During a small get-together at our new pad, close friend and fellow food whore Cookie Goddess blurts out in passing that she is attending a sit-down dinner organized by Franco- from one of our favorite Manila-based food blogs, Table for Three, Please. The menu- a “take two” of Chef Sau Del Rosario’s chic interpretation of Pampanga’s delicacies, conceptualized especially for the recent visit of Chinese-American chef, Ming Tsai.
I freak out.
How could she not have told me, I asked. Cookie Goddess explains that she just took her chance and did not even expect to be given a seat, since it was for a very small group. She promised me, though, that she will ask the organizers if she can bring a friend the very next day. This was already late into the night, while we were chasing glasses of red wine with ice cream sandwiches. So, unsurprisingly, the next day it was as if that part of our conversation never happened. Or so I thought.
A few days after that, as I was having Beef Ribs Hot Pot and Hot Prawn Salad in Century Seafood Restaurant, I receive a call from Cookie Goddess. “Good news! There’s an available seat at the dinner! You can come!”, she exclaims. It takes a few minutes for it to sink in, and then I realized what she was saying. I was suddenly excited. Dinner with fellow foodies for me is like a Spiderman fan going to a comic book convention. Imagine being around a group of people, talking for hours about something that you all collectively love, trading information on new restaurants and dishes like comic nerds exchanging special editions. Magic.
So, for the first time since I got hitched, I leave my new husband at home to have dinner with strangers. Cookie Goddess and I head on over to M Café, stopping over at Bacchus to buy a bottle of wine.
As we walked into the Greenbelt resto, we were greeted by a smiling gentleman which turned out to be Franco. He then introduced us to the rest of the group which included his blooming wife who I believe to be expecting their first child. Seated next to me was this charming couple- Sanj and his bubbly wife, Cutie. I am usually shy around strangers, so the welcome drink- mojito with crushed mint and orchids- was polished off in mere seconds.
I admired the festive and innovative table setting, which included banderitas-slash-menus and an assortment of yoyos- an allusion to Ming Tsai’s popular TV show “East Meets West”, perhaps? I give myself a mental pat-on-the-back for my cleverness.
We were soon served our appetizer: Pica Pica Buru (Fermented Rice with Crispy Catfish and Sauteed Crickets). Each component is placed on a mustasa leaf, which is then rolled up and eaten. I have tried crickets at Fely J.’s before, so I know how the critters taste like. But, eaten together with the crispness of the catfish and the rich, slightly sour fermented rice, it was more than bearable. It was actually quite delicious. I found myself putting together two more rolls before I had to stop myself in order to make more room for the rest of the dishes.
The salad course soon followed: the Pacu Ampo Paru, a forest fern salad with prawns, salted egg, watermelon, young coconut and country vinaigrette. This was my least favorite of all, mainly because of how the salad made my tongue feel thick (Tagalog term: mapakla). I was hoping that the acidity from the vinegar would cut it, but it did not really help. The flavors, I understand, were meant to be simple and rustic, but it just came off as flat to me.
Whatever issues I had with the prior dish were quickly forgotten upon tasting the next one: Sisig Pambuc Babi (pork bits with chicken liver, red onions and chili). Being a fan of this popular Pampanga delicacy, I was wary that the flavors would be tampered with to be made more pleasing to Western tastes. I soon discovered that my concerns were uncalled for, as Chef Sau’s version could not be more authentic and delectable. The little bits of pork were gelatinous, the cartilage obviously made tender by hours of boiling. The contrast was provided by the topping of crisp chicharon (slivers of deep-fried pork skin), the air bubbles on the surface popping with each crunch, tasty despite the palpable absence of MSG. “Now I wish I had a bottle of beer,” Franco tells Cookie Goddess. We agree, although, fortunately, I found Cookie Goddess’ bottle of Shiraz to be a rather worthy compliment. I’m so happy that match worked out.
The next dish was the Bulanglang Asan- Chilean Seabass cooked in a guava broth. The broth is sinigang, which is soup made sour using ingredients like tamarind, kamias or, in this case, guava. I thought the soup was just the right sourness for my taste, and the fish was perfectly cooked- still moist and flaky. Underneath the fish was a ravioli stuffed with frog leg, which I thought was unnecessary. On their own, the fish and the broth were already quite successful.
The light fish course was followed by a dish that was packed with flavor and richness- the Pugu Adobu Foie Gras (stewed pigeon in vinegar and soy sauce topped with foie gras, quail egg and pickled vegetables). Again, the concentrated flavors of the sauce tasted pretty accurate to me and, if not for the foie gras, could have been just a really delicious adobo. Don’t get me wrong: The foie was a welcome addition to the dish, perfectly-seared with a thin, caramelized crust. This has got to be my favorite dish of the night.
But then again, as much as I loved the adobo dish, I cannot say I did not adore the main event- Litsung Bigak (suckling pig with green curry rice). The baby pig was traditionally cooked on a spit, the steamed rice simmered in its cavity with other herbs and spices and then scooped out for plating. The skin was thin and crisp, the flesh juicy and flavorful. Although tasty enough to be eaten alone, I just cannot say no to liver sauce. I pour a good amount on my plate and eat it with the curry rice, which was creamy and subtle. Although full, I just had to have another serving after a much-needed cigarette break. The second round was accompanied by a glass of Franco’s wine, a Sonoma Valley cabernet sauvignon that went famously well with the pig. Even alone, it was well-balanced with a nice long finish, noticing notes of camphor, dark chocolate and black cherries. Yum!
As I was finishing my lechon (everyone else was done with theirs), the dessert trio was placed in front of us to be shared. There were three slices of cakes in different flavors- Tres Leches, Brazo de Limon and Chocnut Caramel. The chocoholic in me had me going straight for the last one, which was nicely moist and fudgy with a delicious layer of the popular local “chocolate” bar in the middle. Now I know why people rave about the cakes at M Café. All three were delectable and faultless.
As the wine and conversation continued to flow, chatter became more excited and laughter, more uncontrollable. Stories about food and travel were endless and I almost had a feeling that the night was cut short. I really enjoyed our conversations with Franco, Sanj and Cutie, and would have loved to tune in to the light banter on the other end of the table as well. “Next time, I’ll request for a round table so it’s easier to chat”, Franco observes. After numbers were exchanged and promises of future dinners were made, we all said our good nights and headed home. Honestly, I really hope I get invited again to the next one. (Wink, wink.)
Although there were some hits and misses, the dinner was a good representation of what Filipino food should be like. People often wonder why our dishes are not as popular as other Southeast Asian cuisine, such as Thai and Vietnamese, and of course it’s not because it’s not good. Aside from marketing, I think we have to make a little extra effort in making our food “prettier”. To the uninitiated, our Kare-kare probably looks like ox tail and vegetables swimming in muck. More often than not, we still have that mentality that Filipino food is all about home-cooking, and frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that. But, if we want to join the big leagues, we have to, shall I say, “sex it up” a bit.
And that’s what Chef Sau attempted to do with relative success- the flavors were undeniably local, but presented in a way that is universally palatable. I have seen this being done in some restaurants already, and I fully support it as long as the flavors are authentic and not “fusion” (which is on its way out, anyway). Before you know it, sisig will be as popular as other formerly exotic food such as sushi and pho.
Hey, a girl can dream…
G/F Ayala Museum
Greenbelt 4, Ayala Center
G/F Ayala Museum
Greenbelt 4, Ayala Center
Tel no (632) 7573000