Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Where time stands still

I spent most of my childhood in Singapore - and along with that part of my life are many fond food memories. Back then, having a steak dinner was a novelty and my dad used to love to bring us to a Russian steakhouse near our home for special occassions or treats.

The venue then was Shashlik restaurant, an iconic establishment off Orchard Road in Far East Shopping centre. Only in Singapore will you get a Russian restaurant run by elderly Hainanese Chinese waiters who bring your orders to the table in wooden pushcarts.

My dad especially loved the breadrolls that were always served piping hot and the signature Borsch soup (a rich tomato beef stew with vegetables served with a thick dollop of sour cream). The steaks were all served on sizzling hotplates which used to be the fad back then and served with unashamedly unRussian condiments - bottles of Heinz tomato and chilli sauce or English mustard that were presented on request.

Fast forward almost 10 years and I find myself walking into this same dimly lit establishment last night - and immediately I was struck by the familiarity of everything that is this restaurant. The same aromas and sounds from sizzling plates, the same decor of deep yellow table cloths and mahogany chairs, the same vibe of nonchalant service that is provided on a need to be provided basis. I was however saddened to see that only one of the original Hainanese waiters was still working in the restaurant. Surprisingly, I could still remember their faces and how each had their own mannerisms and quirks.

We started with the Borsch soup which evoked immediate nostalgia - memories of birthdays, anniversaries, etc came flooding back to me with each sip. This was the definition of comfort food - more than just a soup - I tasted the coversations, warmth and laughter that my family shared in this restaurant. Mopped up by the familiar piping hot bread rolls - I was a happy man.
The Oysters Mornay that followed were tasty - rich bechamel sauce and parmasean cheese smothered oysters which were then placed under a hot grill. Not exactly Russian and definitely not sophisticated - but to be honest, I couldn't have cared less.
Shortly after our starters, the familiar sound of the rolling pushcart arrived and we tucked into a medium rare Chateaubriand steak (which at Shashlik means a tenderloin steak with mushroom sauce made from canned champignions and served on a hot plate with sides of frozen mixed vegetables, crinkle cut chips and a lonesome grilled tomato). There was too much butter in the sauce (and the frozen vegetables as well I suspect) and the sides weren't exactly inspiring - but this was as unpretentious as they come. Everyone comes here knowing what they will get - a slice of how a foreign cuisine was adapted and used to taste when it was first introduced to Singapore.

As I sipped on the aromatic Hainanese coffee at the end of the meal - I remembered how dad used to love coming here. How he would always order extra servings of the soft breadrolls and smile at his first sip of the Borsch soup. And although I will no longer be able to see him do these things - I am glad that places like Shashlik exist to challenge the passing of time and perhaps - to simply allow its patrons to indulge in reliving the past.

13 comments:

ICD August 27, 2008 at 7:17 AM  

Great post! Sharslick, is truly a Singaporean institution!

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