I was a teacher I was “Mrs Paterson”, a name I no longer use but that is how my Singapore kids know me – and I am so thrilled to see him that I can hardly concentrate on the menu. 

 A table for "Mrs Paterson"

I put myself in his hands, telling him that I want to try what he believes are his best dishes. He advises the stracciatella with sweet and sour stewed eggplant caponata, then the signature dish which is the squid ink linguine. For dessert he promises me that he will do ‘something special, not on the menu’. 

I relax and take in my surroundings; a wall of wine bottles before me, a loaded dish of Roma tomatoes to the side. I didn’t photograph the bicycles which were on the ceiling, but there were bicycles on the ceiling. I have a glass of prosecco placed in front of me, a basket of beer-bread and salsa verde, a dish of shaved reggiano. 

It’s Friday lunchtime and the place fills up quickly. I hear local accents mixed in with English, American, and Italian. Felix later tells me that the restaurant draws Italian ex-pats who come for a taste of home-cooking. There are certain dishes that can be immediately identified  as origjnating from Liguria, from Firenze, from Milano. Felix knows because he travels regularly to Italy to do training in regional cuisine.

The stracciatella arrives. It is settled between the caponata and the seasoned tomatoes, warm, separating into strands as I twist my fork in.  It is very, very mellow with the caponata providing the necessary zing and bite while the tomatoes are fresh and flavoursome.

Felix pauses to show me another dish he has made – a huge crostino, all golden and fragrant, served with prosciutto. It looks amazing and I wish I were dining with more people so I could have some. Felix takes pity on me and gives me a sample of the prosciutto – I don’t usually rave about prosciutto but this one has been truffled and that makes all the difference. 

The truffles that are used at In Italy, in fact most of their key produce, arrive weekly, freighted from Italy. I joke with Felix that he needs to source from Western Australia, it is closer after all, but he tells me that In Italy they are all about authenticity, especially where truffles and cheeses are concerned.

As I finish the prosciutto, the linguine arrives, with a whiff of the ocean and of garlic. The restaurant is packed by now, by Felix comes past when he can to give me information. He prepares the linguine in a base of lobster bisque, the squid ink goes into the pasta rather than the sauce because it’s more elegant (who wants black teeth, especially when you have to go back to the office?).

Each forkful is dense and spicy. The chili provides just the right amount of burn on the lips to keep me happy. The prawns are sweet and juicy. It is all so very, very good but what makes me happiest is know that Felix made it all.

Time for a coffee! Time for two. The brand is Illy and it is the best coffee that I have had since arriving as the choice thus far has been between Nescafe Instant or the ubiquitous Starbucks which occurs practically every 500m along Orchard Road. 

Dessert is just beautiful. The chocolate fondant sits on raspberry puree, and is flanked by two macarons. The macarons are Felix’s signature dessert – the shell is squid ink, the filling triple sec butter-cream. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but you’d be wrong – the squid ink imparts colour and saltiness but there is no fishiness to it all all. The buttercream adds the sweetness and citrus complement. I know enough Italian to understand that ‘fondant’ should be ‘melting’ and when I push my spoon in, it does exactly that – there is a warm chocolate flow across the plate. 

Things are starting to become quiet again. No such thing as an early Friday knock-off in Singapore – the corporate types must return to the office. The lunch-time service finishes so Felix can join me at the bar and we chat about his career and his travels and his passion for creating good and interesting food.

He summons a waiter who puts a dish of sorbeto in front of me.

“Guess what flavour this is?” he challenges.

It is orange, a little on the dense and floury side, not super sweet. My first thought is persimmon, but perhaps that is too obvious.

“Pumpkin?” I hazard.

It’s actually prickly pear. Felix has seen the bushes, growing wild on the roadsides in Italy and has harvested the fruit to come up with this intriguing dessert. Of all the things that I tried while at In Italy, this was the one that impressed me the most. It was very different and I’m guessing that it will be a while before I eat prickly pear again.

Another gesture to the waiter, another speciality.

“We make our own limoncello,” says Felix, as the shot glass is set before me. They use organic lemons and distill it in-house only to avoid the use of preservatives. I tell him that I would buy it by the bottle if I could and I imagine it poured over ice-cream. 

We are joined by Felix’s boss, Mario Caramella, whom I had been introduced to earlier in the afternoon. I tell him I have recently been in Sydney, staying in Pyrmont, and he tells me about restaurants that he has set up, one in The Star complex. I like his old world courtesy and business cards are exchanged in case he should ever find himself in Perth. I like more that he is a good boss and mentor to Felix, who speaks of their association with contentment and of his working conditions with satisfaction.

It’s time to go and one of the waiters snaps a photo of me and Felix which I plan to keep next to my old school photos from 1997 and 1998. I give him a hug, urge him not to work too hard (although I now know from everything he has said that his work ethic is tremendous and makes huge demands on his time and energy) and I promise to come back again when I can. Perhaps I get a bit teary when I step outside or maybe that’s just perspiration in my eyes again.

I throw myself into another airconditioned cab and take stock.

So, “Mrs Paterson”, what was it that you said you wanted?

I wanted to my students to be okay. Tick.

I wanted them to grow into amazing people and do well for themselves. Tick.

I wanted them to find careers they loved. Tick.

I wanted them to travel and see the world. Tick.

Anyone who has ever been involved in education knows that, for the most part, your satisfaction comes through the achievements of others. I am not the only educator involved in food-blogging, and there are several people out there who will know exactly what I mean when I say that you make investments in people often not knowing when or if you will get a return. I could even get a bit biblical and talk about ‘casting bread upon the waters’ which stays neatly with the food theme.

In Italy, in Singapore, I got that return upon my investment.

No teacher could really ask for more.

Thank you, Felix.

I'm really proud of you, Chef! :D