The Anxiety and Joy of Eating Alone, Les Bouchons

DSCN5613This is the whole restaurant, it’s that small.

There are some things I never do alone, like go to the movies, a bar or a “proper” restaurant. Ok, I’ve eaten at casual places alone, those don’t count; I’m talking about a place where you get served more than one course, linen (although I’ve noticed more restaurants forgoing tablecloth) and a wine list. I get self-conscious. I imagine people will think that I’m a loser with no friends. And in those first few weeks back in Singapore, that was the case. Not the loser part, but the part about not having friends, especially for lunch when everyone I knew was working.

During those first few weeks back, I gravitated towards comfort food, food that I was familiar with back in the States. I wanted a steak, I was looking to taste Peter Luger’s again and relive my Williamsburg. So I chose Les Bouchons, sure it’s a French bistro and nowhere near what Peter Luger’s is, but they specialized in steaks.

I walked in and requested a table for one, feeling very, very self-conscious. The waitress didn’t make it any better when she didn’t get it the first time.

“Excuse me,” she said.

“Table for one,” I muttered, a bit louder and clearer.

God I felt so bad saying that.

They sat me at the corner. Luckily they just opened and there was no one here. Yet.

The waitress brought the single-sided menu that had corks, the namesake of the restaurant, dangling from the top. (Bouchons also refer to a specific type of bistro in Lyon.) I saw the limited bill of fare as a good thing. Sometimes a restaurant tries to do too much, better a few standards done well.

I ordered.

DSCN5564Terrine Maison with Pork and Chicken Liver

I was munching on some bread when two Brits walked in. I could feel them staring at me. The restaurant is so small that I heard almost everything they said and fortunately they weren’t talking about the guy in the corner. Still I felt anxious. I didn’t know why I was here; I should have just waited for the weekend and come with a friend. Shortly after, my starter, two thick slices of pork and chicken liver terrine arrived. The anxiety started to melt away as I tasted the rustic and satisfying dish. The livery taste was assertive but not overpowering. I liked it. I particularly loved the cornichons on the side of the plate, which provided a counterpoint to the gaminess of the terrine.

DSCN5571Grilled Rib Eye Steak with “Vigneron” Butter

Three German-speaking people walked in. I felt self-conscious again. But I didn’t have to dwell on it as my steak arrived and I focused on the enjoyment of devouring the rib-eye. It was a very decent steak in a city that serves lousy ones. But it was still plagued by bad practices that are rampant in steak serving restaurants here. One being the crisscross grill marks on the meat. It might look nice and dandy, but it does very little for the flavor of the beef. The grill marks limit the surface area of char, which in turn limits the Maillard reactions that create flavor. Give me a steak with more sear, especially since beef in Singapore, which is almost never dry-aged, is bland. The other bad practice was that they (and many others) cut the rib-eye annoyingly thin.

I was impressed though, with the excellent fries. They were the perfect size, not too thick or thin, and had a crunch on the exterior yet were fluffily yielding on the interior.

I was enjoying myself.

DSCN5574Lime sherbet with Calvados = Win

I was in such a good mood that I decided on dessert as a treat even though it was a tad expensive. $16 for lime sherbet with iced Calvados? But when the sherbet came with a towering shot of Calvados, I knew where my money was going. The waitress poured it over my sherbet, turning it into an alcoholic slushy. It was wonderful after such a heavy meal and a hot day.

One of the joys of eating alone is that you don’t have to make plans. A few weeks after my first visit, I was going though a period of headaches. So one day I decided to drop by Bouchons again. Maybe a steak would succeed where paracetamol failed.

DSCN5608Burgundy Escargot with Garlic Butter

I felt uncomfortable again, but between my headache and the delectable escargot, which I ordered to start, I wasn’t as bothered as the last time. I don’t think I could feel anxious as I worked my way thought the snails, which sat in a pool of garlic, butter and parsley. There was something in there though, peeking beyond the garlic and butter that was slightly sweet and tangy, mustard maybe. It really elevated the dish. I mopped up the rest of the sauce with my bread.

DSCN5611Close up

This time I ordered the large rib-eye done medium rare. I was still looking for that Peter Luger taste, which I hoped to find in the steak as it was from the States and grain fed. Plus I wanted something a little bit heftier that the thin excuse of a steak from the last time. I was impressed with the size of the steak; it was big and had the requisite height. Unfortunately it was rare, bordering on raw. I ate it; I usually never send underdone steaks back because I still prefer it raw than overcooked. It would have been a decent steak if it were done right, even though it was missing that mineral tang of a prime dry-aged steak.

DSCN5614U.S. Grain Fed “XL” Rib Eye

One drawback of eating alone is that if you get something bad, there isn’t anything to distract you from that fact or pleasant company to make up for it. 

DSCN9769Condiments for the steaks

But Bouchons redeemed itself on my third visit. It was in October of last year and I brought K-Dubs there for his birthday dinner. We were both craving steaks and regardless of my previous meal, I still believed in the place. I tried the sirloin just out of curiosity. I’m usually only a rib-eye kinda guy and don’t swing that way. But as I ate the sirloin, I could actually taste the beef, it had an assertive flavor that the rib-eyes at Bouchons lacked and it was also a much thicker cut, satisfying my height requirement. And l love the strip of gristle and fat on the sirloin. (Sorry no pictures, was there to celebrate and not blog.)

DSCN9765Salad, which you get with your meal.

I went back a month ago to have that sirloin again. It was still good, but I could have sworn it was a little less thick. A recession cut maybe? This time I’d been used to and in fact, enjoy dining alone.

DSCN9768Grilled Sirloin Steak with Herbs

When I’m eating something delicious I like to share it, like a funny joke, with someone. I’m always portioning out my food. So it’s with private, guilty pleasure that I love eating by myself. I don’t have to share, and everything is mine.

DSCN9770Cross section

And being by myself, I enjoy the food more. I can focus, I’m not distracted with talking to someone, or worried if they are enjoying themselves. I can concentrate and savor each bite. The experience of dining alone is pure. The food, or rather the perception of it isn’t influenced by dining companions.

I especially love eating alone when I’m having an extended meal in the hands of a capable chef, like a recent 12-course meal with chef Wylie Dufresne when he was in town for the World Gourmet Summit or the degustation at Jaan with chef Andre Chiang.

I read that at The French Laundry, solo diners get VIPed. 

DSCN9772New menu, can you spot the difference between the old menu below

DSCN5567Old menu from more than a year ago, I’m not talking about the different color of the font. Look harder.

I was meeting a good friend for lunch one day at Tatsuya, we hadn’t seen each other in a while and we always have tons to talk about. But I was having the Omakase and I have to admit, I would have enjoyed it more if I were alone. It wasn’t her. I had a great time with her, something that always happens when we meet up. But because of that, those precious, singular bites of exquisite sushi took second billing.

There’s a quote from author Michael Ruhlman that I’d like to share. It’s from his book The Reach of a Chef. Specifically it’s from his first meal, a 28 course culinary adventure, at Trio, chef Grant Achatz’s testing ground before opening Alinea.

Here it is:

“I take notes throughout a meal like this, which is especially pleasurable to experience alone – the only way, as far as I’m concerned – I’d have been frustrated if anything beyond the food demanded my attention.”

 

Les Bouchons

7 Ann Siang Road

Singapore 069689

Tel: 6423-0737

Open noon to 2 p.m., for lunch, 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. for dinner Monday to Friday. 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. for dinner on Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Recommended Dishes:

Escargot, Sirloin.

Price Range:

Appetizers $16, Mains $32.80, Desserts from $10-$16 (although the dessert prices are from last year. I don’t know if they increased it by $2 like the rest of their menu. That was the difference between the two photos of the menus.)

 

5 responses to “The Anxiety and Joy of Eating Alone, Les Bouchons

  1. You kind of hit the right feeling of dining alone and I am amazed you are able to put all your thoughts in writing… Nice piece of writing back with a good sets of photos…

    The food looks good but I guessed I will have the same thoughts running when I am in a restaurant all alone… Company is important to me and when there is no one there for me… Somehow or rather the hunger pangs will eventually drown in my loneliness…

  2. Thanks Fen. Yeah this post took me over a month to write and re-write, edit then re-write again. Which is why I haven’t posted in a while.

    Having comments like yours is really encouraging.

    Thanks once again!

  3. Such an interesting angle to weave with your food. It is always so refreshing to read your unique blog.

  4. eating alone can be great too… i sometimes enjoy the pressure-less experience of deciding the place, taking my photos, and savoring my food all at my own pace (:

    oh the calvados sherbet dessert looks shiok.. i like such icecream+alcohol pairings!

  5. Hey Elaine, yeah I totally agree, recently my dining companions have been rushing me through the photo-taking process. It’s a little frustrating (as I’m sure it’s frustrating for them as well.) You’re totally right in that there is a serenity in eating alone.

    I love ice cream and alcohol pairings as well, but only if they are done the way Bouchons did it. As in two separate elements mixed in at the last minute. What I hate are ice creams with the alcohol mixed in first before it is frozen. It just messes up the texture.

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