Take Hugo for example. I had him pegged for a smug, know-all type the moment I met him on the way out the door of an over-hyped wine tasting. He’d stepped outside to smoke a cigar, and was determined to get my attention.
My weakness was exposed when he suggested we continue the night over a bite to eat, at the location of my choice. It was then I noticed the cute wisp of thick black hair that framed his sparkling eyes. His cigar was roguish, and brought to mind Rogues, a place I’d heard of in the CBD. Something about the name made me think of Englishmen gathered in groups, downing pints of beer and discussing economic policy. Perfect for the kind of guy I imagined Hugo would be. It may have been the most delicious mistake I’ve ever made.
From the moment we walked through the door it was apparent this was no corner pub. A low lit bar of marble and strawberry blonde veneer ran the length of the round, glass-walled room. The sunken dining area was divided from the bar by a row of sleek, curved banquettes. The palette of earthy browns and golds accented with luscious red was a nice balance of masculine and feminine. To my surprise, it was a hotspot for locals and emigrees alike.
We settled into one of the banquettes like conspirators and asked the server to pick the wine – a habit I’ve gotten into recently, just to mix things up. The New Zealand merlot he brought to us had a subtle spiciness I’d never experienced before, and hoped was an indicator of what was ahead.
There’s more to the menu of this sexy spot than meets the eye. After 5, a full dinner menu is served outside, while inside you can order from the tapas menu – the Australian tapas menu (translation: lots of fresh seafood, Asian influences, and spice). Meanwhile, you can sample Cubans from the fully stocked humidor. Yes, you can have a cigar, a signature cocktail, and a bite to boot.
Rogues, open since November, is young. So is Tim, the 20-something chef and innovator of everything on the menu, right down to the dipping sauces. So too, is the up-and-coming artist who painted the gigantic portrait hanging by the bar (she’s 16), one that coupled with a song by the Strokes, lends an edginess to the atmosphere. I secretly planned to stop by for late night cocktails sometime. Maybe for another Rum and Jam, a not-too-sweet concoction served in a tall, sweaty glass. A “comfort food” of drinks that goes down well on a balmy night. Or a few strong lychee martinis made with fresh lychees – for something a little more tart. Fresh ingredients are the theme across the board. Nothing is overcomplicated or heavy. Hmm. Sounds like the perfect relationship.
Like the chef, many of the ingredients are imported from Australia. Lamb chops come from cuts of milk-fed lamb, flown in weekly for your indulgence. I was sure to include those in my lengthy order. I thought that Hugo would try to impress me with some kind of expertise knowledge here but mostly he just admired my ambitious appetite.
The food arrived on an array of rectangular and square dishes that were laid in an interlocking pattern across the table. Each dish featured creatively presented bites suitable for sharing. Wooden skewers placed alongside each dish invited stabbing, so we each picked up a stick and lampooned our first bites. Mine, a succulent morsel of salt and pepper squid, was so flavorful there was no need for the accompanying sauce. At first I tried to be polite and use one skewer for each bite, but pretty soon this method was scrapped in favor of using my hands.
Triangles of light, crispy flatbread flecked with fennel seeds scooped up dollops of thick hummus, the chickpeas roughly mashed to a savory paste as though done by hand. Flame-kissed lamb chops, grabbed by the bone, were dunked in a sweet tomato ratatouille. When bitten, the sweet, warm glaze gave way to a moist, pink interior. Equally delicious (and equally imported) were the luscious tomatoes used in the bruschetta. I could practically taste the golden sunshine as I bit into the pile of juicy cubes atop each thin round of crusty bread – quite a treat during rainy season.
Then, something different. A plate of thick ribbons of salmon coiled into bite-sized chunks. Gravlax, a dish previously known to wither under the fluorescence of New York deli counters, intimidating passersby with its pungent smell and suspiciously grey hue. Gravlax, a food I’d never actually tried, and never fully trusted. There it was, on a plate between me and my date, taunting me. But this was not the gravlax I knew.
These strips of citrus-cured salmon were pink and inviting, like salmon should be. Not wanting Hugo to sense my distress, I pushed my reservations aside and bravely speared one from the plate and brought it to my mouth.
To my delight, it was delicious. Despite my reservations, it tasted just caught and left a sunny taste in my mouth after I swallowed. I speared several more chunks into my mouth without hesitation.
According to Mr. Smartypants, tapas derives from the Spanish word tapa, meaning “cover”, and refers to an assortment of appetizers. Some food snobs say the term was coined when Spaniards placed bread over their wine to protect it from fruit flies.
Others cite tavern owners that gave patrons free samples of pungent cheese before meals to disguise (or “cover”) the aftertaste of the cheap wine they served. Pests, bad aftertaste – reminds me of most of my dates. Luckily, it seemed that Hugo was just eager to impress, and quite endearing.
Although it comes from humble origins, tapas today is undoubtedly a sexy format for food. When eaten properly, it allows couples to intersperse small bites of food with lively conversation. A little bite here, a little bite there, and a clever quip or two in-between. Tonight, however, the food was so good that I lost myself and allowed to completely overtake whatever conversation might have been possible. All the talk I could manage between mouthfuls consisted of, “Mmm, you’ve got to try that!” and “Ooooh, let’s get more of this!” Not very lady-like.
You’d think skewers would make for a clumsy, tattered transition of food to mouth, but it was like shooting (or spearing) fish in a barrel. Hugo’s dexterous fingers mastered the art of preparing perfect bites of maki, house-made pickled ginger, and extra-spicy wasabi for me, them cleverly maneuvering them to my plate using two skewers like chopsticks. Not that I needed the help…
So between prepping me bites and history lessons, Hugo was succeeding in earning my admiration but not in feeding himself. By the time he looked down from my face and onto his own plate, most of the food had been gobbled up! My momentary guilt was alleviated when his cigar arrived. He sighed with contentment as the server passed it to him, after ceremoniously clipping off tip and lighting it up with a special, odorless gas torch.
Properly lit-up myself, I excused myself to the ladies room to remove any crumbs that may have been lingering on my greedy fingers. Black tiles, outlined in red rose silhouettes reflected the light of a teardrop chandelier. Candles and flower petals added some elegance. I glanced in the mirror and felt like a mesmerizing starlet at her dressing table. Or maybe it was just the merlot.
– ROGUES: #01-42/45 Market Street Carpark, 146 Market St., +65 6557 0040, Opening Hours: Mon-Wed 11am-midnight; Thu-Fri 11am-1am, www.rogues.com.sg