There are three types of restaurant experiences I have found through my experiences with restaurants. The first is fine, the type of experience you have in a common-or-garden variety eatery you frequent quite a bit. You know what to expect, you can get a table by just wandering in from the street, you know the bill will at best make your wallet say ‘yeah you treat yourself. Don’t worry about me’ in your head. The second is maybe had with a larger group of people or one that you don’t know that well. Think meeting your new girlfriend/boyfriend’s family for the first time. This experience is more of an occasion, perhaps you go somewhere new that you suspect might have the menu written in a different language right above the English, your wallet may say things like ‘here mate, are you sure about this?’ in your head. You’ll probably put on a shirt. The third involves you having to transcend restaurant norms into a higher plane of dining consciousness, an affair so far beyond your understanding that you’ll have to learn how to dine out all over again, start from scratch. There are so many new rules and airs and graces your first instinct is to run before the guy behind the desk susses you out. Your wallet won’t say anything because it suffered a massive stroke. This week I had the immense pleasure of the third experience.
Nobody is a fan of feeling like a fish out of water. You won’t find anyone (except perhaps the truly asinine) joining that Facebook group, nobody will eagerly detail that awesome time where they felt like curling up into a ball and dying rather than muddle their way through a situation they knew nothing about. I’m thankful to say I handled myself better than I expected. I was going for a dinner for Kingston graduates who are currently based in Hong Kong. It was held on the 56th(!) floor of the Island Shangri-La hotel, which is impossibly nice and far too plush for the likes of me. The kind of place I would be afraid to walk on the carpets in. As soon as I stepped out of the taxi and into the lobby, the gentleman who opened the door for me asked ‘can I help you with something’. Shit! I had been found out! They knew I was an imposter, I really did think I’d last longer. Or maybe it was because I walked into the lobby and just stood there like a moron trying to work out which way to go. Door gentleman took me to the lift and pressed the 56 button for me. I can’t help but feel lazy. As the lift did its level best to stamp my brains into my shoes, I took the opportunity to panic about whether I was dressed correctly. I’m nothing if not productive, I can panic longer, about more things at once and more concisely than I’ve ever been able to before. I’m panicking at PHD level these days.
Things go awry immediately after setting foot in the restaurant. I stammer through an explanation as to why I have appeared in their lovely restaurant without much success. Not knowing who the booking was under I instead manage to set the Guinness World Record in ‘saying the words Kingston, Graduate and Dinner as many times as possible in three minutes’. Three different people look over the bookings, I am offered a seat on a sofa I fear will envelop me, I am acutely aware that my jacket is a little too big around the shoulders. I’m considering running when the third booking-looker-atter says that the man booked in at 7pm is something to do with Kingston University, the name sounds familiar so I say ‘yes that’s me’ and hope for the best. They’ve already sat down apparently. I didn’t know what to expect, I was thinking perhaps around twenty to thirty people seated at an array of tables, gentle laughter, speeches and announcements following the ‘hear about the latest news from the university’ section of the invite I received. Nah there was just me and the guy running it. In fairness there were four whole human beings intending to come, one canceled, the other two didn’t show up for whatever reason. Instead of a huge hall of people to smile awkwardly at and force conversation with (or network, I think they call that networking) there was a small table in a fantastically plush restaurant right next door to the Bank of China and some incredible views across the bay with only the one person to network with. So I was very lucky that he was an absolute delight to talk to.
My companion for the night is the head of Kingston’s Law school and has had many a trip over to this side of the world due to a connection with the University of Hong Kong. We decided to give the slack bastards half an hour before deciding to get cracking. Getting cracking apparently meant selecting the champagne we wanted to begin with from a trolley. My knowledge of champagne is much like my knowledge of football or the ins and outs of Jacobean literature. That is to say non-ex-fucking-istant (tmesis however, I ex-bloody-cel at). So when confronted with no less than six varieties of champagne and having their history and flavour lovingly detailed by the bald waiter (who to all other extents was exactly like what you would imagine a French waiter describing champagne to be like) I just had the theme tune from Playdays rolling around my head.
Now that my new law professor acquaintance had chosen I had to make a decision. I selected the second bottle (purely because the fancy gold writing) and cringed inwardly at how much I had sounded like Andy from Little Britain as I did so. I deftly avoided the wine list conundrum by insisting my host make the choice from a wine list that was thicker than most novels.
The food actually began with another waiter with a massive basket of about ten different types of bread rolls, I made the amazing faux pas of going to grab one with my filthy degenerate hands and almost having my fingers taken off by the waiter with the tongs. Small pots containing a cold jelly-like substance (the ingredients of which I have, to my shame, forgotten but they involved cabbage) were brought to our table with the purpose of amusing our mouths. My mouth found it particularly hilarious so on with the starters. I could hear a couple of vegan friends screaming in the back of my mind when I selected a foie gras to start followed by the veal. Mwahahaha, a fantastic ‘evil meat-eater’ dinner if ever I saw one. The starter came in a plastic bag (not like a Tesco one or anything) that was untied and slowly, slowly, agonisingly slowly, pulled away to leave the meat and the trimmings in the bowl. ‘Expertly done’ I told the waiter with a grin. As my mother would say: not a flicker. The foie gras was delicious and made me feel like I had just done something decadent and wicked and it would be bad for my health to keep it up. Like having sex with a Royal.
The veal was also excellent, so tender it was falling apart at just the mention of a knife going near it. My host selected his steak from the flambé menu so it came wheeled over on a cooker to the side of the table so we could watch as the fella in control apparently set his face on fire. I’m thankfully not so misinformed that I would leap out of my chair with my glass of water in hand and chuck it at him, expecting a round of applause so the main course passed in pleasant conversation and without incident. I did find it strange that when I went to remove my jacket (becoming shaky with anxiety that someone would spot how slightly big it was) a figure sprang out of nowhere to whip it off my shoulders for me. I suspect they install those guys in the chairs with an angled mirror.
The pudding was lovely too but what kind of pudding isn’t lovely? Well I’ll tell you! Bread and Butter pudding that’s what kind of pudding. I mean what is it? It’s just soggy bread, that’s not pudding, that’s just sloppy bread storage! But I digress. The bottle of far-too-good-for-the-likes-of-me wine finished we took our leave as every member of staff who served us all bowed slightly and said good night on the way out. I felt like I was walking past the curtain call of a west end stage production. We got lost on the way out (it’s bloody big hotel yeah? And there’s a mall underneath it!) but when that’s the only thing that goes wrong with an evening meal I call that a success. And so another rite of passage and another step towards grown-upism and eventual middle age. I have dined at Le Pantalon Fancée and didn’t commit any major crap-ups. It was good to talk to a professor of my old university and with a bit of luck there will be more events and a better turn out. I offered my assistance in organising anything that may come up, we swapped business cards (LIE: I wish I had a business card), shook hands and departed. It was distressingly adult and as close to business-like as I’ve come since returning to Hong Kong.
But then I remembered that to get to the hotel to begin with I stole someone else’s taxi by saying I was the guy they were looking for and the destination had changed. And then I pretended the language barrier was too great to discuss it in any further detail. Can’t grow up too fast can I?