Yesterday, after a workout long and hard enough to cleanse the sins of Saturday night (homemade cheese enchiladas and beer in front of the TV) from our bodies, Dave and I headed to our favorite restaurant in KL, braced for a scolding. When we started eating at Sek Yuen last year the staff held us at arm's length, but over time they softened. Nowadays we're gently berated if we let more than two weeks go by without a visit. We hadn't been since July.
On our way in we paused, as usual, to admire the wood-fired kitchen and bask in the delicious smells wafting from its woks and steamers. After choosing a photo-optimal table we looked around for our usual waiter, the bespectacled of the three owner brothers Fang. One of the older female staff appeared with plates, forks and spoons, and saucers of soy sauce and pickled green chilies.
'What you want to eat?' she asked. Then added 'Spectacles passed away.'
'What?!' we gasped. Spectacles' brother, the tall, lanky one, ambled over. Heart attack and kidney trouble, he told us, it was very sudden. He said it matter-of-factly, but with tears in his eyes.
'Rice or noodles?'
That's how Spectacles, the first of Sek Yuen's staff to warm to our presence in the early days, greeted us. Like his brothers he wore a uniform of shorts, thin white t-shirt, and slip-on sandals. His gnarled legs were roped with varicose veins, his glasses Coke-bottle thick, his head halfway to hairless. Big ears framed a lopsided smile.
'Rice,' we usually answered, and then got down to ordering. Sek Yuen has no written menu, but experience had proven that in Spectacles' hands we were golden. Once we'd shown ourselves to be able eaters he delighted in introducing as-yet-untried-by-us specialties: star anise-fragrant red-cooked beef stomach and tendons, gelatinous stuffed pig trotters, old-fashioned chicken aspic doused with mustard-sesame sauce, an exquisite fish head soup made with four kinds of mushrooms, dried orange peel, and Chinese medicinal herbs.
'Pork?' he queried on our last visit. 'Fried pork, but different. Not like you have before.' It was five-spiced, greaseless, impossibly piggy.
Afterwards, even though the all-but-licked-clean platters on our table said it all, he asked, 'How's your lunch?' '
'Delicious, as always,' we replied, as always. He nodded, smiling at the floor. As always.
We never called him by name. And for ten months he didn't know our names, not until we gave him a copy of the May issue of Time Out Kuala Lumpur which included our ode, in words and photos, to Sek Yuen. For almost a year Dave had been stalking the restaurant's dining room and kitchen. Spectacles and the others were incredulous, then increasingly bemused as he set up lights and tripod, stood on chairs, interrupted customers in the middle of a meal to ask to take photos, and requested that finished dishes be held back so he could get a shot.
'Why don't you show us some pictures,' they asked. Now, here they were. And Spectacles was, in his understated way, touched.
'Sanks,' he said, looking not-quite-directly at us. Before we left he shook Dave's hand and grabbed his shoulder. 'Sanks,' he said again. 'Sanks a lot.'
Our food arrived: fried rice, perfect in its wok-charred simplicity; big chunks of lightly battered fish in piquant sweet and sour sauce; incredibly flavorful bone-in chicken cloaked with soy sauce and black beans; and crisp-tender baby gailan, the dish we never needed to speak because Spectacles knew it was a standing order.
We ate slowly, methodically, in near silence, the desk where Spectacles calculated accounts on an abacus monopolizing our side vision. Our appetites, raging on the ride over, had ebbed. But we finished everything.
Spectacles would have expected nothing less.