Friday, May 29, 2009

Rediscovering Vietnamese Food

Out of all the Southeast Asian cuisines, Vietnamese food is the one that I am most unfamiliar with. Not that I do not like it. I do enjoy a bowl of pho once in a while. But that’s the thing: I’ve been under the impression that there is not much more to Vietnamese food than pho and fresh spring rolls. Being the carnivorous foodie with a penchant for the rich and calorific, I can only take so much broth and fresh veggies. Therefore, Vietnamese food is usually overshadowed by cheesy Italian food or buttery French food.

I had to put my prejudices aside a few weeks ago when my friend Natasha invited me and Matt to dinner (along with her other friend, David, and our common friend, Paulie) at her spanking-new Vietnamese resto, Aquaknox. This new venture of hers and Chef Danny Vu is all about Contemporary Vietnamese Cuisine.

The chic interiors reflect the cuisine with its elegant lighting, colorful murals and modern furnishings. Aside from the dining area at the ground floor, there are more tables at the mezzanine and a private room that seats twelve comfortably.

Looking through their menu, I was shocked to see their incredibly reasonable prices. The owners admit that it is a common misconception that they are a fine dining restaurant because of their posh setting. Truth is: most of their food is quite affordable. Another thing I noticed is that their dishes have a western twist to them. This is not the place to go to if you are looking for the classical interpretation of Vietnamese cuisine. I’m assuming that being a Vietnamese-American chef, Danny has made his food more accessible to westerners by offering them something that they would recognize, while at the same time infusing the dishes with the usual Vietnamese flavors.

We started our meal with a salad and some appetizers- Natasha’s Prawn and Mango Salad, an assortment of fresh spring rolls (Prawn, Salmon and Chorizo), Fried Shrimp Balls, Crispy Calamari, Crispy Crab Rolls and Chicken Lollipops. The salad was refreshing and flavorful, with just the right amount of sweetness from the mangoes and the savory element from the fried prawns. My favorite spring roll would be the chorizo, while Matt and I agreed that the Salmon was nothing to be excited about. The crispy rolls and the chicken lollipops were winners, and I can imagine those doing well with the after-dinner drinking crowd.

Before the appetizers came, I was sipping on a glass of off-dry German Riesling. In hindsight, I think it would have gone quite well with the seafood appetizers.

The main courses arrived in quick succession, starting with a gorgeous pair of Chef Danny’s Special Crabs. The extra-large one was kept in its shell, while the smaller one was emptied of its contents for easier eating. With an extra charge of P100, they can do this for you with any of their crab dishes. Now, I have no more reason not to eat crabs. The crabs were obviously fresh with the sweet, flaky meat, the garlic a perfect accent to any crab dish.

The other seafood dish was something I saw on their web site and wanted to try- the Jumbo Prawns with Garlic Pasta. They were not kidding about the prawns being jumbo- they were huge! Simply prepared, it was wonderfully accented by the strong garlic flavor of the pasta. Being a garlic and pasta fan, this dish was a hit with me.

To accommodate Matt’s dietary restrictions (he does not eat seafood), we also ordered the Grilled Vietnamese Fivespice Chicken and Shaken Beef. The chicken was just alright for me, but the Shaken Beef was a pleasant surprise. Literally tossed around in a wok with herbs, tomatoes and onions, the beef was perfectly cooked and tender. I can imagine this going well with a fruity zinfandel or shiraz. With these dishes, we ordered more of the Garlic pasta, something everyone obviously cannot get enough of.

Matt had another engagement to attend with his mom, so off he went before desserts came. It was a shame because he missed out on the Caramel Mousse and the gargantuan slice of Chocolate Cake, both of which were pretty good.

As we polished off our bottle of Prosecco, we chatted a bit and had a few laughs, mostly due to Paulie’s antics. It was a good dinner with some new friends and I look forward to hanging out there for after-dinner drinks next time. I have a renewed appreciation for Vietnamese food, and I can imagine my dad and sister, Foxychef, having a field day with their modern Asian cuisine.

Aquaknox Restaurant
800 Arnaiz Ave. (formerly Pasay Rd.)
Makati City
Tel. no. (632) 8943380

Monday, May 25, 2009

Oh Hello, Angus!

Hard-core carnivores are very particular about their steak. Based on my observation in restaurants, nothing probably gets sent back to the kitchen more often than these slabs of beef. Depending on personal preferences, all too often steaks could be either overcooked (stiff, dry, stringy) or undercooked (bloody, pretty much still alive). Even some really good restaurants with chefs adept in advanced and highly technical preparations are not exempt from the carnivores’ finicky obsession with getting the doneness right.

A craving for good steak brought me back to I’m Angus, the new Werdenberg-owned restaurant beside Swiss resto Chesa Bianca and Italian food standard Carpaccio. Finding another excuse to get-together, I call on my college buddies Sam, Mara and Marc, all with a similar love for good food. The dark, masculine interior is the perfect backdrop for our gregarious giggles as we caught up on some scandalous gossip regarding a former schoolmate.

As we chose from the expansive selections of wines from Santis (also owned by Werdenberg Corp.) and their line-up of Choice and Prime Angus steaks, we admired some bags that Sam was carrying with her. We were all shocked to find out that what looked like punk-rockish metal trimmings were actually the pulls from soft drink cans collected in Smokey Mountain- the massive landfill that was the unofficial “pin-up” of late 1980’s Manila and inspiration to early Geneva Cruz songs. Sam has been actively working with a charity that gives the marginalized residents of the area a means of livelihood through the collection of these can-pulls, something that she is very passionate about since she strongly believes these people should be given jobs, not dole-outs. I have some pretty awesome friends.

Anticipating the heavy dinner ahead, we decided not to order appetizers anymore. Marc, though, had another dinner to attend, and just decided to order a couple of salads (the Shrimp Salad and the I’m Angus Salad) while completely ignoring the meat courses. Something that he- as he gazed upon our steaks- later on regretted.

Mara wanted something “small” and ordered the Tenderloin with Peppercorn Sauce and a side of Sauteed Mushrooms. I tried the mushrooms and found them to be a bit bland. The steak though, despite being very thick, was perfectly-cooked medium with a hot-pink center.

Sam and I both ordered 300 grams of the Prime Angus Rib-eye. Mine had a Mushroom Sauce and a side order of Creamed Spinach. I noticed that the spinach has greatly improved since my first visit- the consistency was thick and creamy, the flavor of the spinach very fresh and subtle. Now, how can I describe that steak without sounding gushy and pornographic? The outer layer was nicely charred on their grill (over either wood chips or hot stones), preserving the wonderfully juicy medium-rare center. The exquisite marbling on the meat made for amazing texture and that sexy meaty flavor only a good steak can provide.

Throughout dinner we had sips of this Argentinian red wine (a region that I am growing fond of, especially for pairings with grilled meats) Expresiones Reserve 2007- a Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Finca Fichman. It was a bit tight at the beginning, maybe because of it was a bit too cold in the wine ref. After a few minutes though, it smoothened out quite well. I liked it very much with the steak, and at a relatively good price of around P1,100 (restaurant price, much cheaper in Santis), its great value for money.

Too full from the large amounts of protein consumed, dessert was out of the question. We just continued chatting away as we finished off our bottle of wine. Matt- who intelligently chose not to join us for dinner, knowing that he would not know more than half the people we would be talking about- followed soon after with his friend, Ruffles. The good-looking duo, wanting to match our now happily-inebriated state, ordered a couple of beers for themselves.

Confident that I had enough food to sustain me through a night of drinking, we still moved our group (sans Marc, who has already gone off to his second dinner for the night) to a small, non-descript bar along Pasong Tamo Extension, where a mix of college students and yuppies release some mid-week stress with some “drunkeoke”- a weekly event where a live rock band plays back-up to whoever is brave enough to sing an assortment of pop and rock songs from the 70’s onwards.

It was a wonderful evening, starting with one of the best steak dinners I have had in a really long time, and ending with some laid-back but seriously-fun partying. So, was my stomach full enough absorb all that alcohol? At the beginning, yes, but not enough to save me from pictures like this…

I’m Angus
Yakal St.,
San Antonio, Makati City
Tel. no. (632) 8926206

Every Thursdays at
Club 121
Pasong Tamo Extension
Makati City

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

There's Always Time for Mom

During this unusually hectic period in my life, I suddenly find myself at a different pace. Before, in between handling issues at work and planning my wedding, I have always found time to focus on my writing, chill out with some friends, goof-off in Facebook and even sneak in a bit of girly pampering once in a while. Recently though, I catch myself multi-tasking (a skill that I have never been very good at) in the office as the final stretch of wedding preparations takes up most of my time. My blog (until this entry) has been quiet for more than a week and on most days I am too burned-out to even have a few drinks with friends. As I lay in bed catching a bit of riveting reality TV, my mind still races, thinking of things I have yet to accomplish, while I nervously picked at a neglected fingernail.

When Mother’s Day came around, though, I have decided to “take a chill pill” (as my sister Foxychef always tells me) and put my focus on something else. Yes, I know that Mother’s Day was probably a marketing plot dreamt-up by some Machiavellian capitalist swine that needed to boost sales in his flower shop. But then, there are a lot of things more wrong in this world than honoring the person that endured 26 hours of labor and a permanently-protruding bellybutton to bring me into this world. So, I made sure I was well-rested the evening before that so I would be bright and perky all Sunday.

I originally wanted to bring my mom to brunch at Myron’s Place, but it was already fully-booked when I called. The next place I thought of was Chelsea Market and Café, a restaurant I knew my mom liked. Since they do not accept reservations I knew we had to be there early, preferably before 11 AM.

Matt also brought his mom, and luckily they arrived early enough to score us a table. My parents and I- along with my sister Queenbee, brother-in-law Marc, niece Rianna and her Yaya Grace- arrived a few moments after. Matt, being the uncharacteristically sweet and romantic German that he is, gave each of the mommies in the group a bouquet of flowers. My mom, annoyed that we were at a table near the kitchen, asked the manager to give us another table beside the window, which was reserved. “First come, first served, diba?”, she asked in her signature tone which has been compared to Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. Good thing that the manager was smart enough not to argue.

With our frosty drinks, we were served their freshly baked focaccia bread and spiced bread sticks accompanied by a huge head of roasted garlic.

To start our meal, I ordered two kinds of salad, which came in huge serving bowls: Roasted Chicken with Romaine Lettuce, Crispy Bacon and Ceasar Dressing, and Mesclun Greens with Green Apples, Gorgonzola, Walnuts and Vinaigrette. The chicken Ceasar is a favorite of ours, but we got another salad for Matt and his mom, Tita Beth, who do not eat pork. Matt cannot resist the allure of the chicken Ceasar, though, as he got himself a serving while avoiding the bacon. Across the table, Rianna happily munched on the crispy strips of pork.

We also shared the Jalapeno Cheddar and Emmenthal Fondue with cherry tomatoes, olives, boiled baby potatoes, crutons and chips. Matt would have wanted more Jalapenos, but I thought it was good that it was not too spicy. Everyone enjoyed this, obviously. Cheese is, without a doubt, a consistent crowd-pleaser in our family.

For variety, we decided to order a bunch of main courses for sharing. Something we always order in Chelsea is the Fish and Chips, which my dad pounced on and so I was not able to take a picture of it. The first time I ordered it, I was glad that they stayed true to the original British beer-battered crust that I think is essential. Too often I have been disappointed upon being served a panko-crumbed fillet of white fish in some restos. Chelsea’s version is one of the few winners in the city, for sure.

Great value for money is the Whole Roasted Chicken with rice Pilaf which easily serves four on its own. The chicken was beautiful to look at and perfectly-cooked, the rich aroma of rosemary and paprika permeates the senses.

Matt, who is in love with pizza, just had to order a combo of the Five Cheese and Portobello Mushroom. When it arrived, though, it seemed much smaller than the sixteen-inch diameter that the menu promised. The flavor, too, was a bit lacking somehow. I remember the Portobello Mushroom pizza to be much better.

Queenbee asked me to order the Fetuccini Carbonara for Rianna, who is a big fan of the pasta dish. Chelsea’s version is, once again, true to the original, using fresh egg yolk to thicken its already creamy sauce, while crispy bacon bits (real bacon, not the one from a plastic bottle) add a smoky, salty flavor. Yes, you guessed it, another family favorite.

Although stuffed from the large amount of food that was previously consumed (even resident “garbage compactor” Matt has raised the white flag), I just could not resist having a taste of their Cookie Dough Cheesecake which I have been eyeing for quite some time. A huge slice came to the table and, upon inspection, I noticed that not only was it topped with little balls of cookie dough, but the crust was cookie dough as well. This dessert was so rich that two mouthfuls of the stuff were enough to satisfy me. I loved it though, and if somebody brings this to my next birthday party, I would be eternally grateful.

After my dad finished his coffee, we decided to escape the afternoon heat at Serendra and move on to our various afternoon activities: Manicure and pedicure for me and Queenbee, nail art for Rianna’s little toes (she opted for white bunnies with a sky blue background); fearing boredom as we went about our girly business, Marc accompanied my dad to the off-track betting station; mom had her hair blow-dried for our dinner date with Tita B and family. We all then met up at the nail salon where my mom surprised us by paying for our mani-pedis. Rianna also got a treat and was given the ironing board (go figure) she has always wanted.

It was the first time ever that I treated my mom to a Mother’s Day lunch. With the big day coming up, I cannot help but feel nostalgic and emotional as I close this chapter in my life and move on to the next. Despite being a very tight-knit family, we rarely demonstrate or verbalize our love and appreciation for each other. It is during these little moments when we laugh, talk and simply spend time together that I show them, in my own weird way, how much I love them.

(Awkward pause)

Mom, I hope you enjoyed your Mother’s Day. Thanks for being the best mother you could ever be to me and my sisters. You have that gift of knowing when to hold me back and when to let go, and I am the happy, well-balanced person I am now because of it. Thanks again for everything. Love you!

(Awkard pause)

Chelsea Market and Café
Serendra Piazza
Bonifacio Global City, Taguig
Tel. no. (632)9097011