Monday, December 22, 2008

My Yummy Christmas Gift

Christmas is always stressful for Matt because he has a hard time getting me gifts that I would really like. He learned his lesson the hard way when, a few months into our relationship, he got me the prettiest bonsai (a Japanese ornamental plant) for my birthday, and then watched it die. Yes, it was a beautiful and symbolic gift, but I could not keep a plant alive (much more a high-maintenance one like a bonsai) if the human race depended on it.

I have said it a million times before and it still holds true: If I had P5000 to blow on anything, I would much rather spend it on a good meal than a nice dress. Therefore, the only thing better than a good meal would be a FREE good meal. One time, when Matt was in one of his celebratory moods, he exclaimed that he would want to have dinner at Antonio’s. The proverbial light bulb went on in my head and I said, matter-of-factly, “That’s your Christmas gift to me, right there.”

So off we went one Saturday afternoon, Matt’s patience being tested by the horrendous holiday traffic. After making it through the congested city streets and into the highway, we were again faced with slow-moving traffic due to several patches on the road under construction. We were told by the receptionist that they could hold our 7 PM reservation until 8:30. So when we were still in Silang, Cavite at around 8 PM, Matt was already on panic-mode, driving like a demonic speedster. Good thing we made it on time, and still very much alive.

The newly renovated restaurant retained its neo-traditional Filipino style, but much more polished. Areas that were formerly al fresco has been conveniently roofed to protect diners from the unpredictable Philippine weather. As we were ushered to our seats in the smoking area, I admired the distressed white chandeliers hanging from the high ceilings in what used to be a courtyard. The tables were decked in crisp white linens with whimsical black prints, classic china and silverware.

Still wound-up from the drive, we immediately had our bottle of Chateau St.-Jacques 2003 chilled and decanted. After a few sips of the young wine, we started to relax and enjoy our stylish surroundings. It really is one of my favorite wines, its elegant and restrained character belying its reasonable price. I decided to take one from my stash with me since I found out the stocks at Santis have been replenished.

We started our meal with an appetizer- the Steak Tartare. Miguel- a self-confessed Steak Tartare addict- claims it to be the best one in the country. I myself have never tried it, so I deduce that to set the bar high, I might as well try the one at Antonio’s. On my first few bites, I really could not taste the difference between the raw beef and Tuna Tartare. But, later on, the meaty and smoky flavors of the Angus has become more noticeable. There was a nice spicy-tangy element to it which I liked very much, plus the sharp flavor of raw red onions. I will surely order it again, although not when my mom is around, who freaks out when her steak is even the slightest bit pink.

Matt and I both went with their House Salad, not wanting to ruin our now-awakened appetites with sensory overload. As usual, the lettuce and arugula seemed freshly-picked from the garden, the vinaigrette a good balance of sweet and tangy.

We were served their Soup of the Day, a Clear Tomato Soup. Very clean, yet rich with that reduced tomato juice flavor.

I was already set on trying the Beef Fillet and Tagliatelle (which I will surely order next time) then I saw the Duck Leg Confit with Potato Gratin and Creamed Black Beans. Duck is my weakness and greatest indulgence (right up there with Foie Gras and creamy pasta), so I just couldn’t resist. And with the side dish of potato gratin- Sold! The duck was crispy and moist, the potato (sliced paper-thin) densely-flavored with cream and cheese. The lemon reduction was a surprising accompaniment to the dish, which worked quite well as it cut through the richness of the duck.

Matt had the Chili-Peppercorn Crusted, Honey Glazed Lamb Rack with Mashed Potato. The lamb was perfectly-medium and tender, the glaze just moderately sweet and with a slight kick from the chili. The mashed potato got major props from the Kartoffelkopf (Literally, “Potatohead”).

Later on, we lazily enjoyed our dessert of Chili-Chocolate Ice Cream and Poached Pear with Mascarpone, which we were “forced” to order because it was already part of the menu. Good thing we did, though, because, like the rest of the dishes, they were also well-executed and very delicious.

I checked out the wine list and it was a good selection of mostly Old World wines, although there were also a few good Chileans and Australians thrown in. With their reasonable corkage fee of P550 per bottle (it went up 10% since we last went there in July), it is very tempting to bring your own bottle. But next time I think I’ll try some of their own, which are also nicely-priced.

The service is undoubtedly one of the best in the country, although our server this time lacked the warmth and enthusiasm of our server last July. Still, he was very efficient and obviously well-trained. Even when he wasn’t around, the other members of the staff were always ready to assist us.

On our drive back (which, thankfully, was much shorter than the one going there), I smiled contentedly and told Matt how much I appreciated him driving me there for that exemplary meal. He enjoyed it too, of course, so it wasn’t a big deal, he modestly said.
Major pogi points for him.

Thanks again, mein Engel… Hab dich lieb.

Antonio’s Restaurant
Brgy. Neogan
Tagaytay City, Cavite
Tel. no. +639178992866

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Oh My Goulash!

Cooking for Matt is easy. We pretty much like the same things (pasta, pizza, sushi and red meat), so whenever I’m feeling up for it, I prepare him something simple yet hearty.

One time, I figured I would make him something he missed from his native Germany. He immediately asked for Beef Goulash. Although it is essentially Hungarian, this rich-yet-unfussy stew is a popular dish in countries all over Central Europe. I searched the internet for a recipe and found Wolfgang Puck’s version on If there would be a fool-proof Goulash recipe out there, it must be from this popular Austrian chef.

Needless to say, it was a hit with Matt, and pretty much all the other home-sick Germans I’ve ever cooked it for. One friend even went as far as saying that it was better than his mother’s! (Note: I chose to keep his identity hidden for his own safety.)

After cooking goulash for quite a number of times, I have eventually made it my own, tweaking the measurements to suit our taste and using ingredients that are easily accessible in Manila. Matt, for instance, is not a big fan of kuemmel (caraway seeds) so I don’t put a lot. But what I have realized is that the secret to tasty, authentic and flavorful goulash is paprika, lots of it. Also, I have substituted chicken stock with easy-to-store Knorr chicken cubes, which work just as well.

Beef Goulash (Preparation time: 10 minutes; Cooking time: 3 hours)


1 kilo Beef Shank (cubed)
4 cups White Onion (thinly sliced)
6 cloves Garlic (minced)
4 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 tablespoons White Sugar
2 teaspoons dried Thyme
2 teaspoons dried Marjoram
1 teaspoon Kuemmel
2 Bay Leaves
3 tablespoons Tomato Paste
2 tablespoons Spanish Paprika
¼ cup Balsamic Vinegar
1 liter Water
2 Knorr Chicken Cubes
Salt and Pepper, to taste


-Sautee onions in olive oil until soft in medium heat. Add sugar and cook until caramelized.
-Add garlic, thyme, marjoram, kuemmel, bay leaves, paprika and tomato paste, in that order.
-Deglaze pot with balsamic vinegar.
-Add cubed beef shank and cover with water. Toss in Knorr cubes in the stew and mix. Let it boil in high heat.
-When boiling, lower heat and let the stew simmer for at least 2 ½ hours, or until very tender.
-Season with salt and pepper before serving. Serve hot, with Mashed Potatoes and Sweet Peas.

Friday, December 12, 2008

My Favorite Pancit Habhab... Guess Where!

Before I receive a surge of hate mail from devoted Lucbanins, let me assure them that Lucban remains the true birthplace of the Pancit Habhab. If I got my facts straight, the unique noodles to this day can only be sourced from this Quezon town. Although dried “Lucban Miki” is now readily available in supermarkets everywhere, no other place can reproduce this product as well as the artisanal noodle makers who have been making it for decades.

After Buddy’s has infiltrated the Metro Manila market, Pancit Habhab- as well as the “small but incredible” Lucban Longganiza (small pork sausages heavily flavored with garlic)- has become popular not only with the locals and learned tourists, but also with Manilenos who have tried the Buddy’s version and were easily hooked by its unique taste.

As a pint-sized foodie, I had my first taste of Habhab at the old panciteria in the middle of town, eaten in true Lucban fashion: the braised noodles smoking-hot and placed on a banana leaf, consumed by slurping (daintily, if possible) the pancit straight into my mouth. Later on, the banana leaves were replaced with more modern dinnerware, but the pancit remained the same. We would buy the dried noodles and try to replicate the dish at home, but it was difficult getting the right texture and flavor: The sauce garlicky and peppery, perfectly accented by the accompanying spiced vinegar; the noodles firm (not mushy) and loaded with umami (Tagalog translation: Malinamnam).

Although I also enjoy the more commercialized versions of Habhab, there is that certain flavor that I look for from my early pancit-eating days. Funny that I would find my favorite Pancit Habhab in- of all places- Tayabas, Quezon.

I honestly have no idea how my Dad found this place, but I am thankful that he did. The house, void of signage and any form of marker, is just one in a row or apartments lining the street going into Mauban (the next town, and my Dad’s hometown). During one of his weekend trips to the beach house(with my cousin Kuya Bubut, most probably), he must have had some early-morning “munchies”, and chanced upon the giant wok atop a wooden table. Soon, the rest of the family has been introduced to, in my opinion, the tastiest Pancit Habhab I have had in a really long time.

On a recent trip from Mauban, we passed the usual route going into Tayabas, on the way back to Manila. Having skipped breakfast, we were looking for a quick snack before having a proper lunch elsewhere. We stopped, naturally, in front of the now-familiar house.

The giant wok is covered, protecting the delicious pancit from the elements and keeping it warm. I look inside and spy that the sahog (small slices of meat or vegetables mixed with the noodles) is all-meat. It was a delightful (for me, at least) mix of pork parts, chicken and- surprise, surprise- quail eggs. I wondered how this would affect the flavor, having been used to the more classic formula of pork and sayote. I sprinkled some spiced vinegar and slurped away.

It was, as usual, as good as Pancit Habhab can get. The noodles were cooked perfectly and moist, the garlic, red chili and black pepper-infused vinegar bringing out the tasty meatiness of the dish. The price (P5 for a single serving) has not changed since we started eating there, as well as the quality and portioning. It is not going to fill-up the average man, but for that price, it is a pretty decent meal.

In between habhabs (Tagalog slang for "to slurp"), I learn from the tindera (sales lady) that the pancit is cooked by his brother-in-law, Kuya Boyet (she actually gave me his last name, but I was too busy keeping myself from inhaling the noodles through my nose). I remember telling her a number of times how good the pancit was, as Boyet’s wife (who was busy with household chores behind the selling area, which was actually the garage)looked on and gave a tiny, proud smile. I am a firm believer that people who are excellent at what they do deserve recognition, no matter how small or subtle the praise.

I love it when a home cook finds that one special dish and makes it the best he/she can ever make, every single time. Boyet’s excellent Pancit Habhab is proof that you do not need a diploma from the Culinary Institute of America or pricey, imported ingredients to turn out great-tasting food. All you need is a mastery of your chosen ingredients, a love for food and- in Boyet’s case, at least - a giant wok.

“Kuya Boyet’s” Pancit Habhab
Nadres St.
(the road going to Mauban)
Tayabas, Quezon

Friday, December 5, 2008

Bianca's is Back!

I have zero self-control.

I told myself that I would blog about this restaurant after I tried other dishes on my next visit, but I just cannot contain my excitement.

After almost a year of renovations, Bianca’s has finally reopened its doors. The Yakal St. “Dynamic Duo” of Bianca’s (Swiss) and Carpaccio (Italian) has resurfaced as a multi-level gastronomic mecca for foodies craving authentic European fare, which will soon include a steakhouse come January 2009.

Those who know me well (and are privy to my gluttonous exploits) are aware of my deep love and devotion for Bianca’s. Ever since my dad started bringing me there for lunch before going to the office together (a bribe, I believe, so that I would be encouraged to go to work more often), I was immediately hooked.

If I could have my meals there every single day, I probably would. Their classic Central European dishes (Beef Goulash with Spaetzle, Roesti Emmenthal) and Continental menu items are both hearty and reasonably-priced. Post-renovation, the management has decided on focusing solely on Swiss food, which made me a bit sad. I have always enjoyed their weekly specials, wherein I get to have a totally different meal on every visit. The server pointed out, though, that they still had weekly specials (where you get to choose one appetizer and one main course), although all the items, of course, are Swiss dishes.

The interiors expectedly reflect the cuisine- floor-to-ceiling wood planks, wrought iron light fixtures, the Swiss red-and-white reflected on the window trimmings and table setting. You can tell that the place was done and tastefully-decorated with a lot of attention to detail and a good dose of love. The restaurant, after all, is named after the Swiss owner’s- Mr. Werner Berger (same owner as Santis Delicatessen)- daughter, and a tribute to their heritage.

Since it was just their second day of operations after reopening, Mr. Berger and F&B Manager, Andreas, were there to entertain the guests. The usually grim and subdued owner was in high spirits, greeting and joking around with us and other diners. Andreas also dropped by the table a few times to check up on us, and chatted with us about Swiss cuisine, how the flavors are actually more attuned to Filipino tastes than we think.

To begin our meal, Matt and I both had our own servings of Raclette (a mildly-flavored, semi-soft cheese) with pearl onions, mini-gherkins and boiled potatoes. I don’t think I have to describe how delicious melted cheese tastes like.

Accompanying this rich dish, I had a glass of Fendant D’ Amour 2005- a crisp, steely and nicely herbaceous white wine. Sexy wine distributor Bluefrog turned me onto this Swiss white (which she initially described as “strange”), sharing that its hint of cheese (I figured gruyere) in the finish makes it a highly-recommended accompaniment for fondue. And was she ever right! It was a match made in heaven, for sure, and it made me want to order more Raclette so I can keep on sipping the wine with it. Priced at around P600 per bottle, this is a sure winner for potluck wine and cheese gatherings. I’m thinking it would go quite well with most semi-soft and mildly-flavored hard cheeses, from Fontina to Manchego.

Since I just had Geschnetzeltes (pork or veal strips topped with a rich mushroom sauce, typically served with Reosti) recently at Cave Werdenberg (the wine bar next to Santis Yakal), I opted not to order my favorite Swiss dish this time, and picked the Chesa Bianca Meatloaf with Reosti (pan-fried shredded potatoes). Mr. Berger recommended I pair it with the Ventisquero Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva 2005- an extremely robust, full-bodied Chilean red wine. This is truly modern in terms of heft and complexity- deep purple, blackberries, wood shavings anise and some kind of baked fruit… I can imagine it would stand up well to the richest of stews. With a dab of spicy Tomi mustard, the meatloaf and potato dish was a pretty good match with the wine.

Matt ordered the Sausage and Reosti, but decided to replace the Cervelat with Veal Bratwurst. With the veal sausage, Mr. Berger recommended he have some sweet onion sauce with his dish. It was good, but my conservative German still preferred good, old-fashioned Tomi mustard, which was thoughtfully provided in huge, unopened tubes.

It was lovely to see my favorite servers in their new traditional Swiss uniforms. I wish I could have taken pictures, but I’ll catch them next time. The service in Bianca’s is consistently great as ever, the staff obviously well-trained and always chirpy. Food always comes out fast and hot.

I will surely be back to try more of their dishes. I like how the menu seem to be authentic Swiss, and not a hodge-podge of Central and Eastern European dishes, like in some restaurants out there. I’m pretty sure that food-loving Pinoys will not be trading in their sinangag for reosti, but if what Andreas says about Swiss food being quite similar to Filipino flavors holds true, then Bianca’s one-two punch of great food and excellent service will most definitely make it a permanent fixture in Manila’s swiftly-diversifying foodscape.

Chesa Bianca Swiss Restaurant
Yakal St.
(the building next to Santis Delicatessen)
Brgy. San Antonio, Makati City
Tel. no. (632) 8151359

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Noodles and Some Darn Good Gyoza

As much as I consider myself adventurous when it comes to food, I cannot help but play favorites. I do venture out to try new restaurants and experiment with new dishes, but there are just those places that I keep on coming back to.

For good and relatively authentic ramen, I go to Shinjuku. For as long as I could remember, their Makati Avenue branch has been in the same location for years. When I was younger, going to a restaurant to eat ramen was unthinkable, having grown up on Nissin’s and Lucky Me. Why go out for hot soup when I can make one in my kitchen without even having to change out of my dingy T-shirt?

Until I realized how unbelievably wonderful a bowl of ramen can make you feel after a night of drinking. Not the one that comes in a styro cup- those that come in giant bowls, the broth fragrant with the essence of konbu, noodles perfectly taut, topped with slices of meat, bean sprouts, and those pink-and-white pinwheels the Japanese love to put on everything.

Even without the hangovers (which has become less and less frequent these days), a good bowl of ramen is still a good hearty meal I enjoy when I want to avoid the fried food that is favored in our home. Although Shinjuku’s Makati Ave. branch is much closer to where I live, I heard that the one in Pasong Tamo has gone through a major renovation. I also got the impression that they have a more diverse menu selection, since I remember the sign saying “Japanese Cuisine” and not “Noodle House”, which was great because I was craving for some sushi.

I do not know how the restaurant looked like before the renovation, but the new place is definitely sleek and quite modern. It still has the air of a casual eatery, but surely a shiny new one. When we received the menu, I was surprised to see that it was the exact same one as the Makati Ave. ramen house. Why they decided to call it something else, I have no idea.

I was happy to see that they at least had a small selection of sushi menu items. My eyes were immediately drawn to the Chirashi Sushi (a bowl of mirin-flavored rice topped by an assortment of sushi) and Udon Set. It was quite good and with the generous portioning, very satisfying. Although I would have wanted to see my favorite uni (sea urchin) and saba (marinated mackerel), it was still a good selection of “entry-level” sushi fare, such as raw tuna, salmon, tamago (omelet) and kani (crabstick). I also enjoyed the broth of the udon, which was very tasty.

Matt ordered the Futo Maki, which were these gigantic sushi rolls. It was ok, although he did not particularly like the sweet, candied ginger that they put in there.

Despite being a ramen house, what is raved about by both Japanese and locals alike is Shinjuku’s Gyoza (pork-stuffed, crescent-shaped dumplings that are first steamed, and them fried). Intensely-flavored and huge (I was not even able to finish my order), their gyoza is consistently delicious and masterfully-done. I have tried to make a few at home, so I know that this seemingly simple dish is really not that easy to make.

Matt- the “adventurous” eater that he is- also ordered the Tori Karaagi (translation: Fried Chicken) Ramen. The huge serving of aromatic noodles and broth was enough to fill up his “bottomless pit”, which, I tell you, is not an easy feat.

The service here was friendly and efficient. I have to note, though, that there was this extremely-annoying employee behind the counter who just would not stop talking. I was really just not in the mood for his mindless chatter, and since the restaurant is not that big, I, along with the few other customers who were there, had to put up with it. Next time, I hope he would just save his random epiphanies ‘til after his shift.

Shinjuku can definitely teach some of the newer establishments a thing or two about longevity. Their menu has obviously not evolved, but that does not matter. What they have is consistency- good quality, great tasting food that is ALWAYS done right. Marketing can only get you so far, but in the end it really comes down to flavor.

Shinjuku Japanese Cuisine
Chino Roces Ave.
(beside Makati Cinema Square)
Makati City
Tel. no. (632) 8191242