Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Pretty Good Start

Breakfast is probably my most-neglected meal of the day. The usual scenario on weekday mornings has me standing over my plate, scooping a few bites of rubbery scrambled eggs into my mouth, before the mad dash to the car.

On weekends, instead of what should ideally be a lazy, long-drawn breakfast over freshly-squeezed orange juice, mushroom and cheese omelet and hash browns, I am usually lying paralyzed and nursing yet another bad hangover. If not, I am simply lying paralyzed. Needless to say, breakfast- although undeniably delicious and nutritious- is not that one meal during the day that I most look forward to.

There are occasions, though, when the craving for good eggs and carbs suddenly hit me and I cannot get all kinds of breakfast confections out of my mind- buttery croissants, runny scrambled eggs, crispy bacon. It sticks to my mind like a sick fantasy, and the only remedy is for me to give in.

What really sealed the deal is when I read about Myron’s Sunday brunch at Lori Baltazar’s blog which the popular food writer called "one of the best” in town. After convincing Matt (who subsists on a morning diet of cold cuts and bread) that it was going to be worth getting up for, we showed up at the restaurant at noon for what was supposed to be the last of a two-Sunday thing. We were seated by the window which offered a great view of the sun-drenched outdoors.

Not really a coffee fan, I ordered a Mimosa- a classic brunch concoction of orange juice and sparkling wine. They must have used Asti (a sweet Italian bubbly) because I found the drink to be a tad too sweet, preferring the natural sugars of the juice to sweeten it. Still, it was a fun drink that leaves you feeling all nice and fuzzy.

To finally fulfill my egg cravings, I ordered the classic Eggs Benedict (two poached eggs served on top of ham and English muffins with hollandaise sauce) from an astounding selection of seven different variations. As I cut into the egg, the runny yolk spilled out and soaked the crisp muffins, making them slightly soggy, which is how I like them. The ham was not too salty but provided a good smoky and meaty element to the dish. The sauce, which is probably one of the toughest to perfect, had the right consistency and was mildly seasoned. They added a salad, I think, so you won’t feel like you’re on a mission to clog your arteries.

Matt had the Corned Beef Reuben, which had all the trappings of a classic Reuben but using corned beef instead of beef pastrami. This got rave reviews from Matt who is a fan of the Reuben at Apartment 1B. Complaining about the price increase at said resto (If I’m not mistaken, their Reuben went from P400 plus to P600 plus! P600 for a sandwich? Hmmm...), he said that he has found a new place where he can enjoy a good hearty sandwich.

With the success of their two-weekend brunch, Myron’s has decided to make their brunch menu a regular thing. God knows that Manila needs more places where they can have a good meal to start the day. And, for me, a good reason to avoid waking up with a hangover.

Myron’s Place
Greenbelt 5
Ayala Center, Makati City
Tel. no. (632) 7578898

Monday, April 20, 2009

Getting Comfy

Comfort food is finally getting its day in the sun.

It was never really a dirty little secret, but it truly is by nature something best enjoyed when you are alone or not in the best state. For instance, nothing soothes (and de-clogs the sinuses) like a hot bowl of Chicken Arroz Caldo, especially the one that our late Yaya Josie used to make. To numb the throbbing pain of a broken heart, women (and some men) everywhere swear by the healing power of ice cream. After a tough day in school or at work, a heaping plate of pasta made by a loved one can turn around even the worst of days.

Although it is not exactly surprising to find pasta and rich soups in a menu, to elevate comfort food into “gourmet food” is something that Apartment 1B can take credit for. This restaurant has had quite a following since it opened its doors two years ago and has proven that comfort food need not be shabby. They took everyday dishes, such as meatloaf, and made them what they are hoping to be the best one you have ever tasted. Pretty much like, say, the Juicy Couture sweat suit of meatloaves: comfortable but with a little sass.

Matt and I met up with James, Sam and Mara for a little get-together before James leaves again for London. Being a fellow lover of good food, I wanted to take him through the city’s foodscape and proudly show him how far we have gone. Initially I wanted to bring him to a Spanish restaurant, but sadly the place was closed for a function that evening. So, Matt suggested that for James’ last night in Manila we bring him somewhere laidback but with food that will surely not disappoint.

Since Sam and James were running late, Matt, Mara and I ordered an appetizer of Spinach and Mushroom Samosas to start. The filo pastry was light and crispy, the filling nicely cheesy. We also had a bottle of Estancia Pinot Grigio 2007 which I bought at Wine Depot. I really like this wine and regret not buying more when it was on sale. It seems to be quite popular here, as they always run out a couple of months after fresh stock arrives. I apologize not taking pictures of the samosas as Matt and I found Mara’s stories to be totally captivating.

James finally arrived, but Sam was still at a meeting. Famished, we decided to order anyway. I had the Pan Seared Lapu-lapu fillet with Boiled Potatoes, Vegetables and Truffle Paste Cream. Not really big on seafood, I ordered this thinking it would be a low-fat alternative to my usual red meat dishes. When it arrived, I was impressed with the size of the fillets and the generous portioning. The fish was perfectly-cooked- moist and flaky under its crispy thin crust. The boiled potatoes and vegetables come alive when swirled around in the creamy sauce, letting the bold flavor of truffle take center stage. It is currently my favorite fish dish. (Note: This is also what Sam ordered when she arrived.)

Matt, in the mood for something filling but at the same time not too high on calories, ordered their Half Roast Chicken with Mashed Potatoes. The meat of the chicken was very juicy and tender, even the dreaded white meat was full of flavor.

Mara ordered the Spaghetti Vongole, her idea of a “diet dish”. Since she was a bigger fan of the dish, I wanted to get her opinion before I tried it. She complained that, although quite tasty, they might have gone overboard with the flavors. Spaghetti Vongole, after all, is a very subtle pasta dish, mostly letting the acidity of the wine and the “sea” flavor of the clams shine through. After tasting it, I concurred that they were a bit too generous with the herbs.

Since he planned on waiting for Sam, James ordered himself a starter of Potatostrings-topped Crab Cakes. Having had this dish several times before, I know for a fact that it is good. For his main course, James opted for the Burger with Swiss Cheese and Mushrooms. He usually avoids eating fast food in London, so this was a bit of a treat for him, with Sam being a bigger fan of the stuff, he said. Quite the talented conversationalist, he polished off his plate with barely a pause during our light-hearted banter, in between chuckles as Matt tried to convince him to stay up until the wee hours to watch the Bayern Munich game.

With our meal, James wanted a particular shiraz to go with it, but I think they were out. He asked me to choose something and so I picked a 2007 Syrah from Domaine Coudoulet. He explained that he thinks the fruity characteristics of the syrah (or shiraz, same thing) will go well with the fish as well as the meatier dishes. I think he was right.

Completely stuffed, we begged off the desserts and decided to just continue drinking at a pub, since we noticed the fear in the eyes of our server as we discussed getting another bottle. While we sipped our beers and vodka bulls, we continued talking about what is going on with each other’s lives. It is nice to know that my friends and I can live completely separate lives and yet not lose that bond we have formed so long ago. Just like a bowl of arroz caldo- or a pint of ice cream, or a plate of spaghetti- knowing that I’ll always have my friends there is what truly warms my soul.

Apartment 1B
One Lafayette Square
Sedeno cor. Leviste Sts.
Salcedo Village, Makati City
Tel. no. (632)8434075

Friday, April 17, 2009

Big Fish in a Small Pond

Vacations in Quezon province has always been some sort of food fest. Passing through the towns on our way to and coming from Mauban entailed countless pitstops picking-up local delicacies and pasalubong. What would be meals at our lola’s house without crisp-fried longganisang Lucban and tortilyang Macao? At the beach house in Cagbalete Island, no afternoon is complete without steaming-hot pancit habhab and my dad’s favorite fried saba. To bring home, nothing satisfies more than a can of broas (lady fingers) from the old Pavinos store in Lucban, a regular request from a dear uncle where it always has a special spot beside his Planter’s peanuts and Poppycock caramel popcorn.

With Quezon quickly becoming a food destination, restaurants offering local dishes are popping-up all over the province. Although there have always been those quaint hole-in-the-walls serving grilled fish and jardinera or the ubiquitous habhab panciterias, recent years have seen the emergence of the ihaw-ihaw (grill) destination restaurants.

Banking on fresh ingredients and serene backdrops, Kamayan sa Palaisdaan is the Parthenon of these native restaurants and grills in Quezon province. Covering close to a hectare of land in the outskirts of Tayabas township, Palaisdaan (as we commonly call it) is best known for its fresh Tilapia raised in the sprawling pond within the restaurant’s property. Floating atop this pond are bamboo huts with tables that seat ten to twelve adults comfortably. Larger groups can be accommodated in their main hall or in various “tree houses” or pavilions spread out all over the restaurant. This establishment has already grown to include a bar, a hotel and a mini-zoo of sorts.

Having made several visits to Palaisdaan over the years (even to its earlier incarnation across the road), my family already has our favorite dishes that we cannot help but order again and again. To start, a pleasant discovery was the sisig, which is mixed tableside on a sizzling plate. The smell is truly captivating, with the pungent aromas of onion, soy sauce, butter and seared pork flesh filling the air. The chopped pieces of pork face are both crispy and gelatinous, with a generous addition of what seems to be shredded pieces of pork meat.

Of course, no meal is complete here without Tilapia. Although grilled fish is always good, we have always favored ours deep-fried. With a dipping sauce of vinegar, soy sauce and red chili, the fried tilapia in Palaisdaan is crisp on the outside while hot and flaky on the inside.

Another favorite is the Grilled Porkchop. Grilled to moist and meaty perfection, dipped in the same sauce as the tilapia, it is pure heaven with steaming white rice.

For the kids and anti-pork Matt, we always order the fried chicken. The pieces of chicken are dipped in batter and deep-fried. It’s actually quite good.

To accompany these dishes, we always order the Ensaladang Mangga and Laing (gabi leaves cooked in coconut milk). There was a time when the laing was very limited and we would always try to come early so we could order it. But now it seems they have a steady supply.

Now, let us talk about service. Let me begin by saying that on normal days the service is quite good. The nature of grilling food makes preparation time a bit longer than usual, so a thirty minute wait has come to be expected. During long weekends and holidays, though, it’s a completely different story. When they are at their maximum capacity, waiting time for your food could reach up to one hour and a half. Their waiters, which are normally pleasant and accommodating, become cranky and unfriendly. If you cannot enjoy your meals under these circumstances, I suggest you avoid coming here during these times.

The food in Palaisdaan is not only outstanding but is great value for money. No wonder people drive in from the city or make an inconvenient detour just to dip their fingers into their succulent tilapias and grilled meats. Despite the problem of being understaffed during peaks season, some still choose to endure their hunger pangs while they wait for their food to arrive. I, on the other hand, will probably schedule my next visit when everyone else is back slaving away on their office desks, far away from my favorite fish pond.

Kamayan sa Palaisdaan
Barangay Dapdap
Tayabas, Quezon
Tel no. +639282845369

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Dinner at Lolo's House

A week before the final stretch of the Lenten season, I had this brilliant idea that I would not allow myself to eat meat from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. In the end, what was thought to be a stroke of “brilliance” turned out to be a bout of insanity since I did not even go through a single day without eating a piece of meat.

Anyway, at the height of my delusion, I thought it would only be fit to have one last “good meal” before the beginning of my self-imposed torture. The Saturday before leaving for our annual Holy Week trip to my dad’s beach house, Matt and I decided to have dinner at what could possibly be the most-heralded fine dining establishment in Manila: Lolo Dad’s CafĂ©.

Reservations are a must in this restaurant, the diminutive dining room being the converted living area of the old Ayuyao home. With multi-awarded Chef Ariel Manuel at the helm, local and foreign foodies come in hordes to pay a pretty penny for a taste of world-class haute cuisine. So, imagine our initial surprise when Matt and I walked into a desolate dining room with only one other table occupied. This made more sense later on as we figured out that Lolo Dad’s mostly upper-class clientele have already gone off to their plush vacation homes in the mountains or by the sea to enjoy the welcomed hiatus. Not so bad since we had the attention of the restaurant’s seasoned staff all to ourselves.

As our server helped us with our orders, Matt decided to have the 7-course degustation menu while I chose to order ala carte. To accompany our meal, I chose from their mostly-Old World wine list and picked out a 2003 Gaillac. At first taste, the wine gave out some pretty hard tannins so I had it poured into a decanter. As the evening progressed, the relative heft and earthiness softened as I got generous whiffs of anise and black currants. For me, this wine might be a bit too brawny to drink on its own, but it worked out quite well as an accompaniment to food.

For my appetizer, the server recommended the Dungeness Crab Salad and Soft Shell Crab Parmigiana. Although not really a fan of soft shell crab, I thoroughly enjoyed this deep-fried version. There was none of the fishiness that I experienced in my previous encounters with this particular crustacean, just the pleasant crunch of the thin shell as you bite into it and the sweetish flavor of its flesh. The Dungeness crab salad was a perfect compliment which was fresh and delicate on the palate.

Matt was served his appetizer of Smoked Salmon-Mushroom Terrine, replacing the Dungeness crab sandwich which was supposed to come with it with more mushrooms instead. Quick to follow was the Espresso of Roma Tomato Cream Soup with Herb Fleuron which Matt proclaimed to be the best-tasting tomato soup ever. I took a sip from the dainty cup and could not help but agree- the perfect balance of richness, acidity and full-on flavor.

I spotted a selection of seafood in the back of the menu and decided to order a few pieces of Baked Oysters with Foie Gras. Three half shells were presented in a charming wooden box loaded with rock salt. Very pretty indeed. Unfortunately, this dish failed to meet my expectations- the foie gras tasted burnt, the angel hair pasta which served as the oyster’s bed was dry and charred at the ends. I could not help but compare it to the baked oysters I had at Antonio’s a couple of visits ago which were sublime. The one in Lolo Dad’s is its “less-attractive” twin.

The third course came in the form of a Roasted Duck Breast and Seared Foie Gras with Filled Muffin and Rose Syrup. The gorgeous presentation has the thin slices of perfectly-cooked duck fanned out over the plate, the generous slab of foie nicely charred and glistening by its side.

After a palate-cleansing Raspberry and Basil Sherbet, we had a few minutes digesting time before the next course.

For my main dish, I cannot help but be drawn to the Charcoal Grilled Muscovy Duck Breast Foie Gras and Butterscotch Pudding with Poached Pear in Saffron. Again, this dish wins in terms of perfect doneness and presentation. The sauce was a study in balance and was nicely soaked-up by the butter-soft meat of the duck. The butterscotch pudding might have been pushing the limit in terms of richness, though. I would have preferred a more delicate side dish to an already fatty protein.

Matt picked out the Roast Rack of Lamb with Blue Cheese Crust amongst the three choices for main course in the degustation menu. A small bite from his plate demonstrated the softness of the lamb chop and the robust flavors and aroma of the cheesy crust. This was served with a potato popover and vegetables.

Surprisingly stuffed, I could not bring myself to order dessert (although the Sampler of Chocolates was unabashedly seductive). I was happy enough to help Matt with his cheese course of Cotton Candy-coated Chev’s Brie Praline with Orange Marmalade and his dessert of Dark Chocolate and Almond Bar with Berries and Ice Cream Composition. We moved to the patio outside so we can lazily smoke some cigs while I shamelessly gobble up huge chunks of the brie. After overloading on spun sugar, the chocolate dessert was flat and tasteless to me, so I left it in Matt’s equally capable hands.

In terms of value for money, Lolo Dad’s degustation menu is the way to go. At P2,700 per head, it is not exactly a budget meal, but the servings are quite reasonable and the food is definitely top-notch. A big plus is definitely the fact that this establishment does not charge corkage for wine.

Despite the unexpected blunders, Lolo Dad’s can easily remain in its loftly throne as one of the best fine-dining restaurants in Manila. For sure Chef Ariel’s former colleague in Mandarin (now with his own thriving destination restaurant in Tagaytay) can give him a run for his money, but in Manila at least, he is definitely king.

Lolo Dad’s Cafe
Quirino Ave. corner L. Guinto St.
Malate, Manila
Tel. no. (632)5242295

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Friends and Foie

College was awesome.

Oh, I was a mediocre student, at best. I have always had bad study habits ever since I hit puberty, preferring to escape through paperbacks (the titles of which are too embarrassing to mention) while ignoring my math homework. Luckily, when I hit senior year in high school, my considerably good grades in History and English pulled up my average and put me on the upper 25% of our graduating class, making it possible for me to get into one of the top universities in the Philippines.

Aside from my regular visits to the state university nearby, breaks in between classes meant hanging out at the “quad” with a group we called Kappa Keps. Most of us met through our freshman block, which evolved as some people left and some were added. It is interesting to note that we all came from different high schools, choosing to expand our horizons instead of limiting ourselves to the usual cliques.

We were truly an interesting mix of characters coming from different backgrounds and covering all sorts of interests. Despite the obvious diversity, we were bound together by a common mantra: “Work hard, party harder”. It was a support system that worked very well for us because it was all-encompassing: we gave each other encouragement not only during tequila shots but also when beating a deadline for a 10-page paper; we drove each other home not only after parties but even when it meant getting stuck overnight at SLEX during a flood; we can go all-night finishing an International Politics paper (The BEST paper ever on China-Taiwan relations. Right, Pat?) ,while also staying up until the wee hours looking for a friend, only to find him passed out in front of Tequila Joe’s.

All of these memories came rushing back during a reunion dinner at Je Suis Gourmand recently. This came about when Sam (now based in London with her husband, James) contacted us through Facebook and announced that she and her hubby were visiting Manila for a few weeks. Lawyer/DJ Marc (we still call him by his nickname, Cookie) coordinated with everyone and decided that we should meet for dinner and drinks on a Friday. Since I remember Sam leaving a lengthy comment in one of my blog entries about Je Suis Gourmand a couple of years back, I thought that the popular French bistro would be the perfect place for our reunion. Another good reason is the new menu which promised to offer new and exciting dishes.

Although a few did not make it (some had prior plans, others were abroad), the ones who were there had a ball recalling crazier times. The receptionist had the foresight of seating our rowdy group at the back where we would not bother the other customers with our belly-laughs and obscene references.

As our party slowly trickled in, we sipped our glasses of Sangiovese as we munched on the appetizers: Sauteed Portobello Mushrooms with Egg and Cream, Pork and Duck Rillettes with Melba Toast Rounds, Roasted Bone Marrow on Crutons with Mesclun Salad and Gourmand’s famous Foie gras Terrine. We recalled how a whole bunch of us boarded Pia’s van to pick up “something” from “someone’s” house. An hour later, we were back at the quad drinking gallons of iced tea and eating one beef wrap after another. Good times. Better if I can remember most of it.

For the main course, I ordered the Lamb Chop, Tenderloin and Merguez Sausage with Steamed Vegetable Couscous, which I have been dreaming of all week. The lamb chop was perfectly medium, the sausage bursting with spicy, pungent complexity. Best of all was the lamb tenderloin, which was pillow-soft and juicy. I am totally smitten.

Matt had his favorite Lamb Shank, but this time with potato puree. Chef Marc Aubry also sent out a few complimentary servings of reosti (fried shredded potato) which Matt regularly requests for. Although increasingly growing embarrassed for his apparent lack of diversity when it comes to food, Matt just could not say no to this dish.

Sam, perfectly at home with Britannia’s love for exotic animal parts, ordered the Veal Kidneys in Mustard Sauce with Fries and Roasted Vegetables. I remember Chef Marc preparing sweetbreads the same way and me loving it. I had a bite of it and liked how the acidy of the sauce cut through the thick, mouth-coating flavor of the kidney.

James, a self-proclaimed cassoulet lover, had the Cassoulet “Gourmand” with Duck Confit. I was not able to taste this dish (and now I regret not doing so) but James assured me that it was excellent. For sure, I will be ordering this on my next visit.

Pia and Mara had the Local Sea Bass with Tomato Salsa and Polenta and the Sea Bass with Saffron Risotto, respectively. The girls were both raving about their fish main courses and were planning return visits way before polishing off their plates.

Chef Mon, who came late with a very pregnant and blooming Pat, decided on the Beef Onglet with Fries and Mesclun Salad.

We lingered a bit longer after we finished our meals one after another, smoking cigarettes outside and finishing off our wine. After deciding where to move our party, we gave our profuse thanks to the now-tipsy Chef Marc (dinner service was long over and he has joined a rowdy table of birthday revelers outside) who modestly received compliments from both his old and new fans. As usual, Matt and I promise to return soon, while our friends who have eaten there for the first time continue to rave about the outstanding food and service.

As Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Nothing could be a better description of my days as a college student. But, unlike the dark saga, my story was heavily-sprinkled with laughter, crazy anecdotes and the mutual affection of wonderful friends.
To my buddies… It was nice seeing you all again.

Je Suis Gourmand
Net One Center
Bonifacio Global City, Taguig
Tel. no. (632) 8158801