By Karry Lu

Betony

Two flags fluttered tensely in the breeze over the Huangpu.  On spring nights you could see them illuminated from below by the lights of the Bund.  Audrey shook the last drops of water from her hands, freshly perfumed and clean from the aloe vera-scented soap they provided in the restrooms, which had their own bay windows looking out onto the waterfront.  A year ago she’d walked along that bank of the river for the first time, unsteadily but deliriously taking in those same lights with their hints of danger and promise.  Then as now, young couples strolled hand-in-hand, whispering to each other, eyes crinkling in delight, their hands clutching ice cream that went untouched and melted.  It’s so clichéd but it’s so beautiful, she had thought to herself then.

Audrey checked her phone and saw a text message from Minghui, her cousin with whom she shared a small one-room flat: please buy some ramen on the way back.  She took a glance out the window and tried to remember what else she had felt that day.  It had been another lifetime ago.

“Hey, I was wondering where you went,” the young man said when she returned to the table.  As she eased back into her chair she noticed that her glass had been refilled while she was gone; a 2003 Olivier Leflaive Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru.  Edward had picked it out from the 15-page wine list after a few cursory glances.  Before they met, when they were exchanging messages on WeChat, he had told her that he was born and raised in Shanghai, worked in “real estate”, and had studied abroad for a year, at the London School of Economics.  “You can’t go wrong with Loire Valley or Burgundies, but 2003 was an incredible vintage especially.  This one’s really nicely oaked and creamy, but not too austere.  You’re going to love it,” he promised.  He grinned, his teeth perfect and white, a sign of good dental work.    

Audrey politely assented, as she hadn’t yet gotten to the point where she could discuss wine intelligently.  Edward, in his slim Calvin Klein jeans, rimless glasses, and pointed leather shoes, didn’t seem much older than her, but he hadn’t butchered the French like she would have.  Betony, a newly opened French-Asian bistro in Pudong that earned rave reviews from Time Out Shanghai, was a world apart from the liangpi noodle stalls and grill stations she often frequented back in her hometown of Hanzhong in Shaanxi province.        

“Oh, you know how it is.  The line for the ladies’ room is always brutal,” she replied.  Audrey tugged at her skirt, a short black satin number that she had purchased at the market in Zhongshan Park.  It wasn’t real Dior, but it would do for now.  She shifted her new LV handbag, which had eaten up her last six paychecks from the nail salon, casually but visibly off to the side of the table.  Edward’s eyes flickered briefly.  Around them there were other couples speaking softly with each other, the light sound of laughter matching the soft melodies from the grand piano near the entrance.  She noted with some satisfaction that her bag wouldn’t look out of place amongst that night’s clientele.

“I don’t know if it’s the lighting, but you look amazing tonight,” he commented.  He continued to look at her over the top of his glasses.

Audrey smiled.  That had been the third time he had complimented her on her appearance.  So far so good, she guessed.

When the waiter arrived with their entrees, Audrey ran through her mental checklist: always cut the meat into two centimeter by two centimeter pieces, knife in your left hand, fork in your right.  A sip of wine for every six bites, and let it linger on your tongue.  Dab the corner of your mouth every so often.  Never make any noises chewing.

“For the lady, your butter-poached lobster with truffled foie gras in a maitake mushroom broth.  And for the gentleman, this is the seared Kobe strip steak with Asian pear and a red miso citrus sauce.  Please enjoy,” the waiter announced in an Eastern European accent as he set their respective dishes in front of them.  He gestured at the empty wine bottle on the table.  “Another bottle, sir?” he asked Edward in a slightly bored tone, as if he could barely stifle a yawn.  Audrey gave him a quick once-over.  He was dressed in a uniform of black pants, white shirt, black silk vest and bow tie, dark brown hair slicked back, cheeks showing the first signs of stubble.  Despite these trappings, he looked remarkably youthful, perhaps her age, or even younger.

Edward nodded without hesitation.  “Absolutely.  Why don’t you surprise me?  The Olivier Leflaive was great, but I’d like to try something with a little more zest,” he said, in well-formed English, with hardly a trace of an accent.

The waiter raised an eyebrow.  “Of course.  Why don’t I check with the sommelier and we’ll see what we can do for you tonight,” he replied dryly, before turning and marching away.

“This looks delicious,” Edward remarked as he began to tear into his steak.  Audrey carefully probed her solitary globe of tail meat, looking for the proper spot to cut into it.  It glistened in its puddle of thin pale broth.  Besides it, a thick beige circle of foie gras rested placidly, its center studded with slivers of black truffle.  The second-most expensive item on the menu, she recalled.  A proper woman must not be too greedy, she reminded herself.  Still, the opportunity to dine at a place like Betony didn’t come around too often.

The appetizers that came before were like nothing she had ever seen.  A sculpted mound of striped bass tartare, garnished with six perfect spheres of pickled shallot-ponzu gelee.  The raw fish felt cold and slippery on her tongue; she wasn’t sure if she liked it by itself, but the addition of the gelee imparted a subtle citrus and sour taste that made the fish more palatable.  Audrey much rather preferred the uni terrine with the champagne-mango emulsion.  Uni, she decided, was something she could get used to.  There really wasn’t anything like its supple, gentle richness in the Chinese repertoire.  Although she’d heard good things about foie gras, of course.  She cut off a slice and had a taste, letting it linger and melt on her tongue.  It was creamy and soft in texture, almost like butter, if butter were made of beef.    

“What do you think?” Edward asked eagerly.  He had already polished off half his steak, the Asian pear garnish largely untouched.  In a single gulp he downed the rest of his glass.

Audrey nodded.  “It’s excellent.  Reminds me of the foie gras dish I had a few weeks ago at Lafayette on Nanjing Xi Lu.  They pair it with this amazing sour cherry sauce,” she added deliberately.  The words of the Shanghai Daily review came easily to her, almost as if she had written it herself.  She was glad she had paged through it before tonight.

“That so?  Do you eat out at all the new Western restaurants?”

“Not all the time,” she replied, sipping on her wine.  “I’m usually very busy, and reservations are so difficult to get, especially at the best places.  But that night I went with a few of my girlfriends for a birthday.”  She cut off a piece of lobster and chewed slowly.  It was soft and delicate, but tasted blander than she expected.  Maybe the flavors of the broth were too subtle for her palette at the moment.  Maybe she needed to pair a different wine with it.

The next bottle arrived quickly, a 2007 Jean-Marc Burgaud Les Vignes de Thulon, a “wonderful Beaujolais with a lovely nose redolent of rose petals, with strong hints of cassis and plum on the finish,” according to their waiter.  Edward nodded approvingly as he inhaled deeply and took a large sip.  Audrey followed his lead.  She wasn’t getting any of the rose petals, but at least she was able to convince herself that the plum was there.  What exactly was cassis?  She made a mental note to find out later.                      

“This was a good choice, I think.  I prefer white wines, usually, but I think this one really works with the food,” stated Audrey matter-of-factly.

“Agreed.  The wine here is brilliant.  Though it’s certainly expensive!” he laughed.

“Don’t tell me you’re going to stick me with the check!” Audrey teased.

“Certainly not.  I want you to enjoy yourself tonight,” Edward replied as he wiped up the last of the jus with a piece of bread, taking care not to get any stains on his black and red Hermes tie.  “In fact, I could see myself having a bit of dessert.  What do you say to something chocolate?” he asked expectantly.

“Of course!  My favorite shop on Huaihai Lu next to all the boutiques has a wonderful selection of European chocolates.  I really like the Godiva truffles,” Audrey replied assuredly.  She passed that little shop every day on her way to the salon, but she never entered once.  Sometimes she dared to glance through the window and sneak a peek of those slim volumes of Belgian and Swiss chocolates wrapped up in silk paper and bows to be whisked away to the city’s most fortunate girlfriends.  Five hundred kuai for the cheapest Lindt, she remembered.  Maybe Edward would take her there one day.

The dessert menu had just three options.  Audrey reread them several times, trying to piece together the unfamiliar descriptors, until she settled on the last item: Valrhona Chocolate Souffle.  Edward began talking about some new troubles with his latest client, but she was thinking about the soufflé.  It sounded French.  It had to be good.  When it arrived their waiter placed it carefully in front of her.  Nestled on a square slab of glass, it was perfectly round, the color of dark mahogany and the size of a ring box.  The first bite was velvety and pliant, almost turning to liquid in her mouth, but so bitter that Audrey frowned and furrowed her brow in confusion.  Edward leaned forward and asked, “How is it?  Do you like it?”

“Oh, it’s fine.  I just didn’t expect how…rich this is,” Audrey replied.

On her first night in Shanghai, Minghui had given her a piece of Hershey’s milk chocolate, two girls huddled together next to a small space heater and talking excitedly about the future, about the home that was rapidly disappearing behind them as they strode out into the world.  Hesitantly, she had another bite.  The sweetness came first, but faded away almost immediately, leaving only the strange bitterness suffusing slowly across her tongue.  Faint notes of coffee and molasses came and went unnoticed.  She could only taste chocolate, a kind like she’d never had before.  It seemed to linger forever, until she felt almost numb.  Across the table Edward devoured his passionfruit and bergamot gelato with mechanical efficiency.  Audrey drained her wine glass in a single gulp, but the sharp, earthy taste only buried itself deeper.

“Delicious.  The best meal I’ve had in quite some time,” he announced after he finished the last scoop.  “I think I might have a nightcap as well.”  Edward gestured to their waiter standing aloofly besides the foyer.  “Can you get me a glass of brandy?  Remy Martin XO, if you have it.”  He turned back to Audrey.  “Anything I can get for you?”

Audrey nodded, her eyes still drawn to her plate, some crumbs still clinging to the smooth polished glass, the reflection of the chandelier dancing on the surface.

“Whatever you’re having,” she replied.

Later that night, long after Audrey and Edward had made their exit, the club downstairs, M1NT, would come to life.  Past the tiny entrance and the scowling bouncers, the dimly-lit corners and velvet couches, there would be British investment bankers and American pharmaceutical execs and the Chinese girls in slinky dresses that loved them, for this night, and all the nights to come, in Bangkok or Jakarta or KL, the young and sweaty raising their vodka-cranberries to the pulsating basslines of Pitbull remixes, time and history and boundaries collapsing into the final few notes before the drop; not ready to be woken up, because it feels like it could last forever.