Friday, October 29, 2010

To C' or Not to C'?: The Angeles Adventure

It almost did not happen.

There was a storm coming, and when it started raining hard in the afternoon, Matt and I were hesitant to push through. We heard on the radio, though, that the sudden downpour had nothing to do with the typhoon coming towards the Northern part of the country. Just to be sure, we contacted popular weatherman/ celebrity adventurer/animal lover/our wedding sponsor Kuya Kim- and asked if a quick trip was possible despite the sketchy weather. He gave us the go signal, and so there was really nothing stopping us. And off we went to one of the most famous food havens of the North- Angeles, Pampanga.

The main reason we took the trip was to finally get to try the popular Italian restaurant C’ Italian Dining. With Swiss chef Chris Locher at the helm, this Italian resto has become one of the most talked-about and revered dining establishments in the Philippines. His food is probably one of the most blogged about in the country, while an army of ravenous fans are tireless in singing him praises. Needless to say, C’ Italian is definitely a restaurant that I must try. So, as part of my birthday treat, Matt has planned a day trip to Angeles to visit the popular eatery.

We had a bit of difficulty finding the road where C’ was located, but once we got on Don Juico Avenue it was easy to spot their now-famous sign. Walking through the lobby, I caught a sight of the main dining room full to capacity for dinner service. Matt reserved a table in the garden, which they claim had the better ambience. The set-up is quite relaxed, with tiled table tops and metal rattan chairs, the topiaries laced with Christmas lights. We were seated in the corner of a small roofed area, sharing it with a few other diners. We hand over a bottle of good cava to the server, and she quickly whisks it away to be chilled.

After ordering, we were served some complimentary bread with a platito of olive oil, fresh pesto and grated parmesan on the side. The bread was warm and soft, clearly freshly-baked.

We sipped our nicely-chilled Freixinet Ellysia Gran Cuvee while we waited, but we did not have to wait long. As soon as the server placed our Panizza on the table, we quickly went to work. This is the original, after all- the precursor to Yellow Cab’s Dear Darla and Focaccia’s version- so Matt and I were excited to taste for ourselves why this dish has become legendary. As instructed in the many foodie blog posts that made it famous, you pull a slice of the panizza, top it with arugula and alfalfa sprouts, roll it up, and enjoy. We decided to go with the panizza topped with peppers, artichoke, eggplant, olives thinking that it would be the lightest option. The first couple of rolls were quite enjoyable- the huge leaves of arugula were fresh and crunchy, the alfalfa sprouts gave a unique flavor dimension to the dish. The cheese was also quite flavorful, and Matt noted that it was not just mozzarella since it had a richer and nuttier taste… A touch of Fontina, perhaps?

Overall, it could have been quite good. What made the dish less than stellar, though, was that after a few minutes, the panizza became very soggy. It was almost impossible to roll the pizza with the center turning into mush. As much as I love cheese, I think they put way too much of it, putting too much weight on the delicate crust. Good food always calls for a perfect balance of ingredients and flavors, and this is one of the few times when it was too much of a good thing.

The risotto, sadly, had the same problem. We ordered the Katrina, which is Arborio rice with salmon, asparagus, broccoli, mushrooms and truffle oil. Once again, the first few bites had us ooh-ing and ah-ing, the small particles of perfectly-cooked rice are coated in a luscious, fragrant sauce, the vegetables and fish coming together quite well. Eventually, though, we found ourselves pushing the big chunks of salmon and clunky vegetables aside, opting from the simple but sublime flavors that only mushrooms and truffle could bring. Again, I wonder why they felt the need to cram all those ingredients into that dish. Perplexed, we pushed the half-eaten dish aside and hoped that the secondi would not disappoint.

While looking through the menu, we saw that this was a house specialty, so we got a small order of the Flank Steak. It came sliced atop roasted potatoes, pumpkin and sautéed spinach with garlic. Once again, I cannot complain about the flavor- the steak was perfectly-seasoned, the spinach with garlic stood-out among the side dishes. It really could have been a very delicious dish, if only the meat was tender. Matt said it was “inedible”, but I myself would not put it as harshly. I admit I have had softer flank steaks, but the overall flavor of the dish has rendered me to be more forgiving. But after a two-hour drive to unfamiliar territory, I somehow understand why Matt feels he deserves better.

While we finished our wine, Matt spots our good friend Mark with his friends, Angelo and Wendel. Mark is a world-class DJ and is spinning at the Tim Yap/Divine Lee-owned club, Mansion, that night, so he is billeted at Angelo’s hotel, The Lewis Grand, which was also along that road. Wendel was just there to get away from the city, happy to have a “weekend with the boys”. They join our table and have the server bring their dishes over. Being frequent guests at C’, they seem to know which dishes are really good. I remember spotting Lamb Ribs with Lentil and a tomato-based pasta with seafood. They talked animatedly and devoured their food simultaneously, and I almost wished I had room for more food so I could have tasted their dishes.

After the boys inhaled their dinner, they invited us to drop by the hotel and have a few drinks with them at the club. We happily agree. Apparently, when Matt told Mark that we will be in Angeles, he told Angelo to reserve us a room. The only available room that night was the presidential suite, so that was what he put aside for us. Sadly, that was the weekend before a big typhoon was scheduled to arrive, so we were advised by my parents to not stay the night. Upon seeing the room, though, I started having second thoughts about leaving. That room was quite impressive! The art deco/modern asian design, the enormous bed (“It’s a ‘Hollywood’ king”, Angelo informs us, referring to its size), the Jacuzzi right next to it, the full-sized ref stocked with water, soda, beer and juice… It had everything you could possibly need for a wild hotel room party.

We had a round of drinks at the poolside bar, and then Angelo excused himself to get some rest before going to the club. We went ahead since Mark starts spinning at midnight.

After a fifteen minute drive, we arrive at Mansion. We got our “VIP” stamps at the door, after which Mark and Wendel led us into the main room. The club was massive with its high ceilings and grand ballroom-like design. By clubbing standards, it was still early, so the dance floor was still filling up and the VIP tables still awaiting their guests. We go past the huge bouncer and Mark shows us the view from the DJ booth, high above everyone else. He instructs the bottle girl to lead us to a table, where she lays a bottle of vodka, ice and some mixers. “Just order what you want”, Mark generously offers, “I never get to use my signing privileges”. Something tells me I’m in the wrong industry.

We stay for a few rounds (3? 4? 5?) of vodka cranberry, enjoying the party vibe and that rush you get from being in an unfamiliar place. Mark goes on and does his thing, reminding me once again why people pay him good money to play music in clubs all over the US and Asia. Tired from the drive and with that nagging thought of the coming storm, we leave just as the party was getting started.

Now, to answer the question I have been evading: Will I eat at C’ Italian Dining again? I probably would, if- and only if- I was already in the area. Somehow I cannot believe that its legions of fans were wrong about their food- perhaps the chef was not there, or he was simply having an off-night. It might not be worth the day trip like my favorite restaurants in Tagaytay, but I am more than willing to come back and try their other dishes. My friend and fellow blogger, Sanju, tells us to order a simple mushroom risotto next time, as opposed to the crazy mess that they offer on the menu. I have to admit that the risotto did have some promise, and I am very much open to being proven wrong.

C’Italian Dining1210 Don Juico Ave.
Clark View, Angeles City
Tel. no. (63-45) 8924059
(63-45) 8926993

Lewis Grand HotelDon Juico Ave.
Clark View, Angeles City
Tel. no. (63-45) 6253947

The MansionThe Enclave
Friendship Highway
Angeles City, Pampanga

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lunch with the Boys

Some people eat to live, while others live to eat. I, obviously, am one of the latter. Food, to me, is not just consumed for survival, but is the source of one of life’s simplest pleasures.

One of my like-minded friends, Noel- lawyer/blogger/all-around epicure- invited me to a BYOB (bring your own bottle) lunch with his fellow International Wine and Food Society members at, arguably, Manila’s best Spanish restaurant- La Tienda. I have dined a great number of times at this restaurant and I am hooked on Chef Javi’s Basque cooking. Noel texted me the lunch menu- which was a line-up of my favorite La Tienda dishes- and I immediately asked him to reserve seats for Matt and I. He promptly put us on the waitlist (IWFS members get priority booking, of course), and confirmed a few days before the dinner that we were in. Being a BYOB lunch, I ask Noel what wines I should bring. He graciously answers, “No need to bring bottles. I will bring wine for us.” Who would argue with that?

Aside from eating good food, drinking the best wines, and hanging out with a buddy I haven’t seen in a while, I was curious to see what an IWFS lunch would be like. This group of men, aside from their shared passion for wine and food, is an illustrious bundle of Manila’s captains of industry, politicians, professionals, expatriates and food industry giants. Their exposure to the finest cuisine, wines and spirits have brought them together to further glorify the pleasures that only fine dining could bring.

I initially had a vision of men in penguin suits, sniffing and swirling giant Bordeaux glasses of Chateau Latour, pinkies and eyebrows raised. But then, after having met several members on different occasions, I confirmed that, no, they are not a bunch of food and wine snobs that only eat from gold-trimmed platters. These are actually fun and down-to-earth guys who enjoy a slice of Shakey’s pizza as much as a perfectly-seared slice of foie gras. But, put them all in one room together- like in any boy’s club, where high amounts of testosterone can bring out the beast even in the most mild-mannered of men- I can’t help but wonder what that would be like.

Matt and I arrive at La Tienda thirty minutes late, so I hop out of the car before Matt looks for a parking spot during the busy Makati lunch rush. We were the last ones to arrive for lunch proper, and I count roughly 20 gentlemen seated at the long table, busily tending to their wine glasses and pintxos. I was a bit overwhelmed by the sight, and mumble my incoherent greetings to Noel; stockbroker, seatmate and the youngest-looking 40-something I know, Jojo; fellow guest and WSCP member Gino; the shy but always pleasant Jay-Lab; and that cheeky cherub Rene, whom I haven’t seen since our burger lunch at Elbert’s.

Noel introduces me to the man seated across from me, who turns out to be Rene Sr. He seems to be the Alpha male of the bunch, occasionally barking admonitions at the others in Spanish, punctuated by a curse word that rhymes with baño. When Noel introduces me to him, he warmly shakes my hand and gives me a wink. Not a creepy wink that grimy old foreigners give young nymphs at a bar, but more like a “Relax- kid-you’ll- be-ok” kind of wink. It immediately put me at ease and I proceeded to enjoy my pintxos with the first of the wines.

The menu, like I said, is a mix of my favorite dishes in La Tienda and some new creations. To start, the server placed a platter of pintxos in front of me, containing Escalivadas (grilled peppers, anchovies and cheese on bread), Brandada de Bacalao (puree of bacalao on bread, topped with shrimp), and Boquerones con Crema de Centollo (Fresh anchovy with cream of spider crab). Aside from that, we were also given a refreshing glass of Cordoban gazpacho called Salmorejo, topped by a plump and barely-cooked shrimp (which I loved, and was only too happy to eat Matt’s share, as well).

With these, I had some of Noel and Gino’s Freixenet Reserva Real Cava and Noel’s Txomin Etxaniz Txakoli 2009. Being an IWFS lunch, I thought it would be fun to pay better attention to the food and wine pairing. The cava, as expected, paired famously well with all of the pintxos, its bright, crisp, citrus characters complimenting the acidity in the dishes and cutting the richness. Refined and radiant, it felt like butterfly kisses on my tongue.

This was the first time I tried Txakoli (a slightly sparkly, dry, highly acidic white wine produced in the Basque Country), and it was quite a revelation. It is not something that I would drink on its own, but with the Boquerones, it was a match made in heaven. Its sharp acidity and dry character makes it perfect with seafood, and with the vinegar-soaked anchovy, there could not have been a better marriage. This is a great food white wine, and I’m excited to see how this is different from the No. 7 ItsasMendi Txakoli I ordered from Noel and Aaron.

I step out with Matt for a long cigarette break, and when we returned, they have started with the mains- a heavenly Besugo al Horno (Sea bream baked in olive oil and garlic), Paella de Verduras (vegetable paella cooked with Basmati rice), and Chuleton con Pimientos del Pequillo (Rib-eye Steak with Red Peppers and Fries). I don’t have to mention how amazing these dishes were- made from the freshest ingredients, the flavors were pure, honest, divine.

With the main course, bottles of red wine were poured. I tasted several throughout the meal, but I easily recall those that I like the most. I remember starting with a side-by-side tasting of Noel’s Bodegas Muga Prado Enea Gran Reserva 1998 and Oscar’s Pesquera Gran Reserva 1996. To my fairly young palate, I quickly distinguish the differences in these wines from Spains prominent wine regions (the former is from Rioja, while the latter is from Ribera del Duero). The velvety-elegance of the rioja is a well-known characteristic of good wines from the region, while the ribera proved to be heftier and had a little bit more “muscle” in it. I enjoyed sipping the rioja on its own, enjoying its quiet and subtle complexity, while the Pesquera (a favorite ever since Matt brought some home for me during a visit to Spain) I loved with the chuleton.

Another notable wine is Jojo’s Finca Dofi Priorat 1998, which upon first whiff, was something I knew Matt would love. It had a delightfully fruity nose, such a different style from the earlier wines I have tried. As Noel has pointed out, these “big, dense, ultra-ripe” wines are quite characteristic of Priorat considering their “hot weather”. The bold red cherry might be a bit distracting, but when sipped on its own, this wine is just too frigging pretty to ignore.

With my second helping of chuleton, I had two glasses of Gino’s Bodegas Alion 2006, produced by Ribera del Duero’s famous Vega Sicilia. This young wine is definitely not shy, and it stood its ground admirably to the smoky and meaty steak.

Before dessert was served, the talented Chef Javi came to the table greet us and was met with applause. After some introductions and ribbing from Rene, he lingered a bit to answer some questions from the IWFS members.

For dessert, we were served a scrumptious Leche Frita con Halado de Quezo Confitura de Tomate (fried milk with cheese ice cream and tomato confiture). I wish I wasn’t so full so I could have had more of this. A more “soothing” alternative to end the meal was Jay-Lab’s Cardenal Mendoza Brandy de Jerez, which I had at least two pours of. I was sad to see it disappear.

Slowly, the guests at the table had to take their leave for various reasons. Fellow WSCP member and former Cheese Club president Bill joined us at our end of the table, where we chatted for quite a bit with a sweet Swiss fellow, Markus. Our rowdy bunch stayed on to chit-chat a bit more and share a few laughs, crack some inside jokes and poke fun at the unfortunate ones who weren’t there. It was a great lunch, and I was truly sad to see it end.

Yes, maybe they eat better food than most of us, and have access to a massive collection of the world’s best wines. But, at the end of the day, the IWFS proves to be a fun bunch of guys who really just love wine and food. Everyone just seems to be happy to be around their buddies, sharing a good meal and a hefty amount of laughter. No hang-ups, no pretentions, no bullshit. Now, you tell me: Wouldn’t you want to be part of THAT boy’s club?

Note: Some pictures and notes were taken from Noel’s blog, Eye On Wine.

La Tienda
Polaris St.
Brgy. Bel-Air, Makati City
Tel. no. (632) 8904123