(By the way, if you are planning to go to one of the future shows, and are worried about spoiling the surprise, the organisers have assured me the dinners will be getting progressively more experiential and themed. They have even posted a video of some scenes from the evening. Read on at your own risk, though.)
Setting the StageAs we headed up the stairs, featureless shadowy figures gyrated around us, caressing the banisters. We were taken to our table, which was within touching distance of a chair (or rather, a chair-shaped set of metal bars) and a hoop hanging from the ceiling. They weren't the only unusual items in he room though: on our table lay paintbrushes and a little pair of scissors.
While we waited for things to kick off, we grabbed some drinks from the bar. There was a variety of wines and beers available, but if you were after a cocktail, there was only one on offer on this particular night - a negroni on tap. Everything else would take too long to make, I guess.
|Equipment in the middle of the dining area.|
We were worried we wouldn't feel like eating so much earlier than our usual dinner time, but it was gettting to a more reasonable 5:30pm by the time the starters came out. These rose-shaped fried wonton skins were accompanied by a traffic light set of "paint" which seemed to be made from beetroot, pumpkin and avocado respectively, which explained the reason for the paintbrushes. It was hard to see their colours in the dim blue light though.
|Wonton rose starter, with edible paint.|
WaterThe first element began with hot water being poured into tall glass candleholders at each table. A tea ball floated into sight, then the accompanying aerial circus performance began, making use of the hanging chair. Towards the end of the energetic display, the artist tipped a canister of ice over herself, scattering bits all over the floor. It was particularly dramatic because of how close she was to the diners.
|Tea on the table, ice on the floor.|
By the time the act was over, our tea ball had blossomed into a floral chain. Waitstaff brought out wine glasses containing shrimps and a concentrated savoury soup, and told us to spoon some jasmine tea into the vessel. Not only was it novel and hands-on, but the dish was flavourful, and you could adjust its saltiness to your liking!
|Shrimps in a glass.|
Next up was the performance for earth, which took place on the little stage at the front of the room. A green being with horns and not much clothing showed off his strength and flexibility while balancing on a section of tree trunk.
|Strength and flexibility on display.|
At the same time, little pots with spinach, lettuce and parsley (the latter actually growing in soil) were put on our table. Someone poured in what was presumably liquid nitrogen, and suddenly the tabletop was covered with a swirling mist.
|Fresh vegetables at the table, and swirling mist.|
After the display, we were given a cucumber salad, and told we could add to it by cutting greenery from the pot plants (ah, so that's what the scissors were for). The lettuce was a bit frozen at the bottom due to the liquid nitrogen, but the other two vegetables felt very fresh. We would have preferred the cucumber with just the fried shallots, soy sauce and chilli oil; although we didn't care for the coconut cream so much, it was useful for coating the leaves we threw into the dish.
|Cucumber with chilli oil, fried shallots and coconut cream.|
Yes, there was fire on stage. The lady with the burning torch did not flinch when she ran it up her arms, leaving a trail of little flames, but I got a bit worried for her when the fire neither extinguished in her mouth, nor when she tried to blow it out a couple of times.
|Playing with fire.|
I was expecting the main meal to be something cooked over a burner at the table, like those Chinese hotpot dishes, but I was wrong. What we got was a crispy duck leg on a bed of spring onion slices, served with the standard Peking duck accompaniments of steamed pancakes, cucumber and carrot sticks, and a sweet sauce. It was the least theatrical course of the evening, but it was also the most substantial and delicious.
|Beautiful duck dish.|
The vegetarian alternative of eggplant came with the same bottle of sauce, which it didn't need because it already had plenty of the stuff stirred through it.
|Vegetarian eggplant alternative.|
To the sound of howling wind, a waif-like creature now performed on the hoop hanging from the ceiling. She was very flexible, at one point arching her back so much that her foot touched her head. She was also incredibly strong, and was able to dangle from the apparatus without holding on, just balancing by the back of her neck!
|Hanging by her neck.|
In keeping with the theme, dessert came out with balloons hovering overhead. Staff then popped the balloons, which scattered rose petals over the table.
|Dessert came with a balloon.|
The roasted banana and caramel flavours of our final course were delightful, but as before, the coconut cream in the pudding lacked depth and we could have happily done without it.
It was fortunate that we ended up in the earlier sitting, as the next group had been waiting for over half an hour by the time we left, and there were still loiterers in the restaurant, as well as rose petals that needed to be cleaned up off the floor.
|Diners waiting for the 7pm sitting.|
All in all, we had a great evening, with good food and some outstanding entertainment. Other than the overuse of plain coconut cream (and the strange lack of dumplings), we were impressed by the creativity and quality of the dishes. I can't imagine what the next House of Varieties dinners will be like to top this. Kudos to all the organisers, performers, chefs and helpers involved!