Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Girls' Night Out, French-style

Sommelier Selection’s France Wine Festival is probably one of the most highly-anticipated foodie events in the metro. This year’s month-long event is composed of wine dinners at the restaurants of four of Manila’s most popular and distinguished chefs: Chef Marc Aubry’s Je Suis Gourmand; Chef Colin McKay’s Sala; Chef Cyrille Soenen’s Cicou; and Chef Alain Raye’s La Regalade. Being a perennial Marc Aubry fan, I instinctually decided that I shall attend the dinner at Gourmand. Although, after a lengthy deliberation with my food posse for that event- which consisted of Bluefrog and Pannacotta Princess (PP)- we have decided that it would be fun to try the newest “kid” on the block, Cicou.

Chef Cyrille Soenen is not exactly a newbie in Manila’s dining scene. Before arriving in Manila to become the chef at Hotel Inter-continental’s Prince Albert Rotisserie, he was chef de partie at the Ritz Hotel, Duc d’Enghien, Le Drouant and Le Grand Hotel Inter-continental- all of which are Michelin-starred establishments. Later on, he became executive chef at Intercon Manila, as well as in Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn Galleria. After several years of working in Manila’s top hotels, Chef Cyrille finally decided to open his own restaurant called Cicou (pronounced see-SOO) at Makati’s newest boutique hotel, Hotel Celeste, on Arnaiz Ave.

As PP and I arrived at the venue that evening, we were informed at the front desk that we had to pay immediately in either cash or check. Since I was planning on charging my dinner to my credit card, I did not have enough cash on me, so we I had to take a short trip to the nearest ATM. When we returned to the restaurant, Bluefrog has arrived and was chatting with Sommelier Selection Big Boss Jerome Philippon at the lobby. After some photos, we were immediately whisked away to our table for three.

The dining room was small but not confining, thanks to the use of floor-to-ceiling glass panels instead of walls as enclosure. The seats were comfortable and plush, the ceilings curving gracefully like waves. It got pretty loud in there, so they should do something about their acoustics so diners would not have to scream at each other. But then again, it was a wine dinner, which could be the reason why the decibel-level was higher than usual.

While waiting for our amuse bouche, we were poured glasses of Drappier Champagne, Carte d’Or (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier). The first glass we had was not chilled, and we got the impression that they were being stingy with the bubbly. Bluefrog immediately reports this to Jerome, and he graciously pours our second servings of Champagne, this bottle properly chilled and the pour was of a more appropriate amount. “It’s nice to see you girls outside of Gourmand”, Jerome says. I defensively reply, “Well, you know we’re VERY loyal to Marc”. “But of course,” Jerome nods knowingly, and then adds, “It’s nice to try something different once in a while”.

Finally settled in, we sipped the luscious bubbly with an Amuse Bouche of Salmon Mousse and Lentils. The mousse was silky and delicate- not too thick- with just a nuance of fish. The lentils were a good contrast, with its earthy flavour. The champagne went wonderfully with this dish, with its balanced acidity, its slight vanilla flavours and hazelnut finish.

With the Duck Liver cooked in Madiran Red Wine, Crispy Pain de Campagne, Ginger Bread and Marmalade of Pomelos, we were poured our first white Burgundy for the night, the Vire Clesse, Domaine de la Bongran, Cuvee Tradition EJT 2003 (Chardonnay). This lovely wine is proof that a well-balanced Chardonnay can be refined and dainty, unlike its heftier Californian counterparts. The Vire Clesse has a bold golden color with a “great nose of fruits” and is syrupy and full in the mouth, excellently-paired, I believe, with the Foie Gras appetizer- with the sweetness of the ginger bread, the jammy-ness of the marmalade, and the richness that you can only get with Foie Gras.

The next course was the Prawn Bisque and Sea Urchin Flan, my personal favourite for that evening. This soup was rich, not in texture, but in flavour- with the dense prawn aroma and the smoothness of the flan. I am not a big soup fan, but I could have this Prawn Bisque everyday for the rest of my life. I hope the server did not “go to town” on it with the mechanical peppermill, though.

This was followed directly by the second white Burgundy, a Pouilly Fuisse from Domaine Robert-Denogent, Le Reisses 2005 (Chardonnay), where Jerome got to brilliantly portray the importance of terroir (“The direct environment of the vineyard, the land and its chemical composition, as well as the climate...”). Although both whites were from the same region (Burgundy) and the same grape variety (Chardonnay), the two wines could not be more different in character.

The Pouilly Fuisse was much lighter than the Vire Clesse, but was surely not lacking in complexity. It had a floral and citrusy nose and minerally palate, which I enjoyed very much. I love whites with pronounced “minerality” (is that a word?) and this particular wine illustrates it with much aplomb. The wine was paired with a Roasted Sea Bass, Red Wine and Lime Sauce, Oysters and Green Cabbage Ravioli, which I was not a big fan of. No particular reason- it was just, for lack of a better adjective, blah. This is surely one situation where the dish was incredibly overshadowed by the wine.

The girls and I were most excited about the next dish, which was a Veal Rack cooked in Cocotte, Gratin of Pasta, Duck Liver and Truffle, Wild Mushroom. The veal was perfectly medium-rare, so tender that we could have swallowed it whole without much chewing. The red wine accompanying the dish- Chinon, Domaine Bernard Baudry, Croix Boissee 2000- was perfectly-paired. On my first sip I thought that the firm tannins might overpower the delicate meat. But, as I took another sip with a bite of the veal, the wine became a bit more rounded, releasing wonderful red berries in the palate with just the slightest oaky-ness. Indeed, “a great food wine”, as the wine notes promised.

The cheese course (Shavings of Goat Cheese, Pear Cooked in Sweet Wine and Mint Salad) was paired with a Beaujolais-Villages, Domaine Lapalu, Le Rang du Merle 2006 (Gamay). This was Bluefrog’s favourite. I myself was pleasantly surprised by this wine, having been more familiar with “festival-quality” Beaujolais Nouveau. The usual Gamay characteristics of strawberries and jam are wonderfully enhanced with deeper, darker aromas of blackcurrants and plum. Again, a great example of how expert winemaking can bring out the complexity in any wine. After this, there is no way in hell you could make me drink Beaujolais Nouveau again.

Before we had our dessert, we were distracted by a bit of light-hearted chatter with some of the other diners while having a smoke outside. This is what I love about wine dinners- even the shyest of introverts eventually come out of their shells and participate in discourse that they would normally not have with strangers. After finding out about my upcoming nuptials, I got some shocking love advice from some of the more “matured” diners. Another European couple even said that my fiancĂ© would have to receive their “seal of approval” before I marry him. I’m pretty sure though that if I walk past them in the future, they would have no idea who I am.

When we walked back into the dining room, we were given a treat: a tour of Cicou’s kitchen. I honestly cannot remember what we were laughing about, but the pictures show us having a good laugh with Chef Cyrille as we poked around his spotless kitchen. Everything was nothing less than state-of-the-art, that much I could I remember.

Finally, we had to end our dinner with dessert- Chocolate Milles Feuilles, Ganache and Mousse. This was paired with an equally decadent dessert wine, Monbazillac, Domaine du Petit Paris, Cuvee Grains Nobles 1998 (Sauvignon, Muscadelle, Semillon). The wine was rich and syrupy, like liquid pie. Enough said. The dessert also hit the spot with this chocoholic- the mousse was what really got me. Rich and flavourful, it was simply delicious.

The food for that evening was nothing short of exceptional, despite the fact that- in typical haute cuisine fashion- the servings were minuscule. More than tipsy from all that superb wine, Pannacotta Princess and I were kidding about finding the nearest Dencio’s and devouring some Crispy Pata and rice. I understand that it is all about the flavour, but, come on... Maybe they can make their portions a teensy bit bigger next time. As for the wine, we expected nothing but the best, and we were happy that that was what we got. A diner from the night before complained that some of the wines were not served in their proper temperature, and it seems that Cicou’s and Jerome’s staff made the proper adjustments.

It was a wonderful dinner with the girls, despite a little “Matt drama” (Totally my fault... I was having too much fun and was not answering his calls. He got worried.), but that’s another story. Congratulations to Jerome for a successful event, and to Chef Cyrille for finally opening his own temple of gastronomy. Cicou is truly a welcome addition to Manila’s dining scene- something that the metro’s foodies should be really excited about.

Cicou at Hotel Celeste
Arnaiz cor. Makati Aves.
(outside San Lorenzo Village main gate)
Makati City

Sommelier Selection
Unit 203 Jannov Plaza
Pasong Tamo Ext.
Makati City
tel. no. (632) 8404211

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

It's Sunday, I'm in Love

My family loves to eat.

We sometimes come up with the silliest excuses (our Shih-tzu’s birthday, end of Ramadan (we’re Catholic), the moon is orange, and so on) for eating out, just to rationalize our gluttonous exploits. Recently though, as a result of our expanding waist-lines and my parents’ growing assortment of maintenance drugs, we have decided to limit our binging (with the exception of birthdays and appropriate holidays) to Sunday dinners.

Earlier during the week, I received a text message from Caoboy offering his mouth-watering Australian Rib-eye steaks and Lamb Chops. I have ordered 2 kilos of the former a few months before so I know- at the remarkably reasonable price of P575/kilo- that I could not possibly go wrong with his steaks. So, I text him back to order two kilos once again, knowing that he will be delivering them promptly Saturday afternoon. I then warn everyone in the household, “We’re having steak on Sunday!”

The last time we had some Caoboy rib-eyes, we served them with grilled prawns and double-baked potatoes. This time, though, we opted for a Japanese dinner. Since I was oh so generous in providing the steaks, I delegated the task of cooking to my sisters, Queenbee and Foxychef. Queenbee offered to prepare Gyoza (Japanese dumplings, steamed then fried- both the original pork version and a few beef ones for Matt), while Foxychef cooked pretty much everything else.

We started with some fresh Tuna and Salmon Sashimi that I scored from Hatchin (the delightful Japanese grocery in Metropolitan Ave., Makati). They are sold in small slabs (approximately 200 grams each), then you can ask their butcher to slice them up for you if you want. I personally prefer having them slice the raw fish for me, since I do not have the proper tools and expertise needed to come up with sleek, clean-cut fillets. The sashimi was served with steaming bowls of Miso Soup.

Also purchased from Hatchin are some Kisu Furai (panko-crusted fish fillet) and Tuna Flakes Katsu that were simply deep-fried at home. To accompany the fried fish dishes, I prepared a simple remoulade made out of Japanese mayonnaise, white onions, green onions, chives and a little lemon juice. The Kisu was quite good with the citrus-y dressing, but I do not think we will be buying the Tuna Katsu again, which was pretty bland and dry.

The steaks were cooked Teppanyaki-style. Obviously, we do not have a Teppan griddle to cook on, so we had to make do with this table-top Yakiniku grill. The rib-eyes was seared whole, and then sliced again into small cubes before it is cooked a final time. The simply-seasoned chunks are then topped by a drizzle of the garlic-infused oil that Foxychef prepared beforehand. Everyone raved about how tender and flavourful the beef was. Even the smaller cubes of meat that were overcooked remained succulent and juicy.

For our side dish, we had Japanese fried rice cooked in the style of the old Takayama Restaurant in Wilson St., one of our family’s favourite restos back when it was still open. Countless times we sat in front of one of their Teppan tables with our Titas and cousins, salivating over the mountain of fried rice expertly prepared by their chefs. After watching their table-top theatrics for several years, we were able to commit to memory the right amount of butter, garlic, onions, soy sauce, etc. to replicate that dish we fell in love with as kids.

Wine and Japanese food is a tricky thing for me. With the sweetness of the sauces, strong garlic and onion flavours... it’s hard to come up with a traditional (stews/steaks= zinfandel or shiraz; or fresh oysters= champagne or sauvignon blanc) combination that is tried and tested. So I decided to just go with something I really enjoy drinking and would be great with the humid weather that evening.

Ever since I tried Torres’ Vina Esmeralda- a dry, slightly fruity white wine- at the CACS wine seminar a couple of years ago, I was smitten. I loved the floral and fruit-laden nose, and how- despite its obvious tropical flavours- it remains crisp and bright on the palate. Anyway, I love drinking that wine, so I went with it. And although it was not a pairing made in heaven, drinking a wine I love just made dinner more enjoyable nevertheless. Next time, though, I think I’ll just buy a few cans of Kirin or Asahi.

I have to note that Queenbee’s Gyoza did not exactly turn out the way she wanted, but it was still quite tasty. She got the wrong wrapper, so she just fried it, pinsek frito-style. Instead of the usual sweet-chili sauce that accompanies pinsek frito, we still used the traditional vinegar and soy dipping sauce for Gyoza. Don’t worry, Queenbee, everyone has their off-nights, but we still loved your Crispy Japanese Pockets.

We were so stuffed after that dinner that some of us took a stroll up and down our street to digest; Matt, the resident “garbage compactor”, just sat slumped on a chair in the front yard as he smoked his cigs- signs, of course, that it was another great Sunday dinner.

Cao Ocampo's Australian Rib-eyes and Lambchops
mobile #09178387399

Hatchin Japanese Grocery
Metropolitan Ave.
Makati City
Tel. # (632) 8905038

Friday, October 17, 2008

Meatballs and Opera

Weary of my usual Italian food haunts, I rack my brain for restaurants that I have not visited for quite a while. I suddenly remember Caffe Puccini. Craving for something rich and hearty after a fun-filled night, Matt and I decide to drop by one afternoon.

Named after the famous Italian composer of the world's most romantic operas, Caffe Puccini really does feel like a small trattoria with its cute Italian memorabilia on the walls, wood paneling, wide display of deli products, and the roaring fire of the brick oven behind the counter. Very cozy and warm indeed.

For some reason, I have been craving for Italian Meatballs and so I order their version with spaghetti. It was a really good dish, with all the components working well together: the sauce was simple yet flavorful and authentic, and the meatballs were moist. Truly Italian comfort food. I remember liking their pastas a lot, and they have quite a selection, too.

We also had a pizza, which was half Quattro Formaggi and half of the Pizza with beef, mushrooms, truffle oil and egg. It was good, not blow-my-mind good, but I would not mind having their pizzas again. The crust was perfectly done, but the toppings of the Pizza-Flavor-I-Forget was just too all-over-the-place for me. The concept was good (truffle oil + egg = awesomeness), but for some reason this marriage just did not work out.

Their service was, again, just ok. Most of the time I could hear the server's mindless chatter near the counter. Maybe its because of the time- right before dinner service- so there's really just two tables occupied at that point and they're bracing for the evening rush. I don't mind if the staff is relaxed, especially at a casual dining environment, but there is a thin line between laid-back and unprofessional.

Due to a relatively low seating capacity, they're almost always full during lunch or dinner, so do call to reserve.

Caffe Puccini
The Fort Strip
Bonifacio Global City
Taguig, Metro Manila
Tel. no. (632) 8163055.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

It took A While

I am not a passionate person.

Yes, there are certain things that I love and activities that I enjoy doing, but, "passionate" for me has a negative connotation. The words "stalker" and "obsessed" come to mind. I believe that I am the type of person who takes things as they come... You know, the kind who makes lemons out of lemonades. Under-achiever? Maybe. But, then again, I have come to that point in my life where I am quite pleased about where I am and what I am.

I begin this blog at a very important crossroad in my life- my writing career is slowly-but-surely on the move; my six-year relationship is going to the next level; I have just added another decade to my young life. All very promising and note-worthy developments. You ask yourself: I thought this was a food blog? Yes, it is. In fact, you'll see how this blog will cover significant moments of my life, it just so happens that- more often than not- these would include food, wine, or both.

People who know me would tell you that I'm an epicurean- a lover of life and all its pleasures. There is some truth to that, but not to a destructive extent. Life on the fast lane has become, well, too fast. Now I have learned to enjoy life's pleasures at a more relaxed and less-frantic pace, taking time to savor my relationships with the special people in my life, being more grateful for the blessings that have been bestowed upon me.

How is this different from other food blogs? Probably not much. After all, what moves us to write our restaurant reviews and food trips is pretty much the same: Our endless quest for that most memorable dining experience. There are really no right or wrong answers to this, since one person's Alain Ducasse could be another person's Chef Bouyardee. One Big Bite is meant to be a catalogue of dining experiences that, in my opinion, are worth sharing. It could be either pleasurable or downright disappointing, but, either way, it made an impact.

So, let us not be too technical, or jaded, or bitchy. Food and wine are, after all, meant to be enjoyed and not over-analyzed. This blog is, obviously, a testament to my love for great food and wine. I hope that you will enjoy reading my posts as much as I have drawn pleasure from writing them.