So the restaurant that most reminded us of NOMA Mexico for some reason was this place we went in 2016 that we had to swing by on our Philippines trip. Besides all the amazing fruits we had in the Davao, we loved the homage to the hardcore ethnic regions represented in such a beautiful way at this restaurant. The concept was also similar, with a European chef (Spaniard actually) going to an impoverished country, and displaying to the world the unique and wonderful hidden ethnic ingredients that many in the country do not laud as anything special, and putting those ingredients on a pedestal for the world to see and admire. Beautiful ambiance, as well as wait staff and somm, very passionate about the food, the story, and the experience. Highly recommended, undervalued in our opinion. I would go before it starts climbing the list and becomes more difficult to get a reservation. I usually don’t include a link to a restaurant, but this deserves a plug. The videos are breathtaking, cinematography could be a documentary. Make sure to check out the video where they cook fish inside bamboo sticks, fascinating.
You start with an amazing Philippine mojito that is made from Don Pap Rum from the Philippines, with a Kalamansi liquor, which is this amazing aromatic hybrid lime native to the Philippines that will forever represent one of my favorite things in the country besides pork sisig and Durian. We enjoyed the cocktails on the rooftop deck with a view of the Manila skyline listening to Massive Attack prior to entering the dining room. Make sure to leave for the restaurant at double the time you expect given the gridlock in Manila, which is the worse in the world. That’s saying a lot coming from someone who lives in LA and sits in rush hour every day.
The iconic pan de sal to start our meal. With coconut butter and rock salt that we ground onto the butter. I’ve attached an Eater article on this staple rather than wax poetic about it.
Here is the bare bones menu, which I will fill in the details for shortly. Not bad at all for $100/person, like going in a time machine back to the US prices for Michelin dining in 2005.
Given Spain’s colonial influence, it was not surprising that we started off with a nice Cava. It’s only a $12 bottle, but maybe not as easy to come by in the US, nice Tempranillo, and Rioja to follow down the road.
Here was our starting trio of amuse bouche dishes. This was the part of the menu titled Binondo, which I think is the Chinatown region of the Philippines, but I did not see the Chinese influence here. I think it was more the region where the shrimp and scad are from. It had scad fish on a rice cracker, with one of the most amazing combinations of a foie gras stuffed plantain, then a shrimp ceviche on a little tostada.
Then another palate cleanser of an item called Lutong Bahay, which means “Home-cooked” in Tagalog. This was a winter melon cured in vinegar with crushed rice cracker on top, served with a cup of black rice congee. Very unique pickled dish with local influence. The congee tasted almost like a red bean paste in a soup, refried bean texture, but more gelatinous with the congee. I believe this may have been the Chinese reference, which has influenced Philippine cuisine to an extent.
This was an instant favorite. The Escabeche with lobster, with fresh mangos in a sauce of fermented mangos. It was nicely sour, with the barnyard funk from the fermentation, which was nicely paired with a dry Spanish white. Again, another $12 bottle from a workhorse Spanish grape, but nice to get something that we don’t have much access to in the states, it was pretty high scoring, but meant more as background music for the main course, to cut the acid from the mango, with a dry mineral contrast.
Then came the dish titled 5.6. I guess this represents the ecological zone in the Philippines where the oyster came from in Luzon.
This was amazing for the pairing of the Petit Fume 2014 Pouilly Fume and the sauce with kalamansi lime again. The sauce also had coconut and ilocos vinegar, which is native sugar cane vinegar. I guess Bicol Express is like the standard coconut milk and chile combo sauce such as seen in Thai food with green curry massaman, etc. The vinegar is infused with chile, which made it so damn good. I love discovering shit like this. Check out the website describing the ilocos vinegar.
So this is a Sauv blanc Petit Fume, and typical of this variety, the nose was super floral and fruity, but also dry and mineral on the palate, perfectly paired with the spice of the oyster. Also bridged us to the next seafood dish of the Mantis shrimp.
Usually, mantis shrimp is very grainy in texture, but it seems as though this was not overly steamed, but rather quickly grilled, given the tenderness. It was paired with radish that was noodle cut. The sauce was lemongrass, and there was also some ‘tocino iberico’. Ya, why wouldn’t you pair mantis shrimp with acorn fed black Iberico pigs? If you look closely you will see the raw red pork bacon under the shrimp, and it gets cooked in the hot lemongrass that is poured over it, like a shabu dish almost. Very creative integration of Spanish influenced ingredients, but with an Asian flair, noodle cut radish, shabu style with lemongrass. So far the seafood portion of the meal was par excellence.
This dish was called 500, referring to a recipe that has lasted in the Philippeans for 500 years, brought by the Portuguese. The Red Emperor snapper is a beast of a fish.
The sauce was made from fermented lemon, cinnamon, and saffron. It had a roasted almond and raisin sauce on the side with a roasted onion cap that looked like one of that burnt mini-pepperonis. In the picture, it looks like the almond butter paste you might find at whole foods. Very Portuguese in the ingredient and flavor profile. It worked very well, the snapper had a nicely fatty/spongy like texture, and it was perfectly seared outside yet with sushi grade rawness inside.
The 2006 Rioja was nice. Not as much body as I was expecting for a 2006, but you could taste the age as the earthiness was peeking out. High scoringing wine, only $30/bottle. Signaled the start of the meat portion.
Although pigeon is not one of my wife’s favorites, it was cooked right, not too dry nor overcooked. This was actually a native dove to the Philippines called Bato Bato.
I think the addition of the okra seeds was spectacular. Mustard greens gave it a nice bitter contrast to the sweet and savory sauce of fermented lychee, with fresh lychee chunks next to it. Again, the theme of fresh plus fermented with the same item came through. I love okra, as I love most things slimy, uni, etc, so this was right down my alley. Reminded me of an Armenian dish I grew up with called Bamya.
Now for the superstar of Philippines cuisine, Lechon. More specifically baby Lechon, served in bamboo. Spectacular presentation of the Lechon, which reminded me of the NOMA Mexico dish. Never had it in a lollypop delivery, gave maximum surface area saturation of all the different layers hitting your mouth at once, the crispy skin, the dissolving fat underneath, and the sweet and tender meat at the core.
Inside the bamboo cup was the reduction of the Alibangbang leaf. “And you may ask yourself, what is Alibangbang…”
a small, yellow-winged butterfly
a woman who’s a flirt (figurative usage from the old days)
a tree with the scientific name Bauhinia malabarica — its name comes from the fact that its leaves are butterfly shaped.
This was a stellar combination of subtle flavors, sour contrasts, and paired nicely with the super tannic Chianti.
Then came a dish that looked like red meat but was actually tuna cheek. It was served on top of some quinoa-like grain that was amazing, at the same time an exercise in sustainability and a return to the indigenous grains on the island rather than dependence on American wheat.
This Kalingag bark was from a tree in Davao that is being decimated in the region. It had an amazing anise/clove like quality to it. The All Spice smell from that jar, I still remember when it hit me. I really enjoyed the display of local plants/grains/bark, felt like I was visiting the Medicine man.
Next up was the Sour Rib dish. It was a piece of nicely marbled wagyu, marinated and crusted in Soya-mansi marinade (kalamansi mixed with soy sauce), with garlic casein. I don’t know what the hell garlic casein is, but when I googled it, I saw it was put on top of coal at a dish at Mugaritz, so it is some sort molecular witchery. It is that little beige blob by the meat kind of tasted like when you cook a garlic clove and you open the skin and it’s like mashed garlic inside. The nasturtium leaf with the red onion really went nicely, almost tasted like the Peruvian dish called Lomo Saltado. Though the meat was kind of rough for wagyu, the marinade was out of this world, we wanted to lick the plate.
We finished the Chianti with this before the sweet white wine came for the dessert round. It started gradual and got increasingly more intense in the flavor profile as each subsequent dessert socked us in the face.
This was the Suman, mangos, vanilla and rice cracker, tasted like Cinnamon toast crunch. So nice, nothing like Philippine mango, so soft, real vanilla, you can taste the chunks of ground vanilla bean in the ice cream. Actually, the combination tasted kind of like durian without the fermented cheese smell.
More food porn, the pop shot.
Then Pandan Eclair. Pandan is an aromatic leaf that is used similarly to a banana leaf to impart flavor onto the item it wraps, but it is used in sticky rice desserts very commonly. In the preparation here it was turned into a mouse with pureed sweet mung beans. You can see the crepe-thin eclair skin, which I think was actually lumpia wrapper, entombing the cream filling the sweet mung beans and pandan mouse, like the red bean bao in Chinese desserts. The cacao nibs on the Latik ice cream provided a nice bitter contrast. Latik is the solid that form when making coconut cream, basically coconut curd. I love all things dairy that are unorthodox, like Mexican ‘nata’, or Lebanese ashta, which is basically clotted cream. To discover that there is a coconut version of this blew my mind. En masse, I had this amazing split in each bite of ‘sweet and salt’, it would go back and forth like this as you swirled the ingredients in your mouth.
I got too excited here and ended up taking a bite before I remembered to snap a picture. This was insanely good. Again, I was taken back to NOMA Mexico with this cacao bean. It’s like Rene borrowed a page from this restaurants playbook. The similarities were uncanny, the Lechon, coconut fat, fermented tropical fruits, medicinal plants. The ingredients listed on this dessert were Rum, Cacao, and Cerveza Negra. Basically, Cacao and Don Papa rum infused glutinous rice, with ice cream made out of black lager like beer, like Negro Modelo. The caramel, port, choco essence of this deeply satisfied. It was a pure choco-caramel orgy. The coconut fat was used decoratively here to create the streaks outside of what appears to be a cacao nut. I felt like Gloppy below eating this.
Finally, one of my favorite desserts, it was so savory. I remember having a sweet corn ice cream similar to this at Tru in Chicago.
Sweet corn meal tamale, so tender, warm, in the corn husk, damn. Served Din Tai style.
Everything good in life, burnt corn, sweet corn ice cream, the smell of roasted corn husk with corn meal puree inside. Just imagine mixing all those scents, ideas and textures in your mouth. Total comfort food right here.
The final play on food was actually a children’s game turned into a dessert bonanza. This is called Sungka. It’s some sort of checkers-like game where you move beads into the holes, and as you jump over your opponent you steal a bead, etc.
The ambiance of the place itself was very nice. I liked the outdoor patio area, the dining room was small but nicely apportioned, art work was amazing, Carrera marble counter and textured wall tiles made us feel like we were in our home.
This monkey, pig, horse thing milking itself freaked me out and gave me nightmares afterward, but I would love to have this at my house.