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Alfresco? More like all fiascos

Published on May 22, 2014 7:11 PM
 
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Along with snow and the opportunity to take a domestic flight, one of the things I was most looking forward to about living abroad was being able to finally enjoy alfresco dining.

"Enjoy", of course, being the operative word here. As a committed bruncher, I have never let Singapore's scorching heat stop me from asking for a table on the terrace, no matter how closely the sun-baked patio resembles a wood-fired oven.

I've spent many Sundays from 11am to 1pm figuring out creative ways to use paper napkins as fans, while trying to maximise the surface area of my forehead that can be shaded with sunglasses.

But somehow smoked salmon eggs benedict doesn't taste quite the same when you know your own hair is smoking in the sun; nor do pancakes that are drenched as much with maple syrup as with the moisture hanging heavy in the humid air.

I suppose I could have just secluded myself indoors in air-conditioned comfort, but that would have completely defeated the two main aims of brunch: to soak in the fresh air - "alfresco" literally means "in the fresh" - and to be seen doing so by as many people as possible.

Not everyone agrees, of course.

As my comfort-conscious friend put it: "If I wanted to eat alfresco, I would just go to a hawker centre and sit far away from the fan."

But with my heart - and stomach - set on fresh-air feasting, I eagerly trawled Tokyo's restaurant scene for the best outdoor options once I moved to the city.

To be fair, Tokyo in mid-August is actually much hotter than Singapore. Spend more than five minutes on an unsheltered terrace and you're liable to end up more seared than your tuna tataki.

But the delicate intersection of Japan's spring and summer is the perfect time to perch on a sunny terrace, with just the right amount of cool breeze gently blowing in your face - airy enough to render your hair artfully wind-swept but not so blustery as to make your French toast any less toasty.

At least that's what I imagine, because so far I haven't actually experienced it yet.

April's deceptively sunny days proved too cold to stay outdoors for the length of a whole meal, leading to a series of hasty, shivering brunches as I attempted to gobble down my whipped cream waffles before they turned into ice cream waffles.

A few weeks ago, when the temperature reached 20 degrees and stayed there, I rallied a bunch of friends and called four restaurants before I finally found one with available outdoor tables.

I was so looking forward to the meal that I arrived, very uncharacteristically, 10 minutes early.

But the moment I reached the restaurant, I had a sinking feeling. The air was warm and clear, but there was a lot of it - what I had taken for an energetic breeze was starting to turn into a gusty wind.

I sat down anyway, putting my bag firmly on my jacket so the jacket wouldn't blow away. The waiter put the menu directly into my hands, for much the same reason.

I ordered a glass of wine and when it arrived, I had to hold on to the stem so it wouldn't slide off the table.

When my friends arrived, they were kind enough to insist on remaining outside.

"It's getting a bit cold, isn't it?" I tried to sound them out.

"No, it's fine," one friend said gamely, surreptitiously buttoning up his jacket.

"Yes, it's a beautiful day to eat outdoors," another friend chimed in. Next to us, an empty glass skidded off a table and shattered on the floor.

As hats flew off heads and salad leaves off plates, one by one, our fellow alfresco diners gave up the fight and moved indoors.

When a signboard next to us toppled with a loud crash, a waiter finally approached our table, by then the only one on the verandah still occupied.

"I'm sorry, could we ask you to move in? It's getting dangerous," he said.

So, as it turns out, is clinging to the idea that brunch is better outdoors.

Weather is not the only porch-side peril: I've also had to shoo away greedy birds trying to munch on my food and opportunistic insects trying to munch on me.

One particularly tropical day last week, I settled in at a chic cafe for brioche on the balcony - only to retreat indoors after 10 minutes, when the chain-smoking diners right next to me started exhaling in my direction.

Perhaps alfresco dining is like wearing leather pants: a concept that seems effortlessly cool when you see other people do it but is actually surprisingly uncomfortable when you try it yourself.

Or maybe I just haven't tried hard enough yet. This weekend, I've lined up plans not just for outdoor brunch but also its close cousin, rooftop drinks.

As long as the weather holds up, so will my open-air optimism.

fiochan@sph.com.sg

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