Today I was invited to join fifteen other people, most only acquaintances and friends of friends to partake of their annual reunion lunch: this time at Chinese yum cha, in a restaurant in a major shopping centre.
I must restrain myself from naming the restaurant, just in case the problems were more related to me, and my wacky state of mind at the time, but there was absolutely nothing "yum" about this particular yum cha.
We arrived five minutes early, and the place was packed to the rafters! Men, women, children, young and old; screaming babies in strollers; both Asian groups and Westerner groups, some seated, eating and nattering away; and the rest crammed into the vestibule area, waiting anxiously for a table to be freed up. ah, but our hostess had made... a booking!
Surprisingly, and despite the crowds, my friend and I were escorted straight into the restaurant, passed waitresses pushing trolleys stacked with all manner of steaming goodies, towards where our group booking's table should have been. But there were no vacant tables. The female maitre d' shouted into her earpiece and we were told to "return in ten minutes".
After about 20 minutes browsing the shops, we returned. The vestibule area was just as crowded, but we were shown to a large vacant table. We also found our friend who'd organised the event, and then a small number of our group already seated elswhere, drinking green tea. But the big table the waiters were preparing for us seated only about ten people, and we now needed seventeen chairs (one more adult had confirmed), and a highchair for an infant. I watched, dismayed, as the waiters butted another round table up against the first one. The chairs had flaring wire legs so, although seventeen chairs appeared to fit around the tables, when everyone was seated, many of the chairs' occupants were now too far away from the edge of the table. I began to feel claustrophobic, and went off to the restroom to calm myself.
Barely had we sat down than bowls of food were unloaded onto the lazy Susan in the middle of the main table. Now one side of the group had food galore (our side), but confusion reigned over at the far table as to how, exactly, yum char worked. The waitresses did not explain, they just kept unloading dishes. The waiters did not explain, they just raced away like startled deer. One side (the other side) were given green tea; we weren't.
"Take it all away", said our harried hostess to the waitresses. "Take this food away. We'll order the ones we choose."
So, the next thing I knew, we suddenly had access to a communal bowl of noodles, a few other dishes and no serving cutlery whatsoever. People understandably started unloading food into their personal bowls using their own chopsticks, which was working fine - until people were faced with "double dipping" to serve themselves any additional portions. I kept asking for serving cutlery, and receiving blank stares from everyone who looked remotely like an employee of the restaurant. They were happy to offload more food, though. I began to feel extremely claustrophobic again, even though I was aware of the air conditioner blowing a slight breeze above my head.
I needed a drink. A Coke Zero would do. Or even a regular Coke. I noticed several people around our table had located drinks, and others returning with soft drinks in hand. Ah, there was the bar! I offered to get drinks for the people on either side of me.
"No," I was told at the counter. "Order from the waiter."
I returned to my seat. Suddenly there was no waiter in sight, just another trolley waitress.
"Roasted duck?" she asked.
Sounded good. Looked good. I agreed. Well, the two tiny slices of duck I then selected (with my fingers, as all the serving cutlery was in other bowls of food) looked great. I was now seated so far from the table edge, trying not to entangle my chair legs with other patrons' chairs, that it was ridiculous. And the duck slices were almost all bone and gristle. Ick.
Still no waiter to take a drink order. But now others at our table were returning from the bar with drinks in hand, ordered from the woman who refused to serve me?????? At that point, I'd almost reached frustration point.
The woman next to me said, "I think this duck is off. It tastes off."
That was it. The feeling of claustrophobia overwhelmed me. And, so, I went shopping, with a promise to return in about 45 minutes, to see if I could better judge to what time the meal would go.
You know, it's not as if it was my first yum cha experience. I've been to both good ones and bad ones. Even the really good one (in Melbourne) had its limitations, such as an overwhelming number of dishes made with, ugh, jellyfish. But I have a strong feeling that today's yum cha experience might be my last.
When I arrived home, I toasted myself a nice, safe fruit 'n' spice Old English Muffin. Yum!