Friday, March 27, 2009

Winner By Knockout

I don’t like it when people mess around with Filipino food.

By “messing around”, I mean the current invasion of “modern Filipino cuisine” wherein Kare-Kare is deconstructed, Laing is turned into pasta sauce and Sisig becomes a pizza topper. I like my Pinoy food cooked the way it should be, or at least the way Filipino mothers, lolas and kusineras all over the country make them. This means that Kare-kare is slow-cooked in its peanut-based sauce until the ox tail is jiggling about like Jello, gabi leaves are simmered in coconut milk and sili to make Laing, later to be served with steamed rice, while the enigmatic pork parts that go into Sisig are happily sizzling away on an iron plate.

When a craving for Pinoy food hits me, I rarely go out to eat, more so now that the classic Filipino restaurants of my childhood are just not as good as they used to be. There are a few though, such as the late Larry Cruz’s Bistro Remedios, which continue to dish out exemplary regional dishes.

One weekday lunch, my Tita P and I decided to make the quick drive from our office to the Malate restaurant. Despite it being a Lenten Friday, we were dead-set on ordering the specialty of the house (and most of Larry C.’s establishments),which is their version of Crispy Pata called Knockout Knuckles- deep-fried crispy pork knuckles topped with a fragrant garlic sauce, accompanied by the usual soy sauce with vinegar and onions.

After being ushered into the bright and cheery dining room- reminiscent of the old houses in the provinces- we quickly ordered a cheekily-named appetizer called Ipusit Mo Baby (baby squid fried to a crisp) and Adobong Balut (battered duck embryos cooked adobo-style). Those went so fast I wasn’t even able to take pictures.

Tita P and I were given a few minutes to digest after we wolfed-down the starters before the main dishes were sent in. For our viands we chose, of course, the knuckles and the Binukadkad na Crispy Plapla, which I know sounds pornographic but is really just deep-fried butterflied Tilapia.

The Knockout Knuckles were as decadent and sumptuous as I remember it- the flesh was juicy and fork-tender, topped by a layer of fat which melts in your mouth, the skin bubbling and crisp, enhanced by the softly-wafting aroma of slow-cooked garlic. Although the garlic topping is something not commonly found in most Crispy Pata recipes, this is one preparation that I have to admit is pure genius.

Our meal was accompanied by a simple siding of Ensaladang Talong (grilled eggplant, sliced tomatoes and onions with a vinegar sauce) and a generous serving of Bamboo Rice. A common practice in Southern Philippines, rice is cooked inside a stick of bamboo, in this case, with some shredded chicken and shitake mushrooms. The result is a densely-packed, flavorful rice dish which goes perfectly with, well, everything.

We gave a valiant effort at finishing the whole meal which would sufficiently feed four, but gave-up when we could no longer suck in our stomachs under our tightening shirts. After having the remains of our meal wrapped, we ordered some dessert: Claude’s Dream for me (buko pandan jelly and young coconut on buffalo milk ice cream) and Gula Melaka (tapioca served with palm sugar and coco cream) for Tita P (who looked like she had a fist-full of Xanax at this point). The desserts were just alright for me, not really worth the extra calories. I can imagine how some people would like them, though.

This Malate institution is truly the jewel of the LJC group of restaurants, proving that the classics only need minor tweaking (or none at all) to be made extraordinary. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

Bistro Remedios
Adriatico St.
Malate, Manila
Tel. no. (632) 5239153

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What's Up With Wagyu?

I never understood the hype over Wagyu beef. Yes, I have salivated over the insane marbling of these special steaks from Kobe, Japan and have enjoyed first-hand as the combination of grilled beef meat and fat easily melted in my mouth. But then, really, there’s more to top-quality steak than just marbling, right? Although I’m far from being a knowledgeable butcher, I know that the best steakhouses also wet or dry-age their steaks to enhance tenderness and flavor.

When it comes to steak, I normally go for the more western-style preparation, which is mildly seasoned and grilled ‘til perfectly medium. Just to give you an idea of what “floats my boat”- I habitually fantasize about the NY Strip at Fleming’s, the Porterhouse at Peter Luger’s and the Chateaubriand at Pinot inside The Venetian Las Vegas. The best steaks- in my world at least- are thick with bright pink centers and charred on the outside by charcoal or wood. So, when I check the menu at Japanese restaurants and see the zeros on the prices of thinly-sliced Wagyu yakiniku or cubed teppanyaki, I can’t help but raise an eyebrow and ask, “Is it really worth it?”

I was able to find some answers when an exciting and new writing gig brought me and Matt to Century Tsukiji for lunch. After being seated at our smoking area table (which reminded me of those claustrophobic smoking areas in airports, but without the insidious cloud of cigarette smoke), I quickly ordered their 10-pc. Sushi set and flipped through their other pages for the rest of our lunch spread.

First to arrive, naturally, was the platter of Assorted Sushi. Matt- who is normally not a big fan of wasabi but has learned to love raw fish- gobbled this up in an instant. The seafood was very fresh and obviously of the best quality. We sipped Miso Soup with this, which could have been a bit warmer.

Matt’s Beef Fried Rice came next and was quickly followed by the Assorted Tempura. I feasted on the huge pieces of deep-fried and battered Ebi (prawn) while Matt had the Kisu (fish fillet) and vegetables. The fried rice was a bit bland for my taste, preferring mine to be heavy on soy sauce and butter, reminiscent of our childhood meals at Takayama. For some reason I never outgrew that.

Finally, a sizzling plate was brought out topped by a serving of Wagyu Sirloin Steak cooked teppanyaki style- cut into inch-sized cubes and cooked over a teppan table (like a griddle) with some butter, soy sauce and pepper, accompanied by a side of vegetables prepared the same way. I popped a cube in my mouth and was momentarily stunned by how tender the beef was. Having been exposed to the more readily-available local Wagyu and Snakeriver Wagyu, I almost forgot how soft and buttery authentic Japanese Wagyu really is. It was so delicate that I would have liked it more if there were less garlic flakes or none at all.

While Matt and I had some of their homemade ice cream, I asked him which part of the meal he enjoyed the most. While he admits that he would need two more servings of the assorted sushi to completely satisfy him, he said that it was the best part of our lunch. I agreed with him completely.

How, for the love of God, could we not have fallen under the spell of Wagyu’s unsurpassable tenderness? Have I programmed my mind to only enjoy steak with wine, making my Japanese steak lunch a notch below perfection? (While we're at it, maybe someone can tell me which wine is good with teppanyaki steak.) Is Matt’s Teutonic heritage making him incapable of enjoying the subtler flavors of the East? Am I over-analyzing this?

I must be, because I honestly think that it really is just a matter of taste. I enjoy the smoky, masculine aroma of huge slabs of beef being grilled over a fire, its outer layer crispy from when the flame flared up as a result of dripping liquid fat. I have this vision of cowboys gathered around a campfire, their tomahawk steaks glistening against the setting dessert sun as a pot of beans boils away beside them. That, to me at least, is what a steak should be.

But, then again, what about a 20-ounce Wagyu porterhouse, grilled to perfection over an outdoor grill? Now that’s a different story.

Century Tsukiji
Century Park Hotel
P. Ocampo St.
Malate, Manila
Tel. no. (632) 5285907

Thursday, March 5, 2009

I Know Its Summer When...

... My face is so shiny Matt uses it as a rearview mirror.

… My dad gets all excited and starts buying random stuff for the beach house, like volleyball nets and colorful picnic baskets.

… We ignore all warnings of strong amihan (northeast winds) and head out to the beach anyway. We are all so traumatized by the scary boat ride home that we swear to take the weather news from our caretaker more seriously.

… We find random excuses to go to the beach. In this case, our best man Basti was in town and needed a tan. Badly.

… I cannot fight the urge to stock up on Spanish white wine and Homenaje Rosado (the ones that Noel DID NOT buy).

Foxychef finds new and inventive ways of keeping our tummies bulging over our boardshorts. Like, when we bought a sack of clams from a local fisherman and she decided to cook some of it in tons of butter and cheese. And, yes, it was good.

… Happy hour starts at 9 in the morning.

… Matt gets his annual Zit-on-the-Forehead.

… Everyone is in a good mood and finds humor in everything.

… I’m too lazy to do anything and use shortcuts to perform tasks. Hence, this list.

Quick Bites: Hing Fat Tea House (Hong Kong)

After our substantial seafood lunch at Lamma Island, we took the ferry back to Central and did some shopping. After a quick pit stop at Lux in Lan Kwai Fong (an area in Hong Kong that is world-renowned for its night life), our tummies were once again signaling us for a refill. Too tired to think and feeling grimy from all that walking, I- along with Foxychef, Beersponge and Juggies (my parents have already gone back to the hotel), decided to take the MTR back to Tsim Sha Tsui, head straight to the hotel and order room service.

From the station, we were walking towards Canton Road when Foxychef spotted the assortment or restaurants and bars in Ashley Road. We stopped in front of a small teahouse where there was a glistening combination of roasted meats hanging behind their glass window. We did not even have to think since our stomachs made the decision for us. We immediately walk into the busy dining room and order.

The dining room of Hing Fat was typical of any Hong Kong tea house: walls plastered with pictures of the house specialties (in this case, everything in the menu was on display), the lighting severe, the decors simple and utilitarian.

First to arrive was the Roast Pork. We were so hungry that we dove into it before our fried rice arrives. The skin was crispy with a good blistery top, like a perfectly-cooked lechon kawali. The meat was so tender and flavorful that I did not find myself looking for the sauce.

Next up was our order of one-half Roast Goose. Again, it was perfectly roasted and flavorful, the considerable layer of fat under the skin ensuring the mouth-watering moistness of the meat. There’s really nothing left to say.

To balance out our heart attack-inducing meal, we ordered some Broccoli with Garlic and Red Peppers, along with several pots of complimentary hot tea.

We loved this place so much that we took my parents here after Sunday mass. My dad, a big fan of Cantonese food, had nothing but good things to say about the dishes that we ordered. Also a horse-racing aficionado, he was more than pleased when the manager was kind enough to switch to the horse-racing channel so that he can catch the Mercedes Benz Derby Trials in Sha Tin on the flat screen in front of us. In my dad’s world, that meal could not have gotten any better.

Hing Fat Tea House
Ashley Road
Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon
Hong Kong, China