Friday, November 27, 2009

A Plateful of Gratitude

I believe that Thanksgiving Day should be celebrated everywhere.

What I like about it is that it pretty much forces you to step back and appreciate the things that are going quite well for you. In these fast-paced times of high-maintenance toddlers donning iPods and cellphones, we start to take simple conveniences for granted and constantly bitch about the small things that go wrong.

I admit that I belong to that group of formerly-idealistic gen-Xers who were out to change the world but- after being immersed in this cesspool called Life- were suddenly transformed into these hardened shells of our former selves, jaded and cynical. Nevertheless, once in a while I make a conscious effort to be appreciative of the blessings that have come my way. That is what makes Thanksgiving Day, in my opinion, so great. It’s because any day that makes people a little bit happier- a little bit more grateful to be alive, despite all the craziness in the world we live in- should definitely be celebrated. Nobody, I believe, should be exempt from it.

So, while I enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner at Circles in Shangri-la Hotel Makati with Matt, I reflected on the things that are making my life awesome.

First, I am thankful for the year that passed. It was a long and crazy journey filled with tests, life lessons, major changes and adjustments. But then again, it was also a year of reunions, happiness, laughter and new beginnings. I have always been a firm believer that all things happen for a reason and I have learned to take every challenge that comes my way as a fortifying agent that strengthens my spirit. Bring it on, as they say. Therefore, I am thankful for all that passed, both good and bad.

After getting married and living away from home for the first time ever, I have become more appreciative of the good health and happiness of my family. I still see them regularly, of course, but it was a major change for me not to see them first thing when I wake up, to hear the animated chatter outside my room and I’m even beginning to miss the constant invasions of privacy (mostly by my mom). Now, I find myself thinking about them all the time and have even begun to worry about them occasionally, which is something I never did in the past. So, yes, I’m very happy that we are all thriving and happy, even if we now live 20 minutes away from each other.

I am grateful that love continues to grow in the new home that Matt and I are building together. I’m not talking about an actual structure, but that figurative safe-place where we can always find comfort, security and, above all, love. That adjustment period that everybody was talking about has been a pain in the neck, but we seem to be gracefully transitioning and things are getting better. We still have a long way to go, but I take it as a good sign that despite the new challenges we face together, we come out of it stronger and even happier to have each other.

Of course, what would life be without family and friends? I am thankful to be surrounded by good people who always want what is best for me and who usher me towards the right direction when I am beginning to lose focus. I have also been very lucky to have maintained my old friendships and continue to meet new people who are teaching me new things and adding excitement to my life. Aside from those that I see regularly, there are also my relatives and friends who live far, but have always kept in touch and are generous with their love and concern, even from a distance. Oh, and let’s not forget my new relatives from Matt’s side! I am really grateful that they truly are a wonderful family of good and genuine people. Honestly, I feel very, very lucky to have them in my life.

Finally, I am thankful to have found happiness and fulfillment in everything that I do. As a new wife, I am truly enjoying my new role and everything that comes with it. I never thought that I would find so much satisfaction in hearing Matt say, “OH MY GOD! Your Caldereta is THE BEST!” Aside from the bliss that I find in my culinary triumphs, I am also thankful for the happiness that writing continues to bring me, as well as the job that allows me the time to write and draws on my strengths as a creative and a multi-dimensional person.

Looking at this entry that I expected to be just a couple of paragraphs long, I cannot help but be thankful that I actually have so much to be grateful for. It’s good to know that when things are looking a bit grim, I have this list to remind me that God has been kind and that I should not dwell on the bad stuff.

All this, thanks to a plateful of turkey and stuffing.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Into the Blue in Cebu

I can’t help it: Italian food is my one true weakness. I can hold back on potato chips and ice cream, but slam a plate of pasta in front of me and I’m doomed.

Last weekend, Matt and I (along with my entire immediate family) were in Cebu for a family friend’s wedding. Like half of the guests, we were billeted in Shangri-la Mactan Resort and Spa where the wedding reception would also be held. We as a family have several fond memories of the resort, so we were all only too happy to go.

While most people were pining for Cebu lechon, I was dead-set on having a meal in Shangri-la Mactan’s Italian restaurant, Acqua. I remember having lunch there a couple of years ago, and it was a pretty good meal, if I’m not mistaken. So, it was set that Matt and I were going to have dinner there on his first night ever in Cebu.

The interior was exactly how I remembered it- the high-ceilinged dining room was awash in white and detailed with dark wood and modern fixtures. It was sleek and contemporary but totally accessible, something that would be perfectly at home at a high-end Miami hotel.

When we were done ordering, I was immediately drawn to the round table in the middle of the room topped by an assortment of wines, liqeurs and glasses. After a couple of tastes, I decided on having a glass of nicely-balanced Chianti Classico. Being a hotel restaurant, wines by the glass at Acqua come at a horrendous price. But it was really good, so I try to stop myself from calculating the retail price in my head and just enjoy.

To start our meal, Matt and I decided to split a plate of Mushroom Risotto with Truffle Essence. Seeing the pallid color of the risotto, I brace myself for probable disappointment. But then, the minute the velvety grains of Arborio rice entered my mouth, I immediately declared the dish a winner. The texture was creamy, but not thick and dense. You can still feel the al dente graininess of the rice, which is a far cry from overly-stirred, mushy versions I have tried before. Wide, generous slices of Porcini mushrooms add interesting texture and flavor to the dish, while a subtle whiff of truffle wafts into my nostrils with every bite. Matt claims it to be the best risotto he has ever had.

Still heady from the rapture brought about by the risotto, I watch with anticipation as my main dish is placed before me- Seared Angus Rib-Eye with Sauteed Mushrooms, Arugula and Shaved Parmesan. Upon inspection, the steak was obviously grilled to perfection, medium, as I have requested. The slices of meat were delicately flavored with a light balsamic reduction and freshly-ground black pepper. The subtle play on flavors- from the peppery arugula, to the earthiness of the mushrooms, to the sweet-tangy balsamic- is a welcome change from the usual richness associated with Italian food.

Matt ordered the Roasted Lamb Rack with Almond Crust and Apple Mashed Potatoes. I had a taste of this, too, and notice how the well-done meat managed to stay moist inside the thick crust. Matt actually found it to be a bit dry, but I thought it was ok.

Stuffed from our hearty Italian meal, we head out to the breezy poolside dining area to have a cig while we rub our fully-satiated bellies. I don’t know why, but our server mistakenly thought that we were celebrating our anniversary, so they brought out a complimentary serving of chocolate mousse. Chocoholic-me naturally had to have a few spoonfuls, despite my groaning mid-section. It was really sweet of them to have done that, though. I must say, this was one of the few times that being lost in translation is a good thing.

Spying the outdoor brick oven, Matt and I knew that we had to try Acqua’s pizzas before we left. On our last day in Cebu, we decided to have a quick meal there after our late check-out. We opted for two flavors in one pie- one half had Parma ham, arugula and mozzarella, while the other half had ricotta cheese, spinach and fresh pomodoro. I am happy to report that Acqua’s pizzas are, indeed, delicious and reasonably-priced. Well, for a hotel resto, at least.

My Italian meal in the land of lechon would seem outrageous to most, but I would not have had it any other way. Something tells me a bunch of little piggies are pretty happy about that.

Shangri-la Mactan Resort and Spa
Punta Engano Road
Lapu-Lapu, Cebu
Tel. no. (6332) 2310288

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Quick Bites: Sandy's Pizza

In this over-saturated food industry, it is very rare that I come across “good finds”. You know, those small, hole-in-the-walls where you find excellent food with a home-grown feel. Everything seems to be going in the direction of “bigger and better”, franchising, constant expansion, banking on the tried and tested formulas and distributing it to the masses. Nothing wrong with that, but most of the time the quality and painstaking care that is put into preparing delicious food is lost.

Recently, when I was coming home from work, I saw a delivery bike with the name “Sandy’s Pizza” emblazoned on the box parked in front of our building. I have read about it more than a year ago in other blogs but have never gotten to try it. Since we lived in Makati at the time, it was impossible to have a taste of this much talked about pizza that is based in residential San Juan. I don’t know how it is now, but at the time they were only doing deliveries and did not have facilities for dine-in customers. Despite that, people were constantly gushing in their site about how delicious the pizzas were and that they could not get enough of this gem of a pizzeria.

It took a while after spotting that delivery bike until Matt and I finally got to sample Sandy’s pizza. The first time we had it, we passed by their small store in San Juan at around 9:30 PM, hoping that they were still taking orders. Although they were already closed, they were kind enough to accommodate us and baked us a combination pizza (Chicken Curry, Garlic Tuyo, Garlic Chorizo and White Pizza) for take-out. The second time, we had them deliver another combination pizza (Garlic Tuyo, Mexican Chili, Meatzarella and Filipino Adobo and White Cheese) to our pad.

Both times the pizzas were absolutely phenomenal- and I do not use that word loosely when it comes to food. Yes, there are some pizzas out there that come close and even fewer that might be better (actually, only Caruso comes to mind), but what has gotten me smitten is that its high quality and tastiness has taken me completely by surprise. First of all, the pricing I believe is just right. It might be more expensive than your average neighborhood pizza joint, but for the authenticity and quality that you get, you cannot complain. Second, the toppings are unique and full of flavor. They are not overly-generous with it, but you can be sure that they taste good. Finally, the crust is perfect- soft and chewy on the inside, light and crispy on the outside. If this is not the perfect pizza, then it surely comes very close to it.

I think foodies like me appreciate dishes and restaurants more when we get the vibe that the food comes from someone who is more of a food lover than a businessman. And I get that feeling from the owner of Sandy’s. You can tell from how the crust was made to the careful conceptualization of her innovative pizza toppings, she has put a lot of love into these pizzas. Although I have never met her (I just saw pictures of her in her multiply site with her famous actor brother), I can’t help but admire her for turning her love for a particular dish into something truly spectacular that she can share with others. You just got to love that, too.

Sandy’s Pizza
J. Abad Santos St.
San Juan, Metro Manila
Tel. no. (632) 7218334

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Not Your Ordinary Oven

What makes a great get-together?

It’s the right mix of a whole bunch of things: Nice, cozy ambience; a fun and relaxed host; a generous amount of delicious food; a steady flow of alcoholic (or not) beverages; and, of course, a delightful combination of personalities as party guests.

For this reason the regular get-togethers of the Wines and Spirits Club has become one of those events that I really look forward to. This on-line community that Chef Gene Gonzalez (Café Ysabel, Center for Asian Culinary Studies) created with his wünderkinder Chef Gino and Giannina has truly grown to be THE place for genuine lovers of food, wine and the good life, in general.

This time around, the “excuse” for celebration is Café Ysabel’s brand new wood-fired oven, located at the ground floor of the restaurant, across Chef Gene’s art gallery. As posted on the site’s bulletin board, there were to be several dishes served during the dinner, all of them cooked in the wood-fired oven. We were also encouraged to bring our own bottles, which is always fun for me.

When Matt and I arrived, we bumped into winemaster Noel chatting with two elderly gentlemen while having a smoke near the entrance. Looking around, I saw some familiar faces, but nobody I’m really that chummy with. I know that the point of joining these events is to meet new people, but I’m actually quite shy around older people when I’m without “courage juice”. Luckily, we were seated in the same table as Noel and his group, so at least I was more at ease. We were introduced to Noel’s wife, Catha, his cool(er) brother Tad, Tad’s wife, Aaron Palileo and his wife, Jo. The two gentlemen Noel was chatting with outside were Bob and Bill, who were seated right across from us. Next to them were our other friends, married couple Sanj and Cutie, and beside us was one of my favorite home bakers (and fellow food perv), Cookie Goddess.

There were eight courses that night, all baked in the wood-fired oven, except the cheese course. To get the party started, we opened a bottle of Toso Prosecco, my favorite party bubbly. With this, we paired our first pizza for the night- the Goat Cheese Pizza with Red Wine Simmered Onions, Topped with Arugula. The peppery greens were drizzled with some balsamic vinegar and olive oil, which gave it a nice acidity and sheen. Although the crust was a bit tough on some parts, I loved the combination of flavors- sweet, salty, tangy, and a bit spicy. It was a very good light start to the dinner.

The second pizza- and my favorite dish for the evening- was the Turkish Pide with Lamb Sausage, Chives, Parsley, Olives, Feta and Mozarella. The crust was formed into a wide oval shape, and I’m pretty sure it was made the same way as the first pizza. What won me over was the tasty, garlicky lamb sausage. With this pizza and the next one, Noel made me try some of red wines from their group. I remember trying a Barbaresco and a Rioja, which I remember were both very good and refined (and, knowing Noel, well beyond my budget). Sanj, Cutie and Cookie Goddess also brought some very good Chilean reds, which I wish took pictures of because I love great tasting, value for money wines.

The final pizza for the night was a Double Pepperoni Pizza. By this time I am substantially inebriated, and what could be better with that buzz than something nice and oily. This pizza was just perfect for that, and, suddenly brazen after several glasses of wine, I believe I ate more than my share. Which is ok, I think, since I saved the elder diners from a potential heart attack?

After a few cigs outside with some new friends, we were served soup- a Minestrone of Charred Vegetables. Although I did not particularly like this dish, it did promise to deliver in terms of the vegetables really being charred. The broth was just alright, which I had a few spoonfuls of.

Finally, the meat course arrives- Fire Baked Beef Short Ribs with Spicy Bourbon Glaze, Baked Corn, Napa Style Cauliflower. Although dry on some parts, the glaze was delicious and compensates for the less-than-perfect texture. Suddenly, I remember my bottle and ask the waiter to bring it over- a 2005 Peju Zinfandel. This was sent to me more than a year ago by my banker-turned-budding sommelier cousin Poopel who is based in San Francisco. At that time I was gaga over Zins and loved their juicy and jammy character. This bottle was meatier than most Zins I have tried before, and Noel observed the same thing. After a while though the fruit comes out, and its bouquet is suddenly swirling with ripe, juicy berries and some licorice. Not overtly complex, but then that’s what I love about this variety. If you’re not willing to “commit” or be blown away by huge, bold flavors, this would be perfect.

Another wine I tried was from Ines, one of the few other “chicks” in the club. She brought a 2007 Banfi Cum Laude- which was a big- massive- Tuscan wine. From the little that I know of Italian wines, Tuscan reds really need a lot of time to fully mature, which I think is also the case with this particular young bottle. It was just a wall of tannins at first gulp which made it very difficult to figure out. Later on it began to show a bit more of its layers, revealing a very masculine wine with lots of oakiness, tobacco and earth. It just really needs more time.

After the cheese course, we were served our dessert of Burned Butter Ice Cream with Roasted Pineapple. The ice cream was perfection, in my opinion, with the simple and rustic flavors of the roasted fruit to accompany it. This dessert was a winner for me, and I remember Matt’s eyes rolling in agreement. It’s too bad as I was too hammered at this point to take a picture of it (the ice dessert, not Matt convulsing).

At the end of the meal, Chef Gene said a few words and introduced the talented young cooks that prepared our wonderful dinner. Now everyone is just free to mingle and to finish off whatever is left of our wines. Matt has whipped out his bottle of Paulaner which he (happily?) shared with our new and old friends. I tried to sneak a candid picture of TV star Johnny Revilla, but being the showbiz veteran, he knows when a camera is aimed at him and gamely smiled. I remember making some lame excuse that it’s for my mom and that she was a big fan of his last telenovela. Ok, sometimes I would watch it too, but only because I wanted to know which part of the JR-Dave-Audrey love triangle will really end up together, or if Coco Martin’s (who is SO my type) character really died in that car crash, and if “Ingrid” will totally lose her mind and end up in the loony bin. Really, I wasn’t that into it.

Again, it was a great evening of good food, great wine and wonderful company. I love that this club brings together food and wine lovers of all ages because it allows us younger people to learn from the more “senior” members, and hopefully they also learn something new from us. In fact, age was never an issue in this club. It’s all about the shared passion for everything delicious and all of life’s epicurean pleasures.

Needless to say, I am looking forward to the next one.

Café Ysabel
P. Guevarra St.
San Juan, Metro Manila
Tel. no. (632) 7255089

If this looks like a lot of fun, check out and become an instant member by just registering on-line.