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September 04, 2001

Betawi Grill: Hurts So Good

Players: Susan, Bobby, Viren, several extras in the form of young women, a maitre d' wearing a loose silk batik shirt, and a dearth of service.

Act I: Prelude

It started innocently enough, with Bobby calling up and wanting to get together for a drink in our favorite watering hole (Rock Bottom Brewery) in Bethesda. Having just returned home from that general direction, I was of course reluctant to retrace my steps, but he finally badgered me into it[1]. That resulted in the three of us -- Susan, Bobby and me, in case you were off dreaming about aliens and kidnapping, which seems to be a common theme among people who come in direct contact with my writing. Sometime I'll have to get that analyzed -- being the whole and soul of the current story.

It was a wonderful day: blue skies, birds chirping, yuppies basking in the sunlight, motorheads cruising in their riced-out cars. All in all, it had the necessary omens that indicate to the informed Washingtonian that Mother Nature, in her kindness, hath decided to grace us with a preview of fall, with a dash of summer thrown in to prevent those of us who aren't Weather Channel fans from being caught with our pants off (freezing in our shorts). And there we were, sitting outside Rock Bottom enjoying some of their wunnerful brews (we mostly favor the stout, with Susan leaning slightly towards the red). Did I say 'sitting'? What I really meant was that we were slouching, postures indicating with every nuance that, at this point in time, the world was a mere day-dream that barely impinged upon our consciousness. If say, Ford Prefect had chosen that moment to land and inform us that the Vogons were about to destroy the Earth to clear space for a hyperspace bypass[2], we would have nodded politely (rudeness takes too much effort), smiled to indicate that we had heard him, offered him a fine stout, maybe toasted him with a "Cheerio, old boy', and returned to our main pastime of watching people strut on by[3].

Act II: 12 Angry Men (or 3 indecisive people)

By and by, Bobby (him being the energetic one at this point) brings up the subject of dinner, and elects to make this an EET (Exotic, ethnic trip). Susan and I being too tired to argue, the motion was carried thru. Bobby put forth the suggestion of a Korean BBQ place up in Rockville. I immediately used up my Veto on this - it's kind of a reflex nowadays, a survival instinct that years of associating with Bobby have sharpened to a fine, razor-sharp (speaking of which: who here can explain to me the difference between razors marketed for women and those marketed for men. E.g. Gillette Mach3 and Venus3) edge. From then on the discussion degenerated into the culinary equivalent of "Around the World in 80 Days" with various different cuisines being suggested and then thrown into the discard pile like so many ideas from a writer with writer's block -- everything was good, but just not quite right. As inevitably happens with all creative people suffering from a lack of well, creativeness, we decided that we needed a muse to provide us with inspiration. I almost instantaneously found us half a dozen (Bethesda's just that kind of place), but figured that that wasn't the kind of inspiration that my fellow travellers were referring to. Oh well, it probably was for the best. Muses and me don't get along. It's not that I don't get inspired, it's just that my mind starts frolicking thru paths that my body can't or won't venture into (forget about frolicking into). It's a failing of mine, but one that's dear to my heart (well, I can't get rid of it and I certainly can't ignore it, so what the hey!). Anyway, back to the point -- the muse took the form of a stroll around the area.

Act III: The art of strolling

Now, let me venture to suggest that there is indeed an art to strolling. Strolling walks (I would apologize for the pun, but why lie unnecessarily) a fine line between sauntering and walking. Both of these imply a purpose: walking implies you have somewhere to be, while sauntering suggests that you are making a determined effort to be nowhere in particular. Strolling, the way we did it, involves a seemingly convoluted path that is easily explained by 2 words : Brownian Motion. Other than that it requires the cessation of all time-based thoughts....sorta visualize driftwood floating along a slow river. It manages to get places, but without much effort on its part. So, there we were driftwood, floating along with the tide of people, peering myopically everywhere in the fashion of tourists found in every metropolis. It's amazing how many restaurants that part of Bethesda has. Everything ranging from standardized fast food to sorta snooty restaurants serving haute cuisine (tho they were obviously not snooty enough since they would have allowed us in there with our getup, with the maitre d's frigid glare being the only sign of reluctance on their part).

We passed a bunch of possibilities: there was a whole street corner full of mediterranean and faux mediterranean restaurants. They all looked good, except for one which Bobby said he couldn't eat in for ideological reasons. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all for ideological reasons, I'm even fine with ideology every now and then, and I occasionally do come up with an idea or two, but ostracizing a restaurant 'cause of it's name is dragging this concept too far. So we stroll past some more ethnic restaurants ( and no, Italian doesn't count) and also Night Dreams, which if you are going to pretend to be ignorant of, is a nice little adult lingerie and toy store (Susan having decided that she already had everything she needed from there, there was no need to make a stop at Night Dreams, much to my chagrin).

Bobby, having recovered from having his choice vetoed, put in the additional constraint that it had to be Asian cuisine. We walk around some more, with despair dogging our trail and end up across the street from this Indonesian place. It was kinda like finding the missing sock pair right when you were ready to heave the whole laundry load into the trash in frustration. You could see all three of our faces glow with a heavenly light...as we all but kneeled right in the street to offer prayer to whichever deity led us to the end of our journey. We walked across the street ostensibly to look at the menu before deciding whether to grace it with our presence. However, this was a foregone conclusion: I would have eaten dried chewy leather soles prepared in coconut curry if it meant that I would be eating soon. We wordlessly[4] agreed that this would be the EET destination du jour, all the while muttering "Betawi Grill" like a mantra over and over again like it was to be our salvation.

Act IV: Walk into my parlor said the spider to the fly

Auspicious beginnings are supposed to be omens of good fortune for the duration of that enterprise, and we were pleasantly surprised to see that the outside patio of the restaurant was quaintly decorated with 3 rickshaws. This coupled with the fact the there were people sitting in the patio that seemed to be enjoying themselves, seemed like a fairly good beginning. Feeling our hopes go up a couple of notches, we ventured into the inner sanctum, and waited like all good citizens to be seated. There we received our first setback -- no one felt like seating us -- inspite of the fact that I distinctly remembered showering twice that day, and while we weren't dressed in top hats and monocles, we did have clothes on. We waited a few minutes longer looking expectantly at every passing employee (not to worry, there seemed to be only 2 people working there). While loitering in the lobby, we had plenty of time to glance around the place. The decor at first glance seemed tasteful and minimalist (my kind of place). The tables seated four and were of a adequate size, accompanied by straight-backed chairs that were surprisingly comfortable. A covered piano stood looking extremely lonely right by the entrance -- apparently they have live entertainment periodically. Across the room, was present a pretty standard bar with a mirror-covered wall. If you were of a mind to look into the depths of the restaurant, you would be pleasantly surprised by the space and number of tables present in the interior. The whole place gave off a clean, airy, moderately friendly ambience.

This inspection of the place didn't actually occupy even a tenth of the time that we were standing, but for lack of anything else to do, I kept re-doing my inspection hoping beyond hope that I would find something new -- kinda like I open my fridge periodically hoping that the gods have seen fit to deposit manna into it to reward me for being me. Finally, a waiter took pity on us and started to clean up a table on the outside patio. Of course, the maitre d', resplendent in a silk batik shirt, happened to come by at just that time and said we couldn't sit there since it only seated 2 people, and what with us being 3, it might be a trifle tight there. We, of course, weren't in much of an arguing mood and pointed at the nearest empty table and said that that would do. We followed word with action, not actually waiting for him to acquiesce. For some reason, Mr. Silk Shirt decided to hold out my chair to seat me, instead of doing the customary and seating Susan. Weird.

Act V: Seated, but not sated

Seated. That felt good. Sub-goal #2 accomplished. In the beaten path that is the restaurant process, you would expect a waiter to walk up to us, smile (being careful to look at everyone while doing so, in order to not show any favoritism), mention delicately that while we looked to be in the prime of health, we, if he may be so bold as to mention, looked a little parched, and inquire thereafter if we would like to cure this condition by getting something to drink. There you would indeed be wrong. This restaurant felt no need to follow the herd, but instead decided that we obviously looked like people who wanted peace, quiet and solitude, and they being the customer-centric establishment that they prided themselves on being would give us just that. So, we made small talk for a little while. Remarks were flying around about Indonesia, food, the dishes that were on the menu, what we wanted to eat, fish, flying fish and even bugs (since Bobby happenned to spot one crawling around in the tablecloth). By and by, someone mentioned the lack of potables, and so we once again proceeded to mimic dogs looking for a bone. We did manage to catch the eye of our presumed waiter, who made his way to our table, all the while indicating through gesture and composure that it was his idea to come by and chat with us. He, amidst the ensuing conversation, did manage to get our drink orders (2 waters and a Sam Adams), and our appetizer and food orders.

However, there was obviously some miscommunication there, because 5 minutes later we see the bartender pour the beer, and add 2 glasses of water to it, all of it in a nice quiet pile that should immediately grab the attention of a passing waiter. In fact, I distinctly heard the beer crying out to be taken to us. But, again, with the whole "we are going to be discreet" attitude, our waiter decided that bringing the drinks to us would be a major faux pas. After trying to bore holes in our waiter thru the sheer strength of our gazes, Bobby took matters in his own hand, and decided that he would go ask the bartender for our drinks. This course of action was necessitated by the fact that he was worried about the state of his beer after it had been standing around for this long. So, he manages to get the bartender to pour him another Sam Adams, picks up a pitcher of water and pours us 2 waters, and brings them to the table. At this point, our waiter materializes and makes some sounds, which don't affect us. Meanwhile, at the bar, our originally ordered drinks are still standing there all alone in the limelight.

Now, this should have been the end of our drink troubles, except that the water tasted like it was the liquid remains of a particularly bad experiment gone wrong in the labs of Aquafina. It tasted alright while you were drinking it, with just a faint taste of wrongness about it. However, as soon as you finished, the aftertaste hit you with the speed and power of a lioness protecting her cubs, and the taste of a skunk who had just gotten mad at you. A poll taken of my fellow diners elicited several strong opinions about the taste of the water, including "leopard piss" and "I've tasted bad water before, but it was never so bad that I couldn't drink it. Or that I worried that it had contaminated all of the other glasses and dishes in the restaurant". And I still don't think we have adequately described the wrongness of the water. So, Susan wisely orders (well, more like she goes and pours herself one) a beer, while I break down later and order a coke. By this time, we must have been there for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, our dear waiter returns to say that one of the appetizers we wanted isn't available. So, we finally choose something else from the menu that seems innocuous enough. Time passes....

Act VI: Lessons in eating fish

...our appetizers arrive. Or at least one of them does. This would be the one that we had to substitute in. The appetizer looked like rolls, except that the wrap had the consistency of dead tissue that had been drowned in water for a few weeks. All of us tasted this and decided that they couldn't possibly consider this a dish of any kind. Other than the consistency of the wrapping, the shrimp meat in there could have been tofu for all the taste it had. We, in our hurry to substitute in an appetizer, had apparently forgotten the crucial phrase that began the description of our appetizer (A-3 on the menu) "Soft crepe rolls ...". So, this part of the disaster was partly our fault (tho Bobby disavows all responsibility since Susan and I made the choice). We finally manage to ask Mr. Silk what happenned to our other appetizer, and were rewarded shortly with the appearance of the dish in question (A-1). This was a dish of fried egg rolls, and actually tasted good, with a thing crisp layer of wrapping that enclosed mainly chicken. Our feelings of disappointment were temporarily assuaged by this and we sat down to wait for our main course.

When our orders were taken, Bobby had ordered a whole fried Tilapia. Susan had ordered rice noodles with chicken, and I had ordered a dish that seemed to be rice with beef and chicken (K-10 on the menu). The server brought 2 dishes out -- one was Susan's and the other one looked like it was a sampler platter and thru some obvious communication difficulties, she (the server) managed to convince us that the sampler came with the Tilapia which would be arriving shortly. So, we started consuming the items in the sampler, or at least poking around at them trying to figure out what was what. Very shortly thereafter, out waiter arrived with the Tilapia, and we found out that the supposed sampler platter was in actuality my main course. Needless to say I wasn't very thrilled. There was some beef in there that was palatable but chewy, some chicken which was dry, some sort of wafers, and a potato dumpling that had the bizarrest consistency (it was like eating regurgitated food that had be dehydrated and then rehydrated -- the damn thing just felt like it had no business being in my mouth).

But the highlight of the evening was the Tilapia. It was brought on a plate sitting upright with its beady eyes staring right at you, and its spiny dorsal fin sticking straight up in the air. The effect was heightened by the fact that the mouth was a little open and you could almost see the teeth shining inside it. Susan was very amused (Bobby says I'm using the wrong word here: bemused should be the correct one) with the little critter staring straight at her, and finally managed to arrange some lettuce over its face such that the eyes were hidden. Meanwhile having finished our food, Susan and I started watching Bobby, who was in his element now, demolish the fish. The wonderful part is that he didn't quite stop at the flesh, but ate the eyeballs (something I would rather not witness again), and then started crunching away at the cartilage skeleton. In the process of eating the eyeballs, Bobby decided that he would be remiss if he didn't share this delicacy with Susan. So, he did so, with all the nonchalance of someone offering a fellow diner an after-dinner mint. Needless to say, Susan was definitely not amused (or even bemused). Hmmm.....somehow me thinks I'll choose not to sit across from Bobby when he next orders whole fried fish. I have to admit that it was fascinating watching him absolutely destroy the fish. I've always wondered what it would be like to watch piranha destroy their prey. Now I know, and Bobby's probably faster to boot.

We decided to forego the dubious pleasures of dessert, and asked for our bill. This arrived with amazing alacrity. We paid, and there ended our stint at Betawi Grill.

Act VII: The Aftermath

While leaving, Bobby had managed to snag a flyer expounding the virtues of the Betawi Grill. Reading it was absolutely side-splittingly hilarious. Especially since it treated us to phrases like "provide you with a catering experience unlike no other" (bad grammar, but true enough) and "This offer is open to young professionals" (excuse me?). What capped the writings was that they had customer testimonials in there -- "The service was spectacular" and "More than I expected". The sad part is that both fragments are true. The service was spectacular, though not in the sense they meant and the experience was more than I expected.

What can I say? Marketing never lies.

We did salvage the evening by going to Ben and Jerry's and then stopping by this Irish pub that except for the irritating DJ from 94.7FM was pretty nice.

Ratings

Service Abysmal
Decor Understated but elegant
Food Mediocre

Footnotes

  1. Note for all you people who know me: If you want to get me to do something or go somewhere, just wheedle (and alternate that with some choice threats to mind and body). Occasionally guilt trips work, too.
  2. If you didn't recognize the scenario presented there, walk to the nearest bookstore and buy yourself a copy of each of the books in the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series. Now, the discerning reader will have noticed that I made no mention of the possibility of ordering these books online. Allow me to explain: First, notwithstanding the fact that I work in the realm of software research, I'm a Luddite. Screw computers (To paraphrase a particularly intelligent simian: Computers -- the cause of, and solution to all of life's problems.) Secondly, ordering online doesn't let you indulge your yearning for immediate gratification. Finally, there's nothing better than holding a book in your hand that you really want to read, but having to (in the words of John Steven:) "wait for it" until you get home. The anticipation is excruciatingly painful.
  3. There's a whole other treatise to be written on people and their walks. If you catch me in a reminiscent mood one day, ply me with drink, and venture forth the question as to "what pray tell, Viren, is it about people and their walks", you would not return home disappointed (though, if you find me in any kind of mood and ply me with sufficient drink, you probably have other, possibly sinister motives in mind, and even then you still wouldn't return home dissappointed).
  4. Another of my endless theories on life, the universe and everything: people can communicate psychically in times of high emotion. Well, alright, so maybe that's a little far-fetched. How about the fact that the pheromones we emit in times of emotion can sub-consciously be understood by those around us to mean joy, satisfaction, etc? Hmm...don't like that either? I have a whole slew of other explanations. I'll save those for another time