Sure, it’s an easy, simple thing to do, reviewing restaurants. You stuff your face with food – or you pick at it uninterestedly and snort, though that might give the game away – and then you find a place to sit down, and hammer the computer keyboard until something comes out that’s borderline readable. Job done. Except it’s a little more complex than that.
See, a perfect place – food excellent, service wonderful, environment gosh-darn attractive – only yields two or three sentences. Those places are great to eat at, terrible to write about. But where most restaurants are – with a little unevenness, good in one respect, flawed in another – it becomes a conscience-weighing-down job. How much should I harp on the fact that the dish was not that good, or that the waiter wasn’t really prompt with the ordering? I want to find the good in restaurants, because it’s only fair to do so when one assumes that restaurants are opened in good faith, out of some sense that cooking and serving food would be a good and pleasing (and profitable) thing. I don’t like pouring water on such passions.
That leaves only one sort of place that makes this blog easy to write – the sort where things are relentlessly awful, in almost every respect, and where I can easily rescind the assumption of good faith. So thank you, Afterwit. I’ll be roundly whipped if I step inside ever again, but at least you’re making my weekly quota of posts that much easier to meet.
I didn’t start off with antipathy, though, but nostalgic excitement for the place. I read about Afterwit on a hungry afternoon, and the fact that it was Mexican food was enough to draw me. There simply isn’t enough Mexican in Singapore. Mexican food – and its Americanised Tex-Mex cousin – is, when well done, a whirlwind of flavours and colours and aromas and heat. Everything from pork pibil, with the vermillion hue of annatto, to mole, dark and sombre to the eye, bursting and exuberant to the nose, is flamboyant and substantial. I used to have burritos almost daily, a riot of colour – red tomatoes, green lettuce, white rice, black beans. And that’s not even counting the filling.
The interior of the place, when I get to it, also looks promising – Afterwit’s done some work to track down all that Mexican paraphernalia. As they title themselves a taqueria, there’s a map of Mexico showing the regional variations in tacos; the restroom has a map of the Mexico City Metro. The drink menu is laid out nicely in the form of a periodic table, but the food menu has the first sign of trouble. For tacos, burritos and brunches alike, variations on the same few ingredients appear, almost cafeteria style – there’s a mushroom option, a beef option and a duck option. Maybe I should have caught it earlier. But then most taquerias are like that anyway, the same meats or vegetables forming the core around which a quick meal is built, and it’s not a problem – so long as the meal is built properly. And how do you know it’s built properly? You take a look at it, of course.
In places like Chipotle, Tortilla or Benito’s Hat (all in London or the States, sadly), the burritos are made right in front of you from your own choices. Afterwit doesn’t do that, which is fine – until I hear the beeping and whirring from the counter. Somewhere, a microwave has just been stirred and is given its unspeakable orders – and yet, even with the arcane powers of the buzzing box, it still takes upwards of 10 minutes for the… thing to get to me.
I will not call it a burrito because it doesn’t deserve the name. A burrito is named after the big, swollen cloth packs loaded on donkeys (burro in Spanish) used as pack animals; this is a mere shadow of the idea. Instead of the promised duck, a lump of over-scrambled egg takes up half the space. Held up, the package drips, but it’s not meat juices but maple syrup. Maple syrup could, theoretically, go very well with smoked duck. But there’s hardly any of it here, and when I do discover el pato, it’s almost certainly caterer manufactured stuff, the slices of equal thickness, ‘smoked’ to precise mediocrity.
What the maple syrup does do is soak the tortilla into limpness, and make everything else incongruous or absent. Rice with sparse beans taste of maple syrup. Mozzarella is nicely stringy at first, but maple syrup. Onions, still raw from a brief nuking, are unpleasant and shrill. The menu promises guacamole, but I only find it after a review of the photographic evidence – which is almost a mercy, because I don’t want to know what guacamole tastes like when drenched with maple syrup. Could Afterwit have realised that and held off? I don’t know – it seems a strange realisation to have without realising that the whole ‘burrito’ should be promptly quarantined and buried in a lead-lined casket. Even the salsa that comes on the side is factory stuff – adequate, but come on, it’s salsa. It’s not even difficult.
Nor is the nightmare over. Having never had a sweet enchilada, I had fantasies about tortillas wrapped around caramelised banana, slathered with the sauce that the menu promises (peanut butter and Nutella). Instead I get nothing for 30 minutes, in a near empty restaurant, with the microwave beeping and booping sporadically, before this is deposited on my table.
I’ll be positive, I’ll try – the bananas are nicely caramelised. And that’s it. I can’t say anything about peanut butter and Nutella, because it’s peanut butter, and also because there isn’t any discernible Nutella. Oreos are Oreos. And the tortillas in this sordid sandwich are half cooked, with the texture of parchment and a floury, papery taste. What they have been doing with it for half an hour eludes me, given it takes all of 30 seconds to warm a tortilla properly, which is why it’s a street food classic.
Then again, these awful missteps make sense when one considers the crew, who are not so much inattentive as deliberately absent. The design of the cafe doesn’t help, because a high partition blocks the counter from the dining area completely; but there’s no excuse to hide in the counter all the time. A plate pushed aside, with the cutlery placed together, takes 10 minutes to be noticed and cleared. The dessert might have taken so long because they might have clean forgotten about it until I prompted a server 15 minutes in. And this is with a near empty cafe. When I leave, one server is staring at his Macbook, the other standing behind the counter, neither venturing so much as a goodbye.
Oblivious – that’s the word for the spirit that runs through the whole operation. Harsh, I know – but Afterwit seems completely unwilling to make any effort besides what’s needed to look good and shiny. Mind you, it’s not a small amount of effort. There’s half a Michaelangelo mural on a wall. There’s the posters and paraphernalia, and shiny coffee machines for sale. In looks they have invested.
And in all else they are slovenly. There’s bacon bits strewn on the table where I sit, uncleaned for heavens knows how long. They’ve chosen a soundtrack dominated by bossa nova for the background music, seemingly oblivious to bossa nova being neither Mexican, nor even Spanish. That in itself would not have been a glaring flaw were it not for all the other glaring flaws. Sadly, because I love bossa nova, it becomes the only thing I cling to during the meal; at least there’s Astrud Gilberto to soothe me into eating the ‘burrito’. In the postmortem, visiting their Facebook, I see they’ve proudly declared that ‘Afterwit is borne [sic] as an afterthought’. You don’t say.
Don’t inflict Afterwit on yourselves, my dear, beloved readers. Steer clear. Roll your own burritos, chop your own tomatoes for salsa, if you have to. It’ll turn out a lot better than if you went to Afterwit, because you clearly wanted to make the food, which is more than can be said for them.
778 North Bridge Road
Hours: Daily, 10 AM – 9 PM