A Parisian summer, in a time of suspect intellectualism

To think of France is to think of Paris.

And to think of Paris is to think of its icons – the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre with its I.M. Pei glass pyramid (and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel), Notre-Dame de Paris…and that distinctive odour of eau de urine in the Parisan metro…

View of the Eiffel Tower from a metro train. Paris, France
Arc de Triomphe. Paris, France

The Louvre, with I.M. Pei glass pyramid. Paris, France
Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. Paris, France
Notre-Dame de Paris. Paris, France

…or its iconic foods: cheese (from Laurent Dubois), sourdough bread (from Poilane),
Fromagerie Laurent Dubois. Paris, France

sourdough bread from Poilane, cheese from Laurent Dubois, chacuterie. Paris, France
escargot, frog legs, oysters, sweetbread at the restaurant of Hotel du Louvre:
oysters, escargot snails, sweetbreads, frog legs, roast potatoes at the restaurant of Hotel du Louvre. Paris, France

more escargot and deliciously heavy creamy foie gras ravioli drizzled with truffle oil at Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie (“foie gras maison!” proclaims its website):

escargot with butter, garlic, and parsley. Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie, Paris, France
foie gras ravioli drizzled with truffle oil. Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie. Paris, France

Having read A.J. Liebling’s Between Meals several times as a continually ravenous university student (possibly due to fencing training 3 times a week, rugby training once a week, and cricket, too, once a week), I used to despair of ever visiting such temples of gastronomy, expecting that any trace of them would have disappeared in the intervening years.

What Paris now offers though, is the pleasure of having my tummy satiated by a normal meal. In Asia, noodles and rice just don’t seem to present much bulk at all – an hour after lunch and I’ll be rifling through the office snack stash with a growling tummy, to the chagrin of weight-conscious colleagues. In the U.K., the ubiquitous potatoes helped some, but that had to be topped up with tea and biscuits ever so often. Ah, in France though, all that good tasty dairy fat in cheese and cream totally keeps me going for hours.

Still, worth rounding off a meal with sweets of course, just for good measure, and Pierre Hermé is just the thing.

feuilles. Pierre Hermé. Paris, France
ispahan. Pierre Hermé. Paris, France.
macarons, Pierre Hermé. Paris, France

I joked with my French ex-housemate that perhaps Paris would be a good place to settle in. Not only was the food a perfect Tinder match, the people too were just up my alley. Ex-housemate had been explaining how the locals considered themselves quite intellectual, and would not listen to even a simple proclamation of the gospel until there had been some serious argument over an issue of choice (not necessarily even the very reasonable and logical questions about the authenticity and authority of the Bible), and I simply love a good argument.

Religieuse pastry. Paris, FranceLast year, Sudhir Hazareesingh wrote about How the French Think. He considered French thought distinctive:

  • in its historical character (by which I mean both its substantive continuities over time and its references to the past as a source of legitimation or demarcation)
  • in its fixation with the nation and the collective self, which provide an enduring focus of public debate and the philosophical underpinning of assorted conceptions of the good life
  • in its extraordinary intensity (ideas are believed not only to matter but, in existential circumstances, to be worth dying for)
  • in the belief that communicating specialised forms of knowledge to a  wider public is an integral feature of intellectual activity
  • in its constant interplay between the themese of order and imagination – or to put it in terms of specific thinkers, between the cold linearity of Descartes and the unbridled expansiveness of Rousseau.

Buddhist monk at Shakespeare and Company. Paris, FranceNaturally, as if to prove his point, many French people have critiqued the book for leaving out certain philosophers, for giving too much space to Napoleon, for misunderstanding nuances of certain ideas (“has he not read Baudrillard?!”), etc. But all agree that French pride in the intellect defines the nation.

Je pense donc je suis“. Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am.

And the French have interpreted Descartes to mean that Thought is man’s highest sacred duty.

But the current hooha over the burkini ban in certain part(s) of France has tarnished this image. Could it be that the French, like everyone else, is happy for the freedom of thought…as long as it is the same as their own?!

crepe, Breizh Café, Paris, France
a bowl of cider, Breizh Café. Paris, France

A more fundamental fallacy is this: the assumption that the human intellect is infallible.

A (more English) empirical enquiry would effectively evidence this.

Birdie Num Num Gastrobar, 54 Jalan Kembangan

A mono-taste dinner; the sort you have after a break-up when you would rather be curled up in bed crying fruitlessly; that meal a kind friend has forced on you so you are mechanically putting food in your mouth because you were properly brought-up.

Except, there had been no break-up, and all four of us were in high spirits and famished when we arrived at Birdie Num Num (facebook. 54 Jalan Kembangan).

Thus ravenous, we ordered two starters: the foie gras and scallops,
Birdienumnum Gastrobar, 54 Jalan Kembangan
Birdienumnum Gastrobar, 54 Jalan Kembanganpan-fried foie gras is hard to do well – a little overcooked, and the liver-y taste overwhelms, as it did here. The others hastily left me to finish this. The scallops, equally difficult not to render rubbery, were small but had been cooked over a well-controlled fire.

Each of us had a main course. They were, in ascending order of saltiness, the cod, the duck confit, the beef cheek, and the lamb shank:

cod fish. Birdienumnum Gastrobar, 54 Jalan Kembangan
duck confit. Birdienumnum Gastrobar, 54 Jalan Kembangan
beef cheek. Birdienumnum Gastrobar, 54 Jalan Kembangan
lamb shank. Birdienumnum Gastrobar, 54 Jalan KembanganThe cod was a little tough, the duck meat – good and moist, the beef and lamb – tender. But the salt content in the marinade/sauce/stew so dominated everything else that there was only a hint of the difference between the dishes.

We might have gotten them on an off-day.

In society, we appear to vacillate between expecting consistency from humans, and not – “oh! such a hypocrite!” we might spit at someone who has acted inconsistently, and yet “oh, he’s only human” we murmur about another who hasn’t performed up to his usual standard.

Perhaps it is in one’s character that we expect continuity and stability. Then Jonah 4 is most amusing. There, Jonah the reluctant, rebellious prophet of God has a hissy fit about Yahweh’s consistent character:

“I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster…”

We too know this from Exodus 34:6, 2 Chronicles 30:9, Nehemiah 9:17 and 31, Psalm 86:15 etc. There has never been any change in the character of God. Which is why Jonah could expect his stay of judgement, and so refused to warn the evil city of Nineveh to repent of their ways in the first place.

What a guy! What a God! You couldn’t have made this up.

Uncle S, By The Fire at Alibabar the Hawker Bar (125 East Coast Road)

“Uncle,” they call out by way of greeting as they approach his cubicle, in deference to his advanced age and also to his curmudgeonly exterior. They come for wisdom on a pressing issue, or a blessing to proceed on a particular document. And uncle dispenses all sagely (with a little scolding), staring over his reading glasses, before dismissing them brusquely.

No one on the Circle Line train he takes to and from work, every day from Monday to Friday, would have guessed that Uncle S, in his drab office attire and non-descript laptop bag, boasted a life populated with dead bodies in jungles, hangings, drug mules, child murderers, a bitter divorce, and a united nations cast of girlfriends. Lunchtimes can be quite a treat when he gets out one of his stories.

Because of all that he has seen, Uncle gets quite philosophical at times. Hearing of us chat about upcoming weddings, he would say dismissively,”If there is a buffet, why do you want to eat a la carte? If all you want is milk, why buy the whole cow?” etc.

Last Thursday, as we were about to head home, a gym-going colleague chided the rather rotund Uncle for having his paw in the office Toblerone stash again, to which he replied he had only one life to live so he was going to do as he pleased, which led to a discussion about reincarnation (he being Hindu-ish, and the other two colleagues being Buddhist) and the afterlife, into which I pitched (having finally finished writing an email) the Christian concept of salvation.

By The Fire, Alibabar the Hawker Bar, East Coast Road, Singapore

Dear Uncle S could not conceal that gleam in the eye that litigators get when they are about to launch an offence. It was an oldie from a cheeky ex-mission school boy: why go and tell people about the gospel? Without missionaries’ interference, the cannibals in the Amazon would have been judged by a lower standard than people who had been told about Jesus and then refused to believe.

My reply, as I was telling people over dinner at Alibabar the Hawker Bar (facebook, 125 East Coast Road, Singapore), was this:

  • God’s standard of judgement: we are not judged primarily on our adherence to a religion, but our relationship with a person, God who created the whole world, who revealed himself in the Bible. Do we relate to him rightly as a good God, worshipping him, trusting him, wanting to obey his every world? That’s how you should relate to someone in complete and rightful authority over you.
  • All men know this God: how would people know about God, that he is all powerful and worthy of worship? Why, it should be plain from mere observation of the world, and also their conscience (Romans 2). So everyone everywhere, of every language and race, are without excuse. God is not to be accused of being unfair, all humans are themselves culpable.

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:18-20)

  • Yet, all men deliberately rebel against this God:

21 For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:21-23)

By The Fire, Alibabar Hawker Bar, East Coast Road, Singapore

So what of the purportedly innocent Amazonian cannibals? They are a myth. There isn’t anyone who can be considered innocent. Can they be held accountable for eating the people they killed as a sign of respect? Yes. It is a sign of God’s judgement on them, as are all sorts of other commonplace horrors in our shiny cities:

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s decree that those who practise such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practise them. (Romans 1:24-31)

This is why Christians are so desperate to tell people both the bad news and the good news – on one hand, that we are under God’s wrath, and on the other hand, there is salvation in believing that God’s Son, Jesus, died to pay for those sins, so we can now be back in right relationship with God.

…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:9-15)

By The Fire, Alibabar Hawker Bar, East Coast Road, Singapore

Now about dinner. The corner kopi tiam that is now Alibabar is well-known to be an incubator of food start-ups. Saveur (now the Saveur Group!) began here I recall. One of the more recent occupants is By The Fire (facebook), set up by Immanuel Tee (of Immanuel French Kitchen at Salute Coffeeshop) and Alexander Chong.

The scotch egg with runny yolks were very decently seasoned indeed as was the deeply-flavoured binchōtan-ed grilled pork jowls. Weighing in at S$6.90 (£3.45) and S$15.40 (£7.70) for these tiny non-gastropub portions though, made it all a little hard to swallow too quickly.

Still trying to get a handle on what even non-wage-earning Singapore students deem “reasonably priced” at hipster kopi tiams.

Salute (not Salut) Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1, Alexandra Village, Singapore

Salut Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1 Immanuel French Kitchen, Salut Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1 Immanuel French Kitchen, Salut Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1

We were at Salute Coffeeshop in Bukit Merah for Immanuel French Kitchen (facebook), headed by Immanuel Tee.

foie gras, Immanuel French Kitchen, Salut Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1The pan-fried foie gras (“coated with black miso and served with dashi broth and daikon noodles”) was a promising concept, but lacked the crisp exterior that should have come from being in a pan, and would have helped with jer lat blandness of the liver.

French duck confit, Immanuel French Kitchen, Salut Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1Duck confit is difficult to get just right. Cooking it is easy enough – just fish out from its rendered duck fat bath, pat dry, and put on the pan. But to get the contrast of textures – the crackle of skin and the tender flavourful flesh, takes experience. One of Immanuel’s assistants cooked this dry duck leg – a pity. Also there was a lack of cohesion to the dish – you took a bite of the duck, and one of the mash, but there was nothing to bridge the distance.

pork belly cooked in kakuni style, Immanuel French Kitchen, Salut Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1Pork belly cooked in kakuni style (“served with mushrooms, onsen egg, potato foam”). I guess none of this is a reflection on Immanuel’s ability as a chef, but he might want to train his assistants better.

Two Wings (facebook) was another stall within the coffeeshop: Two Wings, Salut Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1The wings are allegedly made according to the Carona Chicken recipe from yesteryear. As fried chicken wings went, they were alright, said H, but probably not worth S$12.50 for 6 pieces. I just remember the chilli sauce being the highlight of Carona, not the chicken.

Representing the Germans was Stew Küche (facebook): stew and pretzel, Salut Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1The stew in a claypot accompanied by a pretzel, wasn’t anything to write home about, said B. And the pretzel was more hard than chewy.

avocado shake! Salut Coffeeshop, 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1Dismissive of the beer and the exorbitant prices of other drinks, B brought over some avocado shakes from the Alexandra Village hawker centre.

A coffeeshop filled with un-coffeeshop-like food isn’t new but is something fun that we’d like to see more of. While Singaporeans love to flock to the newest eating place, quality and value-for-money are what will continue to draw returning customers once the shine (and instagram-worthiness) was worn off.

Where to find good reasonably-priced French food in Singapore?

Before I left Singapore, there was a good and cheap French stall in a kopitiam at 269 Queen Street called “Le Cuisson”. Sadly for fans of French food in coffeeshops, they are now “La Cuisson” at Prinsep Street – proper French grammar, proper restaurant space, and proper bistro prices.

And there was the reasonably-priced Le Bistro at the Singapore Indoor Stadium – that’s closed shop as well.

Le sigh.