Monday, January 25, 2010

A Case of Good Eats Versus Good Deals

My love affair with food writing stemmed naturally from my appreciation for good food and restaurants. I remember sitting in a favorite eatery, having a great meal, and thinking, “OMG… Everyone in the universe should try this!” I remember Cookie Goddess telling me years ago, “You should start a food blog.” Since I have always been “technically-challenged”, the concept of blogging seemed as foreign to me as Brazilian waxing must be to gorillas. But eventually, fueled by love for food and eating out, I started writing restaurant reviews on my site in After developing a modest following, I finally decided to start a “proper” blog. Despite the initial struggles which accompanied my maiden voyage into “techie-dom”, I was able to set up a food blog which I continue to maintain up to this day.

One of my first ever restaurant reviews was about a small restaurant in Yakal St. called Bianca’s Café and Vinotek. This Werdenberg- owned restaurant was a favorite spot for “business lunches” with my parents when I was fresh out of college and getting a feel for the so-called “real world”. I favored their set menu wherein you get to choose one appetizer and a main course, for only a few hundred pesos. When we started going there in 2000, the set menu was priced at P350. This was not bad at all, considering their hearty portions and an obvious preference for top-notch ingredients. Their house pours are also very reasonably-priced at P100-120 a glass, and these are pretty decent New World wines. Unfortunately, the owners decided to change the concept of the restaurant, opting to serve only Swiss cuisine, no longer the former eclectic mix of continental and European dishes. Out of all the restaurants in Manila, the old Bianca’s is the one I miss the most. Nothing has ever come close to it in terms of value for money and quality.

I longed for it even more after a visit to The Gustavian at the new Eastwood Mall when a business meeting brought me to the area. Looking at its Continental menu, it really reminded me of the Bianca’s I frequented almost a decade ago. Hearty stews, steaks, cold cuts… the selection was a mix of European favorites. What was most alluring to me, though, was their set menu comprising of an appetizer, main course and dessert worth P390++. My eyes bulge out and I palpitate. Have I found a worthy replacement to my beloved Bianca’s? I knew I had to find out for myself and immediately asked for a table.

The décor is undeniably Old World with the high ceilings, white textured walls and dark wood. The restaurant is named after Sweden’s Crown Prince Gustav III and pays homage to the 18th-century monarch’s love for fine French Cuisine. Why the name? I have no idea. The owners (the Cebuano Lhuilliers) look European, but I don’t think they’re Swedish. Anyway, it sounds good, so why not?

My companion and I decided to order from their set menu, which was quite comprehensive with three or four choices per category. We both decided to start with salads- she had the Caesar Salad, and I ordered the Beef Medallions with Chilled Ratatouille. For a starter, the portions were a bit small, but passable. Execution suffered a bit though, but I blame that on budget constraints.

For my main course, I ordered the Fried Sole Fillet with Lemon Risotto. After the diminutive first course, I surprised to see the huge slice of fish topped with more of the ratatouille. The risotto was drier than what I am used to, but it was cooked al dente and not mushy at all. Overall, this was a decent dish.

The other main course was a Sole and Salmon Paupiette in Beurre Blanc with Rice Pilaf. Again, this was another good-sized dish and the sauce was pretty tasty.

For dessert, they only had one for the day- A Mango Crepe with Grand Marnier. You can taste the licqeur which soaked the crepes perfectly, complimented by the sweet Philippine mangoes. I liked this dessert because it was satisfying and yet not too heavy and rich.

So, is The Gustavian the new Bianca’s? Based on this visit, not even close. I blame it on the pricing, though. For P390++, even the most highly-skilled chefs would not be able to whip up a meal with the same quality as Bianca’s, in my opinion. If I’m not mistaken, the set menu at Bianca’s was at P590 per head before they changed their concept. And this was at least three years ago. Personally, I believe that the clientele who have a preference for old-school European country cooking would be willing to shell out a few extra bucks as long as they are presented with better quality food. Right now, I get the impression that The Gustavian is trying to reach out to the working class that frequent the area. I say forget it: Focus on high-quality ingredients and classical cooking techniques to come up with world-class cuisine. Leave the budget meals to the Jollibee group- you’ll never beat them anyway. As the ghost of Jim Morrison told Wayne in Wayne’s World 2, “If you build it, they will come”.

Believe me, they always do. And if The Gustavian’s set menus become as good (or even better) than Bianca’s, I surely will.

The Gustavian
Ground Level Eastwood Mall
Eastwood City
Libis, +639179853429

Friday, January 15, 2010

"Pass Me A Bottle, Mr. Jones..."

There seems to be e renewed appreciation for diner food here in Manila. I say “renewed” since I do remember seeing them around back in the 80’s, and then slowly dwindling in numbers as the food market was slowly infiltrated by huge American food franchises. I remember going to this diner in Makati Ave. (I forget the name) with my Dad when I was still in grade school, and I would always order their version of Fetuccini Alfredo which, curiously, contained chopped scallions and cooked ham. I loved it though, and would always order it with a rootbeer float. I still remember what my Dad would order- Pork Chops, which remains his all-time favorite to this day.

Alongside the growing popularity of tasting menus, the other trend seems to be comfort food. Enter the old-school concept of the All-American Diner. Simple recipes, huge portions and served fast. This time, though, there seems to be a more conscious effort in keeping it authentic (No scallions in their pastas here!), as is the case with M Café and Chelsea Market’s new “brother”, Mr. Jones. Despite a relatively-higher price point, the portions are huge, remaining consistent with how food is served in the US. The décor is straight out of a classic Archie comic book with its bright red booths, formica table tops and chrome trimmings. The servers are spiffily-outfitted in slim, white and red shirts and pants. Overall, the look is well-conceptualized, retro but also very “now”.

My companions and I arrive early for the lunch service and helped ourselves into the booth. Although the place was empty when we arrived, it quickly filled up later on. The clientele was a mix of young executives from the offices surrounding the Greenbelt area as well as some middle-aged shoppers.

Things started out pretty badly. We ordered our drinks from our waiter, who seemed either distracted or dim-witted. Either way, it was quite annoying. We forgive him because he could pass for a D-list model. When we were ready to order our food, we tried desperately to get his attention from the open kitchen but he was deep in conversation with one of the cooks. So, we spotted a lady which we assume is the manager and we order from her. We originally wanted the Tater Tots, but she grumpily informed us that it is not available, like it’s our fault and we should not have asked in the first place. In fact, three out of the five appetizers were not available that day. I am even more annoyed now. So we settle for something else and order the rest of our food. The manager leaves in a huff, and I fantasize about punching her in the face. Obviously, I was not liking her too much.

Despite my now surly mood, I pep myself up with sips from my Classic Chocolate Malt. The thick, chocolate concoction is rich but not too sweet. It made me feel much better.

Our appetizer is the Bagels with Marinated Salmon, Salmon Mousse and Fig Marmalade. I love Salmon, especially raw and smoked preparations, so this one was a hit with me. The only problem was that there was a bit of confusion as to where the marinated salmon was. As we finished off the mousse, we realized that the little bits of salmon were at the bottom of the cup! If you do not go digging into the mousse you would really not know what is underneath. Maybe this detail should be better explained in the menu, or at least pointed out by the wait staff.

Next to arrive was the Truffle Mac and Cheese with Pancetta, Green peas and Mushrooms. Needless to say, this dish smelled really good. The consistency of the sauce was not as thick as I would have wanted it, but it was still rich and cheesy. I like how the salty cubes of pancetta and the fresh peas balance out the cheese sauce.


Then the huge serving of Fish and Chips was placed on the table. Fish and Chips is one dish that I always need to try in restos like this one because, despite its popularity, very seldom do you find one that is done right. This particular one, I am happy to say, was done perfectly- the beer-battered crust was crispy, and stayed that way throughout the meal; the chips (or fries) were also crisp and mildly seasoned. It comes with small aluminum cups of tartar sauce, malt vinegar and ketchup. Definitely, this is one of the better-executed Fish and Chips in Manila.


Another dish we all decided to share was the Superman Burger. It deserved the moniker, I tell you- two thick beef patties in a sesame seed bun, with lettuce, tomatoes, a generous slice of pickle and jalapeno. As you slice into it, you see the juices running out of the patty, proving just how moist it is. This is truly a no frills, classic all-American burger. I think Matt would love this.

Despite sharing all of the dishes, my two companions and I were too stuffed to finish them all. Feeling heavy and bloated, we decide to order hot tea which would hopefully aid us in digesting our meal. We were smitten with the tea pot and cups, which comes looking like a teapot, and then transforms into two pieces, which is a small pot and a cup. Adorable!

Obviously in a punishing mood, we decide to order dessert with our tea. Being part of that M Café/Chelsea Market/MoMo group, we were sure that the cakes would be scrumptious. We order the Cookie Dough Cheesecake, which we collectively loved. I cannot imagine anyone not liking it.

This restaurant, despite the inventory issues and crappy service (which I am desperately hoping will get better), will surely do well in its location. As I always say, I like it when an establishment finds it niche and commits to it completely. The food was thankfully good enough to compensate for what could have been a disastrous and disappointing lunch. Yes, the food was so good that I could forgive the poorly-trained wait staff and that ogre of a manager, but only this time. Dining out, after all, is a total-sensory experience. Everything has to taste good, look good and FEEL good. Otherwise, in my opinion, the customer does not get his/her money’s worth. I will be back, though, and I truly do hope that that manager will be in a better mood.

Mr. Jones
Greenbelt 5
Ayala Center, Makati City
Tel. no. (632)5013682-83

Sunday, January 10, 2010

If It Lu-ks Good, Eat It

Yes, I really took it easy during the holidays. Despite all the eating out, cooking and partying, I decided that I just wanted t o soak everything in and not worry about taking food pictures and writing articles. I had a wonderful time just being with my family, catching up with old friends, making new ones, and just having a grand time celebrating the season.

After the revelry, I knew I had to get back to writing, and fast. In the past couple of months there were at least five new restaurants that opened just in time for the holidays and I have yet to try them all.

During the Christmas season I was able to dine a couple of times at the newly-opened Lu in Rockwell, Makati City. Luis de Terry’s new resto is truly a welcome addition to the area's classic and mundane (as to which restaurant is which, you be the judge of that) line-up of eateries. Since I always find myself in Rockwell for various reasons, I longed for it to have a restaurant with an exciting and sophisticated menu matched by a descent wine and bar list. Luckily, someone up there was listening to my prayers.

As is the case with most restaurants, the first few months are quite wobbly. My first visit to Lu was pretty successful- the food was good, the service quick, and zero foul-ups. I was so impressed that within the very same week I took my parents and sister (who all live in the area) there for dinner. Unfortunately, this time around, there were some hits and misses. My parents look at me like I’m crazy, and I find myself explaining that the food REALLY was good the first time I ate there.

Recently, I was given another opportunity to have dinner at Lu, this time for our friend GP’s birthday dinner. This was with the same group I ate with the first time around, so they only had good memories of the place. I, of course, being already aware of the resto’s “birthing pains”, was slightly apprehensive. But, trusting the chef/owner’s capabilities and with the lingering reminiscence of my successful first visit, I decided to keep an open mind and just enjoy.

Dinner was on a Thursday night and the place was packed with Manila’s beautiful people. That is one thing I noticed about Lu- the clientele is truly Manila’s hippest and well-heeled. We had to wait a bit outside while we waited for our table to be available. We- me, GP, Cookie Goddess, Mrs. G-Ro and Maggie (another friend- Paulie- just followed after dinner for drinks)- took one of the tables outside and had a round of their delicious DiabLu- a mojito-like cocktail, only this time using gin instead of rum.

Finally, after half an hour, we were ushered into the chic dining room (which was designed by our friend and dining companion- the gorgeous and amazing Maggie Silayan Go), with its high ceilings and plush furnishings. I love the contrasting white and dark wood accented by the warm brick reds and sage of the chairs. Polished, yet welcoming and cozy.

We are first served Lu’s Favorite Dips- Hummus, Eggplant Caviar and Pico de Gallo. It comes with a side of crisp round pita chips which are used to scoop up the hummus and eggplant caviar. The hummus, a friend swears, is as authentic as they come. Honestly, I would not know for sure, but Lu’s hummus is surely one of my favorites now, with its rich, velvety consistency and intense chickpea flavor. The Eggplant Caviar is also a hit with me, simply because I love roasted eggplant and this one was done perfectly. The Pico de Gallo was cradled by a crisp papadum cup and was also quite good, but got soggy later on.

Next to arrive are more appetizers- the Argentinian Hand-chopped Beef Empanadas and the Istanbul Lamb Kebabs. If there is one appetizer that everyone must try, it has got to be the Beef Empanadas. These little pockets of meat are simply oozing with flavor and goes perfectly with the accompanying chimichurri sauce. They’re so good I wished they were bigger, even by just a bit.

Maggie loves the Tunisian Salad so we ordered one for everyone to try. I liked the mildness of the dressing, which allowed the smokiness of the roasted vegetables to come through.

Mrs. G-Ro and I shared the Mexican Steak Frites and which we asked to be cooked to medium-doneness, and Truffle Macaroni and Cheese. The meat was tender and densely flavored with aromatic herbs and spices. The onion rings and flavored fries were a nice southwestern touch. The Mac and Cheese was a hit with everyone the minute it reached our table. “Something smells good,” Mrs. G-RO observed, looking towards the source of the pungently appetizing truffle scent. We forget the carbs and calories for the moment, and we all indulged in its thick, creamy and aromatic cheesiness. Heaven!

Cookie Goddess ordered the Unhurriedly-steamed Lamb Shank with Minted Yogurt and a side of Vermicelli Rice. This was the dish that I ordered the second time I ate here, and although the lamb was cooked perfectly, the sauce I found to be a tad watery. This time, though, the sauce looked lusciously thick and creamy. I had a taste and discovered that the lamb shank was a winner. The meat, as usual, was fall-off-the-bone tender, the tendon so gelatinous it melts the minute it touches your tongue. The mixture of short, thin noodles and rice effectively soak up the rich goodness of the sauce.

Body-conscious GP ordered fish for himself- the Poached Flounder and Lemon Risotto. I did not expect much from this dish, but was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. The fish was moist and flaky and the risotto was perfectly al dente.

Since Cookie Goddess wanted to try Lu’s Ultimate Pork Chop, Maggie ordered it as her main dish. The thick generous chop was bathed in a tangy orange-achuete sauced accompanied by a sweet potato mash and pickled onions. Now, I just have to say that Maggie is probably one of the sweetest, kindest people I know. Yet, when I asked to try a piece of her pork chop, I sensed a hint of reluctance on her part. She cuts off a tiny piece and places it on my plate. I take a bite, and then I understand. The pork chop was butter-soft, the sauce pleasantly sweet-sour and savory. If it was my dish, I would not have wanted to share it either.

Too stuffed for dessert, we hang around for more drinks (red wine for me, more DiabLu for my companions) and conversation. The handsome Luis chatted with Maggie about the food and I suppose she mentioned my not-so-good second visit. Like any serious chef/restauranteur, he turned towards me with concern and sincerely asked for a blow-by-blow account of that particular event. His easy manner and earnestness had me comfortably retelling what I did not like about my last dinner there as he listened on with genuine concern. Naturally, the explanation was just as I expected. Basically, it is a new restaurant and, as all new restaurants go, they are going through a series of adjustments and improvements as they go along. This- to just about anyone, I suppose- is perfectly understandable.

And, honestly, if you look around Lu’s well-lit dining room, you do not see even traces of displeasure from any of Lu’s genteel guests. The kitchen was backed-up a bit because of the full house that night, and yet the vibe in the room remains pleasant, even jovial. I believe it’s simply because people like the place and what it’s about- good, beautifully plated food, served in fine-looking surroundings, from a man that clearly has a passion for what he is doing. (Note: The word is that Lu will be changing up its menu every four to six months. That, to me, is dedication.) People get it, and in turn, appreciate it. Like them, I’m sitting and waiting to see the wonders that I believe this restaurant is capable of.

G/F Joya Lofts and Towers
Joya Drive, Rockwell
Makati City
Tel. no. (632)4033991