Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Bring Me to Baja

Mexican food and I have had a long-running love affair. Like a lot of Filipinos, it started with Pancake House’s Best Tacos in Town. Believe me, it deserves that name. The flour shell -crisp and flaky- cradles ground beef that is distinctly smoky and pleasantly sweetish, the tomato salsa always fresh and slightly tangy. With a few sprinkles of Tobasco, it is probably one of the most addicting dishes I have ever encountered. From then on, my fascination with Mexican cuisine has grown to include other dishes such as steak burrito, chicken enchiladas, quesadillas, all washed down with a potent Margarita on the rocks.

Sadly, for the longest time, the Philippine culinary landscape was lacking in really good Mexican joints with staying power. There were a few that attempted to penetrate the local food market dominated by Chicken Joy, and some were actually quite good. But, for one reason or another, all of these exclusively-Mexican restaurants or food stalls just cannot keep up with other foreign flavors that have infiltrated our shores. So, when Matt and I wanted really good Mexican food, the closest would be Manana in Boracay’s White Beach.

That is why you could imagine our excitement when a couple of our friends told us that they are opening a proper Mexican restaurant in Makati. When Baja had its soft opening, we were one of the first ones there. The food at that time, I must admit, was just ok. Not disappointing, but at the same time, not the drool-inducing flavors that I was hoping for. It took a while for us to make our second visit, which was once again pleasant, but not mind blowing.

Then, just recently, there was a buzz amongst my friends in Facebook about the re-vamped menu of Baja. Art- one of the owners- decided to add a few more dishes and also tweaked the recipes a bit, hoping to counter the luke-warm reception his new “baby” was being given by Manila’s Mexican food lovers. Suddenly, I was hearing raves about their food, especially the fish tacos. I have never tried this particular taco flavor before, thinking that any Mexican dish out of California (where this dish is most popular) must be void of fat or sodium, therefore lacking in the flavor department. But then, the clamor for it was just relentless, so I knew I had to try it. Besides, they have several flavors of Margaritas- using only top-shelf ingredients- and that I can certainly not say “no” to.

One Friday evening, Matt and I- along with our good German friend, Tilo- met TG-Boy and Rocky at Baja for dinner before a night of dancing and drinking. Being a payday, the place was packed with yuppies celebrating the end of yet another work week. Luckily, TG-Boy and Rocky arrived early and were able to get a nice comfy table inside. The interiors are fun and campy, like a laid-back cantina strewn with southwestern décor and brilliant, festive colors.


To get the night rolling, I ordered a single Melon Margarita. They have a bigger one, but I always order the smaller ones because I enjoy trying the different flavors that they offer. Baja’s margaritas are probably one of the best ones I have tried in the country, second only to those of American franchise, Chili’s.

Matt and I decided to share two dishes. First to arrive was the Carne Asada Burrito- a rolled flour tortilla stuffed with shredded marinated beef, guacamole, beans, salsa and rice. I remember liking their carne asada tacos, but this time it was even tastier and served at a better temperature. I would have wanted more condiments with it, but that was entirely my fault. I should have asked. (Note: Their traditional burritos do not contain rice. So, if you are used to your burritos having rice like I do, make sure to inform your waiter.)

Then, a huge plate big enough to have a town fiesta on arrived at our table. It contained the much talked about Taco Platter- four tacos (regular, chicken, carne asada and fish), cheese quesadillas, chips and salsas. I have seen quite a few spectacular food presentations, but this one definitely takes you aback. The serving is quite generous, big enough to be a grown man’s main course or split into four as an appetizer. This is definitely their signature dish. The regular ground beef taco is actually reminiscent of Pancake house, only supersized and meatier (and it comes in a soft tortilla). The carne asada, as I mentioned, is also tasty, and the same goes for the chicken. But what truly takes the prize is the fish taco. Imagine the best beer-battered fish you’ve ever tasted, but with a southwestern kick, smothered in a peppery, aromatic mayo, topped with fresh lettuce, tomatoes and lots of cheese. (Expletive deleted.) Really, there’s nothing left to say. No kidding, I’m spiritually eating it right now.

This restaurant is truly deserving of a second chance. Since I am friends with some of the owners, I am happy that the food has improved so much that I can write a good review about it. As much as I love my friends, I also have to be fair to my five (and counting!) readers and give my accurate and objective opinions about restaurants and their food.

So, is Pancake House’s Best Taco in Town still deserving of its moniker? Honestly, I think they should be scared.

Baja Mexican Cantina
3/F Greenbelt 3
Ayala Center, Makati City
Tel. no. (632) 7560127

Friday, November 27, 2009

A Plateful of Gratitude

I believe that Thanksgiving Day should be celebrated everywhere.

What I like about it is that it pretty much forces you to step back and appreciate the things that are going quite well for you. In these fast-paced times of high-maintenance toddlers donning iPods and cellphones, we start to take simple conveniences for granted and constantly bitch about the small things that go wrong.

I admit that I belong to that group of formerly-idealistic gen-Xers who were out to change the world but- after being immersed in this cesspool called Life- were suddenly transformed into these hardened shells of our former selves, jaded and cynical. Nevertheless, once in a while I make a conscious effort to be appreciative of the blessings that have come my way. That is what makes Thanksgiving Day, in my opinion, so great. It’s because any day that makes people a little bit happier- a little bit more grateful to be alive, despite all the craziness in the world we live in- should definitely be celebrated. Nobody, I believe, should be exempt from it.

So, while I enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner at Circles in Shangri-la Hotel Makati with Matt, I reflected on the things that are making my life awesome.

First, I am thankful for the year that passed. It was a long and crazy journey filled with tests, life lessons, major changes and adjustments. But then again, it was also a year of reunions, happiness, laughter and new beginnings. I have always been a firm believer that all things happen for a reason and I have learned to take every challenge that comes my way as a fortifying agent that strengthens my spirit. Bring it on, as they say. Therefore, I am thankful for all that passed, both good and bad.

After getting married and living away from home for the first time ever, I have become more appreciative of the good health and happiness of my family. I still see them regularly, of course, but it was a major change for me not to see them first thing when I wake up, to hear the animated chatter outside my room and I’m even beginning to miss the constant invasions of privacy (mostly by my mom). Now, I find myself thinking about them all the time and have even begun to worry about them occasionally, which is something I never did in the past. So, yes, I’m very happy that we are all thriving and happy, even if we now live 20 minutes away from each other.

I am grateful that love continues to grow in the new home that Matt and I are building together. I’m not talking about an actual structure, but that figurative safe-place where we can always find comfort, security and, above all, love. That adjustment period that everybody was talking about has been a pain in the neck, but we seem to be gracefully transitioning and things are getting better. We still have a long way to go, but I take it as a good sign that despite the new challenges we face together, we come out of it stronger and even happier to have each other.

Of course, what would life be without family and friends? I am thankful to be surrounded by good people who always want what is best for me and who usher me towards the right direction when I am beginning to lose focus. I have also been very lucky to have maintained my old friendships and continue to meet new people who are teaching me new things and adding excitement to my life. Aside from those that I see regularly, there are also my relatives and friends who live far, but have always kept in touch and are generous with their love and concern, even from a distance. Oh, and let’s not forget my new relatives from Matt’s side! I am really grateful that they truly are a wonderful family of good and genuine people. Honestly, I feel very, very lucky to have them in my life.

Finally, I am thankful to have found happiness and fulfillment in everything that I do. As a new wife, I am truly enjoying my new role and everything that comes with it. I never thought that I would find so much satisfaction in hearing Matt say, “OH MY GOD! Your Caldereta is THE BEST!” Aside from the bliss that I find in my culinary triumphs, I am also thankful for the happiness that writing continues to bring me, as well as the job that allows me the time to write and draws on my strengths as a creative and a multi-dimensional person.

Looking at this entry that I expected to be just a couple of paragraphs long, I cannot help but be thankful that I actually have so much to be grateful for. It’s good to know that when things are looking a bit grim, I have this list to remind me that God has been kind and that I should not dwell on the bad stuff.

All this, thanks to a plateful of turkey and stuffing.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Into the Blue in Cebu

I can’t help it: Italian food is my one true weakness. I can hold back on potato chips and ice cream, but slam a plate of pasta in front of me and I’m doomed.

Last weekend, Matt and I (along with my entire immediate family) were in Cebu for a family friend’s wedding. Like half of the guests, we were billeted in Shangri-la Mactan Resort and Spa where the wedding reception would also be held. We as a family have several fond memories of the resort, so we were all only too happy to go.

While most people were pining for Cebu lechon, I was dead-set on having a meal in Shangri-la Mactan’s Italian restaurant, Acqua. I remember having lunch there a couple of years ago, and it was a pretty good meal, if I’m not mistaken. So, it was set that Matt and I were going to have dinner there on his first night ever in Cebu.

The interior was exactly how I remembered it- the high-ceilinged dining room was awash in white and detailed with dark wood and modern fixtures. It was sleek and contemporary but totally accessible, something that would be perfectly at home at a high-end Miami hotel.

When we were done ordering, I was immediately drawn to the round table in the middle of the room topped by an assortment of wines, liqeurs and glasses. After a couple of tastes, I decided on having a glass of nicely-balanced Chianti Classico. Being a hotel restaurant, wines by the glass at Acqua come at a horrendous price. But it was really good, so I try to stop myself from calculating the retail price in my head and just enjoy.

To start our meal, Matt and I decided to split a plate of Mushroom Risotto with Truffle Essence. Seeing the pallid color of the risotto, I brace myself for probable disappointment. But then, the minute the velvety grains of Arborio rice entered my mouth, I immediately declared the dish a winner. The texture was creamy, but not thick and dense. You can still feel the al dente graininess of the rice, which is a far cry from overly-stirred, mushy versions I have tried before. Wide, generous slices of Porcini mushrooms add interesting texture and flavor to the dish, while a subtle whiff of truffle wafts into my nostrils with every bite. Matt claims it to be the best risotto he has ever had.

Still heady from the rapture brought about by the risotto, I watch with anticipation as my main dish is placed before me- Seared Angus Rib-Eye with Sauteed Mushrooms, Arugula and Shaved Parmesan. Upon inspection, the steak was obviously grilled to perfection, medium, as I have requested. The slices of meat were delicately flavored with a light balsamic reduction and freshly-ground black pepper. The subtle play on flavors- from the peppery arugula, to the earthiness of the mushrooms, to the sweet-tangy balsamic- is a welcome change from the usual richness associated with Italian food.

Matt ordered the Roasted Lamb Rack with Almond Crust and Apple Mashed Potatoes. I had a taste of this, too, and notice how the well-done meat managed to stay moist inside the thick crust. Matt actually found it to be a bit dry, but I thought it was ok.

Stuffed from our hearty Italian meal, we head out to the breezy poolside dining area to have a cig while we rub our fully-satiated bellies. I don’t know why, but our server mistakenly thought that we were celebrating our anniversary, so they brought out a complimentary serving of chocolate mousse. Chocoholic-me naturally had to have a few spoonfuls, despite my groaning mid-section. It was really sweet of them to have done that, though. I must say, this was one of the few times that being lost in translation is a good thing.

Spying the outdoor brick oven, Matt and I knew that we had to try Acqua’s pizzas before we left. On our last day in Cebu, we decided to have a quick meal there after our late check-out. We opted for two flavors in one pie- one half had Parma ham, arugula and mozzarella, while the other half had ricotta cheese, spinach and fresh pomodoro. I am happy to report that Acqua’s pizzas are, indeed, delicious and reasonably-priced. Well, for a hotel resto, at least.

My Italian meal in the land of lechon would seem outrageous to most, but I would not have had it any other way. Something tells me a bunch of little piggies are pretty happy about that.

Shangri-la Mactan Resort and Spa
Punta Engano Road
Lapu-Lapu, Cebu
Tel. no. (6332) 2310288

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Quick Bites: Sandy's Pizza

In this over-saturated food industry, it is very rare that I come across “good finds”. You know, those small, hole-in-the-walls where you find excellent food with a home-grown feel. Everything seems to be going in the direction of “bigger and better”, franchising, constant expansion, banking on the tried and tested formulas and distributing it to the masses. Nothing wrong with that, but most of the time the quality and painstaking care that is put into preparing delicious food is lost.

Recently, when I was coming home from work, I saw a delivery bike with the name “Sandy’s Pizza” emblazoned on the box parked in front of our building. I have read about it more than a year ago in other blogs but have never gotten to try it. Since we lived in Makati at the time, it was impossible to have a taste of this much talked about pizza that is based in residential San Juan. I don’t know how it is now, but at the time they were only doing deliveries and did not have facilities for dine-in customers. Despite that, people were constantly gushing in their multiply.com site about how delicious the pizzas were and that they could not get enough of this gem of a pizzeria.

It took a while after spotting that delivery bike until Matt and I finally got to sample Sandy’s pizza. The first time we had it, we passed by their small store in San Juan at around 9:30 PM, hoping that they were still taking orders. Although they were already closed, they were kind enough to accommodate us and baked us a combination pizza (Chicken Curry, Garlic Tuyo, Garlic Chorizo and White Pizza) for take-out. The second time, we had them deliver another combination pizza (Garlic Tuyo, Mexican Chili, Meatzarella and Filipino Adobo and White Cheese) to our pad.

Both times the pizzas were absolutely phenomenal- and I do not use that word loosely when it comes to food. Yes, there are some pizzas out there that come close and even fewer that might be better (actually, only Caruso comes to mind), but what has gotten me smitten is that its high quality and tastiness has taken me completely by surprise. First of all, the pricing I believe is just right. It might be more expensive than your average neighborhood pizza joint, but for the authenticity and quality that you get, you cannot complain. Second, the toppings are unique and full of flavor. They are not overly-generous with it, but you can be sure that they taste good. Finally, the crust is perfect- soft and chewy on the inside, light and crispy on the outside. If this is not the perfect pizza, then it surely comes very close to it.

I think foodies like me appreciate dishes and restaurants more when we get the vibe that the food comes from someone who is more of a food lover than a businessman. And I get that feeling from the owner of Sandy’s. You can tell from how the crust was made to the careful conceptualization of her innovative pizza toppings, she has put a lot of love into these pizzas. Although I have never met her (I just saw pictures of her in her multiply site with her famous actor brother), I can’t help but admire her for turning her love for a particular dish into something truly spectacular that she can share with others. You just got to love that, too.

Sandy’s Pizza
J. Abad Santos St.
San Juan, Metro Manila
Tel. no. (632) 7218334
Website: sandyspizza1.multiply.com

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Not Your Ordinary Oven

What makes a great get-together?

It’s the right mix of a whole bunch of things: Nice, cozy ambience; a fun and relaxed host; a generous amount of delicious food; a steady flow of alcoholic (or not) beverages; and, of course, a delightful combination of personalities as party guests.

For this reason the regular get-togethers of the Wines and Spirits Club has become one of those events that I really look forward to. This on-line community that Chef Gene Gonzalez (Café Ysabel, Center for Asian Culinary Studies) created with his wünderkinder Chef Gino and Giannina has truly grown to be THE place for genuine lovers of food, wine and the good life, in general.

This time around, the “excuse” for celebration is Café Ysabel’s brand new wood-fired oven, located at the ground floor of the restaurant, across Chef Gene’s art gallery. As posted on the site’s bulletin board, there were to be several dishes served during the dinner, all of them cooked in the wood-fired oven. We were also encouraged to bring our own bottles, which is always fun for me.

When Matt and I arrived, we bumped into winemaster Noel chatting with two elderly gentlemen while having a smoke near the entrance. Looking around, I saw some familiar faces, but nobody I’m really that chummy with. I know that the point of joining these events is to meet new people, but I’m actually quite shy around older people when I’m without “courage juice”. Luckily, we were seated in the same table as Noel and his group, so at least I was more at ease. We were introduced to Noel’s wife, Catha, his cool(er) brother Tad, Tad’s wife, Aaron Palileo and his wife, Jo. The two gentlemen Noel was chatting with outside were Bob and Bill, who were seated right across from us. Next to them were our other friends, married couple Sanj and Cutie, and beside us was one of my favorite home bakers (and fellow food perv), Cookie Goddess.

There were eight courses that night, all baked in the wood-fired oven, except the cheese course. To get the party started, we opened a bottle of Toso Prosecco, my favorite party bubbly. With this, we paired our first pizza for the night- the Goat Cheese Pizza with Red Wine Simmered Onions, Topped with Arugula. The peppery greens were drizzled with some balsamic vinegar and olive oil, which gave it a nice acidity and sheen. Although the crust was a bit tough on some parts, I loved the combination of flavors- sweet, salty, tangy, and a bit spicy. It was a very good light start to the dinner.

The second pizza- and my favorite dish for the evening- was the Turkish Pide with Lamb Sausage, Chives, Parsley, Olives, Feta and Mozarella. The crust was formed into a wide oval shape, and I’m pretty sure it was made the same way as the first pizza. What won me over was the tasty, garlicky lamb sausage. With this pizza and the next one, Noel made me try some of red wines from their group. I remember trying a Barbaresco and a Rioja, which I remember were both very good and refined (and, knowing Noel, well beyond my budget). Sanj, Cutie and Cookie Goddess also brought some very good Chilean reds, which I wish took pictures of because I love great tasting, value for money wines.

The final pizza for the night was a Double Pepperoni Pizza. By this time I am substantially inebriated, and what could be better with that buzz than something nice and oily. This pizza was just perfect for that, and, suddenly brazen after several glasses of wine, I believe I ate more than my share. Which is ok, I think, since I saved the elder diners from a potential heart attack?

After a few cigs outside with some new friends, we were served soup- a Minestrone of Charred Vegetables. Although I did not particularly like this dish, it did promise to deliver in terms of the vegetables really being charred. The broth was just alright, which I had a few spoonfuls of.

Finally, the meat course arrives- Fire Baked Beef Short Ribs with Spicy Bourbon Glaze, Baked Corn, Napa Style Cauliflower. Although dry on some parts, the glaze was delicious and compensates for the less-than-perfect texture. Suddenly, I remember my bottle and ask the waiter to bring it over- a 2005 Peju Zinfandel. This was sent to me more than a year ago by my banker-turned-budding sommelier cousin Poopel who is based in San Francisco. At that time I was gaga over Zins and loved their juicy and jammy character. This bottle was meatier than most Zins I have tried before, and Noel observed the same thing. After a while though the fruit comes out, and its bouquet is suddenly swirling with ripe, juicy berries and some licorice. Not overtly complex, but then that’s what I love about this variety. If you’re not willing to “commit” or be blown away by huge, bold flavors, this would be perfect.

Another wine I tried was from Ines, one of the few other “chicks” in the club. She brought a 2007 Banfi Cum Laude- which was a big- massive- Tuscan wine. From the little that I know of Italian wines, Tuscan reds really need a lot of time to fully mature, which I think is also the case with this particular young bottle. It was just a wall of tannins at first gulp which made it very difficult to figure out. Later on it began to show a bit more of its layers, revealing a very masculine wine with lots of oakiness, tobacco and earth. It just really needs more time.

After the cheese course, we were served our dessert of Burned Butter Ice Cream with Roasted Pineapple. The ice cream was perfection, in my opinion, with the simple and rustic flavors of the roasted fruit to accompany it. This dessert was a winner for me, and I remember Matt’s eyes rolling in agreement. It’s too bad as I was too hammered at this point to take a picture of it (the ice dessert, not Matt convulsing).

At the end of the meal, Chef Gene said a few words and introduced the talented young cooks that prepared our wonderful dinner. Now everyone is just free to mingle and to finish off whatever is left of our wines. Matt has whipped out his bottle of Paulaner which he (happily?) shared with our new and old friends. I tried to sneak a candid picture of TV star Johnny Revilla, but being the showbiz veteran, he knows when a camera is aimed at him and gamely smiled. I remember making some lame excuse that it’s for my mom and that she was a big fan of his last telenovela. Ok, sometimes I would watch it too, but only because I wanted to know which part of the JR-Dave-Audrey love triangle will really end up together, or if Coco Martin’s (who is SO my type) character really died in that car crash, and if “Ingrid” will totally lose her mind and end up in the loony bin. Really, I wasn’t that into it.

Again, it was a great evening of good food, great wine and wonderful company. I love that this club brings together food and wine lovers of all ages because it allows us younger people to learn from the more “senior” members, and hopefully they also learn something new from us. In fact, age was never an issue in this club. It’s all about the shared passion for everything delicious and all of life’s epicurean pleasures.

Needless to say, I am looking forward to the next one.

Café Ysabel
P. Guevarra St.
San Juan, Metro Manila
Tel. no. (632) 7255089

If this looks like a lot of fun, check out http://www.winesandspiritsclub-philippines.com/ and become an instant member by just registering on-line.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Sisig on My Mind

I can never give up sisig.

I do not eat the Kapampangan dish as often as I used to. Back in college, lunch was often sisig at the original Dencio's Grill in Katipunan where the sizzling bits of pork face was nice and crunchy, doused in Knorr seasoning, Mama Sita hot sauce and calamansi. Sometimes, after going to the gym in Ultra with my boyfriend at the time, we would ignore the cramped space and questionable hygene to have the famous, artery-clogging sisig at Aycee's.

Recently, Cookie Goddess had a craving of her own and invited me and a few friends to try out the sisig at Kebur which her friend highly recommends. Said friend is actually vegetarian, but he told her that when he feels like "cheating", he gets his fix by feasting on the pork dish. If its good enough to turn a vegetarian momentarily carnivorous, it must be pretty special. T-Boy, Sexcretary and I meet up at Cookie Goddess' house in Greenhills which is a few minutes away from Kebur. We decided to carpool since it was raining and some of us were not familiar with the area. When we found the street, we drove really slow, trying to find the signage of the restaurant. With our combined effort, we were able to spot it without passing it.

Kebur turned out to be a small carinderia, complete with Monoblock chairs and folding formica-topped tables. Lighting was quite dim with the soft glow of a TV visible from the outside. The crowd was mostly people from the neighborhood and a few working stiffs (both blue and white collared) who come to unwind for a meal and a few beers. When we arrived, the place was full, and we stood around for a minute looking around uncomfortably until we spotted a small table outside. Two gentlemen in their office attires graciously offered the chairs they did not need, and curiously chatted us up. They gave us valuable information on what to order and additional trivia regarding the place (apparently, a professional basketball team are regulars there).

As we sipped our beers, the sisig finally arrived. It was heaped generously on a sizzling plate, topped by a runny egg. No seasonings or hot sauce was given, so we just mixed the egg into the hot, hissing pork. We soon discovered that no additional seasonings were needed. The crispy little cubes were bursting with flavor, and if you must, only a dash of hot sauce should be added. It was perfect with the steamed rice and then washed down with the ice-cold beer. If you like your sisig crispy, this would be the ultimate.

Another dish that we were told to try was the Pita Pie- a pita bread topped with ground meat, onions, tomatoes, garlic sauce and cheese. Although not as crispy as I would have wanted it, it was still a pretty good dish. I mean, for a small carienderia in Quezon City, its quite an innovative effort.

Being a fan of keema (a middle-eastern dish of sauteed and seasoned ground beef), I thought we should also try Kebur's version. Their's came with a serving of pita slices and a side dish of the creamy garlic sauce. We thought it was just alright, something that would also work as a taco filling. Compared to the ones I have tried in other persian joints, this one just does not cut it.

After we were done with our meal and our beers, we quickly got up when we noticed a group of men looking for a spot for their drinking session. We wanted to have a few more drinks, but we were thinking of moving to more, shall we say, "comfortable" surroundings.

I would definitely go back to Kebur for the sisig and would recommend it to those who love the dish and would not mind a less elegant setting. Next time I would go earlier so I could get a nicer table inside.

20th Ave.
Project 4, Quezon City

(If going north-bound on EDSA, make a right on B. Serrano Ave. Go past the stoplight in front of the Fort Aguinaldo gate until you reach 20th Ave. Turn left and go all the way down around 50 meters. Kebur is on the right side, beside a karaoke bar called Tsikas.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bistro Food and "Green Wine"

I love attending wine pairing events. For people who love food as much as I do, its really the best way to have delicious food with really good wine at a reasonable cost. Others may balk at the price tag, but when you think about it, you get to taste wine that usually cost thousands of pesos per bottle perfectly paired with excellently-prepared dishes. So, in my opinion, its actually a steal.

Wine lovers always look forward to Sommelier Selection's France Wine and Food Festival 2009, which usually comes around near the end of the year. Its a chance for Sommelier big boss Jerome Philippon to showcase his wines and at the same time do pairings with dishes prepared by the restaurants he supplies to. Its always fun for me to check out the menus on their web site and see which event I would like to attend. This year, there was double the number of restaurants that participated, giving more variety to the followers of these events.

For those who regularly drop by my blog, you know that I love eating at Marc Aubry's Je Suis Gourmand. The bistro fare is delicious and authentic, the servings big enough to satisfy even the biggest of appetites. After every dinner there, I leave completely stuffed and happy.

I make a reservation for me, Matt, my parents and our Ninong Mac. Since Ninong Mac's wife cannot make it, home-alone Cookie Goddess was happy to join us. We were lucky to have gotten the last table available for the evening, as the resto was already fully-booked two weeks before the event. As we settled in, we were approached by Socky, a fellow blogger and food lover, who was dining at a table near us with a friend. It was so nice to finally meet her, since we are both regular attendees of Jerome's events and have never had the chance to bump into each other. Until this one.

The theme for the wines at this years festival was organic, showcasing Jerome's personal picks of wines that were farmed and produced in this manner. Organic farming, as defined in wikipedia, is "the form of agriculture that relies on crop rotation, green manure, compost, biological pest control... to maintain soil productivity and control pests, excluding or strictly limiting the use of synthetic fertilizers and synthetic pesticides. As we later discovered through Jerome's guy, Victor, there are three levels of "organic" wines- natural, organic and bio-dynamic.

A wine is called "natural" when it is produced "organically" but has not been certified. "Organic", obviously, are those wines that have been produced through organic methods. Taking organic a bit further, "bio-dynamic" wines not only follow organic methods of farming, but also delve into the "spiritual" aspect of the vines as living organisms and integrate the lunar cycle into planting and harvesting. Its a bit more complicated than that, but that's basically it in a nutshell.

To start the evening, we were poured two kinds of easy-drinking wines: 2006 Bourgogne Aligote Domaine dela Saraziniere Clos des Bruyeres and a 2007 Cotes Marmandais Domaine Elian Da Ros (merlot, cabernet franc, abouriou).

Our first course was a Chilled Poached Salmon Couquille with Fine Macedione Salad and Raifort Mayonnaise , paired with a light a spritely rose from Provence, a 2007 Chateau de Roquefort Corail, which is a grenache and syrah blend. Less acidic than the Spanish roses that I'm used to, this wine had a bit more complexity and fruit but still is still a "fun" wine. I'd bring tons of this to the beach if only it was a bit cheaper.

My favorite dish of the night came next, which was the Veal and Chanterelles Ravioli with Watercress Sabayon. The filling of the ravioli was wonderfully meaty and aromatic, almost like a finer garlic sausage. It was delicious and tasty and left me wanting more. This dish was matched with a 2007 Crozes Hermitage from Domaine du Colombier, made from the marsanne grape. I was expecting a bit more weight with this wine, a bit more earthiness, but it fell a bit short, in my opinion. It was still an ok wine, but I would not pair it with the ravioli.

Matt and my dad were happy to see the next dish- Seared Beef Tenderloin Medallions with Chateaubriand Sauce and Turned Vegetables. The beef, although a bit overcooked for my taste, was just perfectly-done to my parents' preference, which is "not bloody". The sauce, in true JSG fashion, was lick-the-plate delicious. With this, they paired a 2007 Chateau Lagarette Tour Lagarette from Bordeaux, another red which was a bit too acidic for me.

The cheese course came in the form of the Honey Glazed Roquefort and Walnut Crepes. Being a slightly-sweetened dish, I was not surprised that they paired it with an off-dry wine- a 2006 Bott-Geyl "Les Elements" Pinot Gris from Alsace. I love this winemaker's whites and would buy cases of their Gewurztraminer if it was more affordable. Their Pinot Gris is equally beguiling, with rich honey notes complementing a fruity and herbal nose. This was a pretty good paring, but NFF Socky sent over a plate of Foie Gras which she said we should try with the Pinot Gris. She was right, it was a very good match, even bringing out more elements in the wine.

Before dessert, Matt and I had a blast chatting with Socky and her friend Cielo (Is that her name? I was beyond tipsy at this point.) about her recent trip to Germany and her new-found fondness for a certain Frankfurter beer. Socky, do not think we have forgotten your invitation to a beer tasting at your place!

Dessert was Mini Pears Poached in Wine Syrup with Pear William Ice Cream, paired with the same Pinot Gris. I just realized I forgot to take a picture of this dish. I love poached pears, and this one was quite the confection. Cookie Goddess loved the liqeur-spiked ice cream so much that she asked for more (and actually wanted to marry it). Chef Marc was kind enough to send her out two more scoops and promised to give her the recipe.

This was a lovely night spent with my parents, Ninong Mac, old friends and new ones. The white wines and the rose lorded it over the reds, in my opinion, and I promised Victor that I would order a few bottles from him (which reminds me, I should give him a call). Congratulations again to Jerome and to Chef Marc for a successful event (check out the other dinners at Sala, Cav, Lolo Dad's, etc. as well)! Aside from being a wonderful wine dinner, it was also quite educational on my part. I always thought that organic food products could not possibly be better than the traditonal ones, but I learned that- when it comes to wines, at least- it is fortunately not the case.

Sommelier Selection's France Food and Wine Festival 2009 is ongoing all throughout the month of October. Kindly check their web site (http://www.sommelierselection.info/) for details.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Older and Hungrier: My Birthday

All my life, I have always looked forward to birthdays. Despite being born during the relatively overcast month of October, I would always request for a pool party as a child. I love the water, and nothing could be more fun than an entire day of splashing around in the pool with my sisters and cousins while the sticks of pork barbecue sizzled on the grill. Famished, my little hands pruney from being soaked in water for hours, us kids would feast on the grilled sticks of pork, Pinoy-style spaghetti, fried chicken and chocolate cake from Goldilocks topped with my favorite cartoon character of the moment.

When I outgrew the games and the chlorine, I would always throw parties for my friends. In high school, some friends and I would have joint celebrations of our birthdays. We would rent out some condo's penthouse, pitch in to buy booze and invite friends from our all-girl's school and our guy friends from other schools. Food at that time was not the priority- we would much rather spend our saved allowances (and birthday cash from our parents) on buying beer (remember Blue Ice?) and the dreaded/revered bottle of Jose Cuervo tequila. My old friends and I would chuckle when we recall our classic party fare of chicken lollipops, cornicks and- the centerpiece- cocktail hotdogs and marshmallows on toothpicks speared around a head of cabbage. Now that's some classic stuff!

When we moved to Makati, the larger space made it possible to have bigger parties. Food would be catered by my favorite restaurants, and then later on, by my sister Foxychef. Beer bongs and jello shots were later on replaced by martini bars and wine. Whatever it was that we were in the mood for, we made sure that we had it in abundance which would last us until the wee hours of the morning. Luckily, we had pretty cool neighbors who shared our penchant for revelry (or at least had a very high tolerance for it), so we never had problems of village security banging on our door.

Now, finally living on my own for the first time in my life, I suddenly long for the quiet mellow weekends with my family. I started my day with breakfast in bed prepared by Matt, a simple plate of my favorite breakfast fare: scrambled eggs, bacon and toast. The fact that my husband does not cook and loves to sleep in late made the meal taste even better.

Since my birthday fell on a Sunday, I decided to have our regular Sunday dinner at my pad instead. My parents brought some Angus rib-eyes for me to cook, and two kinds of paella from La Tienda (note: Thank you, Miguel, for ordering them for me!). Foxychef prepared some Iberian Chicken and our other sister, Queenbee, brought some Baked Salmon from Conti's. Since it was my birthday and did not want to spend it in the kitchen, I just prepared a simple cheese and coldcuts platter with Manchego and Saint Paulin cheeses, smoked tangigue, anchovy-stuffed olives and chistora.

Now I relish these quiet evenings with the family, just eating good food, sipping on drinks and enjoying the conversation around the table. My niece, Rianna, is the consummate entertainer, helping me set-up the meal before dinner and then, afterwards, keeping us in stitches as she sings and dances to her favorite songs by The Pussycat Dolls and Black Eyed Peas. She also took most of the pictures that night, and some were actually quite good.

I really enjoyed the evening and look forward to having another potluck dinner with the family. Good food, after all, is nothing without good company to share it with. I cannot thank God enough for giving me a wonderful family to have many more amazing meals to come.