Thursday, September 24, 2009

Haute Cuisine, Pampanga-Style

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…

M Café
G/F Ayala Museum
Greenbelt 4, Ayala Center
Makati City
Tel no (632) 7573000

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Muse

Sidetracked by wedding preparations, and- after the wedding- settling into my new life as Mrs. Matt, my blog remained motionless after almost two months. Tired of sitting in front of a blank page on my laptop, I desperately sought inspiration in all possible places.

Pompous ass that I am, I check my site for rousing material that could get my juices flowing. After being inert for so long, my own words that so naturally flowed out of me in the past seemed so profound and scholarly (did I not mention I was a pompous ass?) to me that I almost envied my pre-marital self. I looked at food pictures of dinners that were promised immortality but were shelved because of the hectic pace during the past months. Photoshopped images of fried pigeon and paella stare back at me, but the memories of those dishes have gone stale in my mind’s palate.

So I figured it was time to start eating again. And I mean EATING, like I mean it. Dragging my new husband in tow, we make the rounds of our favorite food haunts, savoring the flavors and aromas that we deprived ourselves of a month before the wedding. After our combined weight loss equaling a small toddler, we thought we deserved to indulge a bit. Or, make that A LOT.

After a particularly trying week, Matt offered to take me out to dinner. Searching for emotional healing, I take full advantage of his offer and think of a place where I can seek comfort in good food and cozy surroundings. In my world, no other food heals like pasta, and in this side of the globe, nobody does it better than Margarita Fores. So, one rainy evening, we head on over to Pepato.

Creatures of habit, we grab the table that we occupied the first time we were there. Tempted to order the Spaghettini Pepato Flambe a second time around, I quickly scan the rest of the page for other prospects. Then, like the quirky girl in class, it stood out like a sore thumb: Pappardelle, Onion Cream, Salted Egg. In a finer print, it states that it also includes asparagus and truffle oil. In my mind, it was a train wreck of a dish. It could not possibly be good, with so much going on and thinking that the strong onion would overpower all other aromas. But, like a train wreck, I just could not ignore it.

I had to try it.

To make room for the other dishes we plan to share, we decided to split an order of the pasta dish as well. Matt- normally safe and conservative with his food choices- was surprisingly supportive of my bold choice. After we quickly finished our appetizer of Roasted Bone Marrow, I spied our pasta being brought out of the kitchen.

Served in rectangular plates, I stretch my neck as high as I could to catch a glimpse of the alluring dish. Before it even reaches my line of vision, the earthy aroma of truffle wafts into my nostrils as the waiter places his tray down two meters away from us.

Visually, it is as quirky as its composition. Strips of flat pasta are spread out over the plate, covered in a smooth cream sauce. Small pieces of chopped asparagus are evenly distributed throughout, along with tiny bits of the dreaded salted egg yolk. “Are those nuts?”, Matt asked. I tell him what they are and- despite his earlier display of courage- I see him cringe.

I slice a small piece of pasta, making sure I got every component in my first bite. As I savor the flavors in my mouth, I immediately get it.

This dish is a balancing act in aroma and texture. Despite a pairing of two very strong and dominant flavors, the truffle and onion do not try to outdo each other. While the former comes at you on the approach, the onion creeps up at you from the back of your throat, emanating from your mouth. Hence, they do not clash, they do not overlap. The sauce is smooth and creamy, but not rich. The bite from the crisp asparagus provides contrast to the cream and delicate pasta. The biggest surprise of all comes from the most controversial ingredient. The pieces of salted egg yolk provide more of a textural element rather than flavor. I enjoyed how its fine-graininess adds a different dimension to what would have been just another cream sauce.

With that juggernaut of a pasta course, what could have been a relatively good main course of beef fillets, Portobello mushroom and baby potatoes paled by comparison. Even as we chewed on the perfectly-rare slices of tenderloin, Matt and I were still talking about how scrumptious the pasta was.

And now, as I tap away on my laptop after the longest time, I once again crave for a taste of that Pappardelle pasta. Maybe the second time around would not be as sweet or inspiring, since the appeal of the unknown is no longer there. But what was once fascinating is now comforting, promising a meal that is both a feast for the senses and warms the heart.

Greenbelt 2
Ayala Center, Makati City
Tel. no. (632) 7572636