Your last meal in any city is no small matter, I’ve always believed.
It’s the meal you might still be able to taste as you look out at the diminishing skyline from the plane; the one that you’ll be thinking of to tide you over until you return again.
I’d eaten well. In just a few weeks, I’d clocked not one but two visits to Hock Lam for the umami bomb that is its gooey beef ball noodles. I’d trekked to the seafront Changi Village to sample the nasi lemak, a Malay dish of coconut rice with a fried chicken wing, sambal chili, fried egg and crunchy anchovies, from a hawker stall I loved but hadn’t visited in over 10 years. And I’d had a lovely lunch at Iggy’s, a high-end restaurant that served up a custard-like French toast dessert topped with thick flecks of truffles that was truly unforgettable.
When plotting the appropriate finale, one thing instantly came to mind.
My friend Basil had told me a few weeks back about taking some people to his favorite restaurant in Little India to eat spicy mutton, drink beer and watch the world go by.
The choice was obvious.
Come, I said, let’s go.
So on a Sunday night, we found ourselves stepping off the train at Farrer Park station and plunging into the dense thicket of locals and tourists that fills Little India’s narrow streets and sidewalks in the evening.
Amid this hubbub, Gayatri Restaurant is pretty easy to find — it’s a gleaming, polished beacon in the generally dimly lit neighborhood. Now, I’m normally suspicious of local restaurants that are even remotely gussied up. Air-conditioning, decorative shrubbery and fetching neon signage? All signs that a place may need to compensate for its food. And Gayatri even had buttons on the table for us to press to summon a waiter for drinks or the bill.
The place had cred, however. Basil assured me that he’d been going there for years and that yes, it once was a hole in the wall with no creature comforts to speak of.
So we sat down, pushed a button and soon enough, the food started appearing.
Papadums, hot and crispy, and chilled Tiger beer were the first to arrive — the perfect starter.
But it was the mutton mysore that captured my heart. It’s a dish of cubed mutton braised in an intense cocktail of spices — turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, chilli … the list is never-ending — and flecked with cashew nuts and big pods of cardamom.
“Sip your beer, take a bite and then sip your beer again,” Basil instructed, showing me how his father used to load up papadums with bite-sized forkfuls of mutton.
Basil’s beer-bite-beer combo was a sound strategy for palate cleansing — as it is with the ritual for caviar, it made each bite seem new. And each mouthful was seriously unbelievable — the complexity of the spice mixture more than stands up to the intense flavor of mutton and will stay with you for a while.
The one thing to avoid is the cardamom pods — accidentally bite into one (as I did) and that’s all you’ll taste for a while.
We also sampled other dishes — none as good as the mutton but not bad overall. We had squid, battered, deep-fried and served with a dipping sauce crowded with sliced, super-hot chili padi. A lackluster prawn cutlet, breaded and deep-fried. And some amazing fish cutlets, which are patties filled with potato cubes and shredded fish — also breaded and deep-fried.
Perched at our outside table, unhurriedly sipping and nibbling while watching the endless hordes of people jostle by, I realized a better ending couldn’t have been scripted.
Soon enough, there would be a flight back to New York. And back in New York, there would be deadlines, stress and even more deadlines.
But here, for a moment, there was just a girl, her mutton, and her ice-cold beer. That was all.
Gayatri Restaurant, 122 Race Course Road, Tel. No.: 6291-1011, http://www.gayatrirestaurant.com/