Refuel: Nyonya *
76 Dame, Street, D2
Published 15/10/2010 | 05:00
The first and last time I had fish heads for dinner was at a place called Nyonya, in Lower Manhattan. They weren't bad -- for fish heads. I'm sure they cleanse your liver, boost your libido and guarantee long life, but, all the same, I'd rather eat the rest of the fish.
I was with my first husband, his brother, and the brother's bride-to-be, who was Chinese. It wasn't so much a meal as a polite cultural exchange.
Conscious that the only thing I brought to the melting pot was a bag of spuds, I felt obliged to eat the fish heads. When we got home, I stayed up half the night, scraping my tongue and gargling MintyMouth.
But that, as Mr Cohen would say, was New York. I'd long since forgotten the husband, and forgiven the fish heads, when Ui Rathaile spotted Nyonya, on Dame Street, and said he'd quite like to eat there. A dead memory floated to the surface of my mind: the fastest way to get a fish eye off your tongue is to swallow it.
Never one to learn from my mistakes, I suppressed my true feelings (no more husbands or fish heads for me!), and said: whatever makes you happy, Baby. Nyonya it is.
The place was full of Asian students -- something we took as a sign of authenticity. There was no wine list, so we drank two bottles of a Chinese beer that neither of us had ever heard of. It had a thin, metallic flavour.
From a list of starters that included stuffed tofu with peanut sauce, traditional Malay pancakes and vegetarian spring rolls, Ui Rathaile went for squid.
It was advertised as coming in strips, but manifested as rings -- rubbery rings. The light batter was, in fact, a greasy orange crust that tasted of old cooking oil.
An impotent red chilli was sliced and tossed on the top, along with a limp-wristed squeeze of lime juice. Ui Rathaile was forgiving at first, but after a few minutes conceded that the rings were horrid.
Still, they were a culinary triumph compared to my beef satay. How can I convey its awfulness? Imagine, for a moment, that you're a shipwrecked contestant in a reality TV show on an island in the South China Sea. You haven't eaten in a week, when you come across the carcass of a strange furry creature and you think to yourself, if I don't eat this thing I will surely die. So you skin it, cut through the sinewy flesh with a nail scissors and thread tiny nuggets of meat on to a stick before cremating them on your campfire. Well, that's not what my beef satay tasted like. It was much worse than that.
Ui Rathaile asked if we could leave. If I was off duty, I would have obliged, but being on the job, we had to see it through. My Gulai Udang was flagged as a rich, aromatic curry prepared with coconut milk, coriander, fennel and chillies.
The prawns were glossy but dry, the murky curry sauce had an unpleasant grainy quality and no flavour beyond being salty. The most notable thing about it was the vast quantity of onion -- a cheap filler, which also formed the bulk of Ui Rathaile's curry.
He'd chosen Rendang chicken -- "a rich Malay festive dish with roasted coconut, chillies and fragrant mint leaves". The chicken was bland and strangely textureless, and the curry sauce was slightly redeemed by the presence of roasted coconut shavings and chillies, which you could distinguish if you concentrated very, very hard.
I was more than ready to bolt out the door with my pants on fire, but professionalism obliged me to at least cast a perfunctory eye over the desserts. When the laminated menu appeared, I knew what was in store: Romantico Tiramisu, Coconut Givre and the dreaded Tarta Fantastica. A rogues gallery of sugary nasties that have stalked me throughout my restaurant-reviewing life. After declining dessert and settling the bill, we ran to the nearest pub and washed our mouths out with gin and tonic.
Then, without guilt or hesitation, I added Nyonya to the list of dud restaurants that I've bravely endured, just so you don't have to.
TYPICAL DISH: Mee Goreng
THE DAMAGE: €57.50 for two starters, two mains, and four beers
ON THE STEREO: The Bangles
AT THE TABLE: Students