Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Jaan and the Mysterious Case of the Heated Mineral Water

I was at Jaan for lunch the other day, my first visit since Julien Royer's departure and the ascension of his faithful sous Kirk Westaway to the top post.

I was expecting brilliance. After all, most of my previous meals at Jaan has coincided with Royer's periodic absences, and Westaway had proven himself numerous times to my delight.  Royer has since won two stars for Odette (while it is very good, I believe that one star would have been a more realistic assessment based on the standard applied by Michelin in France) and Westaway one at Jaan.  If nothing else, there was a forensic interest in seeing if the difference in ranking was justified.
So there I was, seated at a non-window table waiting for proceedings to commence.  I was a bit sad to see that the service team had changed, with the GM Frank Philippe having left, and his deputy taking a clutch of the old staff over to Royer at Odette.  But I was here for the food, and couldn't wait to see if and how Westaway sought to differentiate himself from his former boss.

Then something odd happened.  "Would you like sparkling or still water, Mr Teoh?" asked my waitress.  Now I am on the record as saying that the correct answer to this question is "warm water please". And it was especially the case on this day, as I had been freezing all morning in a typical subzero Singapore office / icebox and just wanted something to help me thaw out.

So I said "warm water please". My waitress must have read my blog post because I swear I saw the flicker of satisfaction on her face as she said "We serve warm bottled mineral water here, Mr Teoh, we don't serve tap water any more".  I stared at her in absolute confuzzlement. 

"Warm...bottled...mineral water", I repeated slowly, not quite believing what I was hearing. "Yes" she replied. "And we charge $5++ per head for it".  I just nodded numbly.  Frankly, I was so stunned at that moment that if you had asked me buy a copy of the "Michelin" Guide Singapore, I would probably also have nodded numbly as well.  Sure enough, our waitress brought over a bottle of warmed mineral water, the condensation near the lip of the bottle testifying to the warmth of the contents within.  "Tell me", I began, curiosity overcoming my amazement for a moment, "how do you get the bottle warm".  " We keep it in a hot water bath throughout service" my waitress replied nonchalantly, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. I was appalled.

Now I will admit that mineral water is not my thing.  There have been times when a little Acqua Panna has been very useful in cleaning some gunk (usually raw fish) from my throat, but generally, it adds little, almost nothing, to my enjoyment or experience.  So (a) why should I pay extra for it; and (b) how can I justify the environmental impact of drinking water that has been bottled and shipped halfway across the world, when Singaporean water is perfectly good to drink and there are less fortunate folk literally dying because they can't get a good, reliable supply of fresh, drinking water?  I can't, and I suspect most reasonable people can't either.  Why do it now, when there is no real doubt about the impact of human activity on climate and the environment?  And if flying a bottle of mineral water from Europe wasn't bad enough, keeping it heated throughout service in a hot water bath surely must be.

Jaan is clearly using this as a cynical revenue raiser.  They probably know that some diners order warm water to circumvent the "sparkling or still" ultimatum.  They clearly believe that by wringing a maximum extra $5.89 of revenue per diner (and it is a maximum, since some folks would order mineral water in any event), it is the difference between a profit and a loss, the difference between getting a bonus for the year or not, the difference between life and death.  By blocking off the warm water "out", they have circled the wagons and challenged the diner to a pissing contest.

But here is the hilarious (some would say tragic) part of this whole episode. The cheapest lunch at Jaan costs $83++.  You can't get a glass of champagne for less than $40.  No one who visits Jaan is trying to cheap out.  They are paying for the view, the service, the proper heavy cutlery, and of course Westaway's wonderful food.  Most people are there to impress, whether it's romance, business, social, gastro-tourism or just another wanker blogger snapping pictures of the sensational view.  Believe me, if I was trying to get "Michelin" stars on the cheap, I would go to that ridiculous soy sauce chicken joint, the bak chor mee place with the absurd two-hour queues or (if I was in a spendthrift mood), Alma by Haikal Johari.

So what has Jaan managed to achieve?  Instead of frustrating the cheapskate diners, they have ironically shown how cheap and calculating THEY THEMSELVES are, and how the true meaning of hospitality has once again been forgotten in the local industry, if it was ever known in the first place.

Now before I get anonymous comments from a bunch of angry cooks and restaurant owners, I know you are running a business. You have given, and continue to give, me a lot of joy (well, most of you anyway).  I want to support you.  I want to see you prosper so the dining scene here continues to improve.  So unlike those who merely criticise, let me offer you a constructive solution, and a solution which I think any reasonable restaurateur should have thought of at the outset: increase the price of your lunch menu by $5++ and let the great unwashed drink their tap water if they want to.  Believe me, Jaan isn't going to lose any business simply because they tacked on a few extra bucks to the bill.  I have seen the crowds there, and they aren't the kind who would baulk at spending a few dollars extra.  I do baulk at going back now, however, because heating up mineral water is the kind of cloth-eared stupidity you would expect from a Trump manque, not from a restaurant that prides itself on supporting artisanal (and presumably sustainable) production.

And why am I writing about this farcical money-grubbing exercise, instead of Westaway's excellent food (and it is genuinely excellent, very much deserving of its star in my view, and perhaps even more)?  Simple.  Because cheap, calculating acts leave a sour taste in one's mouth, when the experience of dining at a place like Jaan should have been an uplifting, restorative one.  And sour tastes are the most difficult to remove from one's palate, even if you are drinking heated bottled mineral water.

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