Monday, May 30, 2011

BILF: Burger I'd Love to F...

This is definitely not one of my proudest moments. Maybe my parents shouldn’t even read this entry. But, there is just no other way to describe it.

They call it the Chef’s Burger at Elbert’s Steak Room. My friends and I have since dubbed it “Sex in a Bun”.

After it seduced me upon seeing it on Spot.Ph’s Top 10 list of Manila’s best gourmet burgers (on the top spot, no less), I knew I just had to have it. It didn’t take a lot of convincing for my equally-carnivorous friends (Mrs. G-Ro, Morx and Cookie Goddess- who has had it before, but just had to have another round), and so the day was set. The deal with this burger is that it is only offered during lunch, and you have to call at least two days ahead. So, among the four of us, we decided to order two Chef’s Burgers, and we will order two more dishes from the menu.

Let’s get it on.

We were seated on a nice table by the window, the tinted pane just letting enough sunlight in to bathe us in a warm glow. The dining room had the essentials you would expect from a steak place- beautiful wooden floors, light ochre walls, crisp white table cloths, hushed music emanating from space-agey Philippe Starck speakers. It felt plush without being flamboyant, masculine without being butch. Sexy.

Since the others were not having wine, I just ordered a glass of Argento Malbec 2010 from Mendoza, Argentina (Note: Above is a photo of the wine, with a very alluring Cookie Goddess). Tita Irene gave us three bottles (one for each of us sisters) of this wine one Christmas, although an earlier vintage, naturally. Since then it has become one of my favorite go-to wines which pairs perfectly with grilled meats. Upon first swig, the 2010 seemed a bit thin and overtly-acidic. It is quite young after all, so I thought maybe I should just leave it be for a few minutes.

The salads came- every meat lover’s purgatory before the ascent to rapture. The fresh greens were joined by a few slivers of red peppers, white onions and pert cherry tomatoes. A light sesame dressing coats and flavors the salad perfectly.

Then comes what I jokingly called our “first course”- a shared order of Prime Rib, English Cut. The three thin slices of prime rib were divided into three plates, each having a reasonable dollop of truffle mashed potato and a cherry tomato garnish. This came with the usual condiments of horseradish cream and jus. If I did not have another meat dish coming I would have been perfectly happy with this one. The meat was perfectly medium-rare- soft, moist, gloriously-enhanced by the flavorful jus. If I must nitpick, I would have preferred a little bit more kick from the horseradish. But, that’s just my personal preference.

Finally, the dish that had us panting like wild cats arrived- the Chef’s Burger. Hand-chopped Angus beef blended with- pass the tissue- little bits of brined bone marrow, adorned simply with lettuce, tomatoes and caramelized onions, in a crackled, freshly-baked bun. Accompanying this sex bomb of a burger is a healthy helping of fries cooked in duck fat and a blue cheese dipping sauce. Upon first bite, you don’t immediately get the bone marrow. What hits you primarily is the meaty, full-bodied taste of premium American beef. And then, that heady richness (“unctuous”, Morx offers) you get from glorious fat creeps up to your taste buds and moves you to gently close your eyes, moaning in pure pleasure. We look at each other meaningfully, saying things that our fathers would not approve of. It didn’t bother us that Elbert was a few feet away having a meeting with what I suspected to be a Lichaytoo brother. We could not help ourselves. And the wine? It has opened up beautifully by then- velvety and mouth-coating, vivacious and buck-wild. A worthy companion to the burger, no doubt.

I was so immersed in devouring my burger that I was not able to try Cookie Goddess' equally- freakable Open-faced Roast Beef Sandwich. Someday I will have my way with that sandwich, I just know it.

Wasted and satisfied, it was almost a sin to continue on to dessert. But, then again, we were thinking: Why stop now? Besides, the desserts came with the meal, and we were served one of each to share- Chocolate Mousse, Marble Cheesecake, Mango Pannacota and Chocolate Cake. They were quite enjoyable- especially the Chocolate Mousse- and more so with some excellent Lavazza coffee.

Finally, after our "dirty deed", we do our “Walk of Shame” to Cookie Goddess’ car as Morx and I share a cigarette. The only thing missing at that point is French music in the background and runny mascara.

Elbert’s Steak Room
3/F Sagitarius Bldg. III
H.V. Dela Costa St.
Salcedo Village, Makati City
Tel. no. (632) 339 3363
(632) 5198665

Friday, May 20, 2011

Making Baja-Style Fish Tacos

I wake up one morning and see that my mom has sent me an early text message. In a nutshell, it’s reminding me that I have a bag of avocados in the kitchen and I should do something (anything!) with them before they go bad. These avocados came from a very fertile tree in the family compound in Antipolo where my sisters and I grew up.

Now that I am living in a concrete jungle, I miss those days when we could get fresh fruits from our own (and our neighbors’… Tee hee.) backyard. Fruit trees were abundant- Santol, Kaimito, Mango, Kasuy, Macopa, Guava, Kamias- and all we had to do was have the gardener bring out his stylized fruit-picking stick and tug away at whatever fruit was in season. Luckily, an uncle who still lives there makes sure that everyone in the family gets their share of the season’s harvests. And, luckily, there were enough avocados during the last harvest to go around.

So, what does a Mexican food lover do when life gives her a bag of avocados? She makes guacamole, of course! And, after weighing the different levels of difficulty of my favorite Mexican dishes in my head, I decide that I would attempt to make my favorite taco of the moment- Baja-style Fish Tacos.

Baja is on the coast of Southern California and very close to the San Diego-Mexico border. I’ve never been, but I’m pretty sure its proximity to the border makes it a hot-spot for good Mexican grub. The first time I tried this dish was in Baja Mexican Cantina in Greenbelt 3, and I immediately fell in love with the crispy, beer-battered crust, the pungent sauce, and the textural element of the sliced cabbage.

As I did my research for what should be authentic Baja fish tacos, I discovered that the ones at Baja Mexican Cantina are pretty spot on. But, as any popular dish goes, there are a few variations here and there. The standard recipe is pretty straight-forward and composed of four components from the bottom, up- 1) soft flour or corn tortilla, 2) battered and fried fish, 3)white sauce, and 4)fresh sliced cabbage. Some cooks who prefer a more subtle flavor for the fish opt for a cornmeal crust, but I personally like beer-battered food so I decide to roll with it. (For a lighter beer taste, I decided to use San Mig Light) A popular addition to the standard recipe is either a topper of fresh pico de gallo salsa or guacamole. And, if you are a master of the obvious, you would know what I decided to include in my recipe.

So, as you can see, there are no hard rules on how to make YOUR perfect taco. The beauty of Mexican food is that there are a myriad of spices, salsas, herbs and seasonings that you can add or remove to make your taco your own. Go mild or go wild… It’s your choice. Everyone seems to be a Mexican food expert these days (Yes, douchebag, I’m talking about YOU), but do not let them tell you what to do.

Anyway, it’s fiesta time.

Baja-style Fish Tacos (serves 4)

2 Cream Dory (or any white fish) fillets, approximately 300 g. each
3 cups vegetable oil
½ cup all-purpose flour
8 flour tortillas
½ a head of cabbage, sliced thin
1 lime, cut into wedges
A few sprigs of cilantro, for garnish
Hot sauce (optional)

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 egg, beaten
1 bottle of light pilsner
2 teaspoons salt

White Sauce:
½ cup mayonnaise
½ cup sour cream
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon Cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon Spanish paprika

Guacamole (optional):
2 medium avocados, cubed
1 medium red onion, finely-diced
3 cloves garlic, finely-minced
¼ cup cilantro, chopped
2 small tomatoes, finely-diced
½ lime
Salt and pepper

To make the Guacamole:
- In a medium bowl, pile on the avocados, red onions, garlic and tomatoes.
- Sprinkle cilantro over the mix and squeeze the lime into it, careful not to drop in the seeds. Season with salt and pepper. Mix vigorously until there is a nice creamy consistency, but still chunky.
- Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

To make the white sauce:
- In a medium bowl, mix all the ingredients together.
- Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

To make the beer batter:
- In a medium mixing bowl, put the dry ingredients (flour, salt and cornstarch) in and mix well. Add in the beer and egg. Mix everything together until well-integrated. (Do not worry about the small lumps, they won’t affect the quality of the crust.)

Cooking the fish:
- Heat the oil in a medium pot (make sure the oil is at least 2 inches high) over a medium-high fire. When you start seeing little ripples in the oil, you’re there.
- Slice the Cream Dory fillets into four equal parts, leaving you with eight pieces.
- Dredge the fish in flour, dunk them into the batter, and into the fryer. Cook the fish 2-3 pieces at the time to maintain the temperature of the oil. It takes around 2-3 minutes for the fish to fry, depending on its thickness. A nice golden coat is usually a good indication that its ready.

To heat the flour tortillas:
- The easiest way is to pile all eight tortillas on top of each other on a microwaveable plate, cover with a paper towel, and heat at “high” for 45 seconds.

Assembly is easy and fun. Just lay out two flour tortillas on a plate, top with one fish each, drizzle on some white sauce and top with some cabbage. Since I like cilantro, I put a few sprigs of it on top of the tacos with a couple wedges of lime as a garnish. And, of course, we should not forget the condiment containing the prized ingredient that started this all- a nice dollop of freshly-made guacamole on the side of the plate.

Vamos a comer!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Champetre: The Sequel to a Love Story

I didn’t always love Marc Aubry and his food. There. I said it.

It may be difficult to imagine that now, especially if you are one of the many who had to endure my constant gushing and drooling over Marc’s country-style French cooking. For many years now, I have acted as his voluntary crusader (one of the many, naturally) in spreading the word about his down-to earth, authentic French dishes, even turning skeptical rice-eaters into die-hard, foie-gras-devouring, escargot-slurping fans. So, to finally admit, after many years of pledging allegiance to the House of Aubry, that there was a moment in time when I did not LOVE Marc’s food, it’s almost impossible to comprehend.

But, yes, my love affair with Marc’s food had a shaky beginning. Like the tried-and-tested plot of a good romantic comedy, the dusky heroine was not immediately smitten with the dashing hero. Admittedly, I was a late bloomer when it came to French cuisine, so on my first visit to Marc’s old resto, Je Suis Gourmand, I ignorantly ordered a plate of pasta. I remember my young, rugged palate was not too fond of the strong Gorgonzola-laced sauce, and I rolled my eyes thinking, “What’s all the fuss about?” Je Suis Gourmand (JSG), after all, was the talk of the town- getting a table without a reservation was impossible, and the clientele was Manila’s posh and polished set. But, when the tall and sleek chef- his eyebrows raised, his perfectly-trimmed mustache framing his pursed lips- approached us and asked about our food, what he got was a lukewarm reception from the group of rowdy college kids. I remember loving the “pate”, which I thought was the best thing I ever spread on Melba toast. (Later on, I would discover that the “pate” is actually Marc’s legendary foie gras terrine.) So, even if I thought the food was “whatever” and the chef was “duh” (and I bet the feeling was mutual), I just had to go back for more.

I no longer remember if it was my second or third visit, but the story takes an interesting turn when I discover the dish that would get me hooked on Marc’s cooking- Braised Veal Cheeks Bourgouignon. The startlingly-soft chunks of veal, bathed in a sauce that is dark, meaty and complex, was a revelation, and it changed the way I saw French food forever. Until then, in my mind, dining on French cuisine was an affectation- something people do when they want to show-off to their in-laws or get themselves laid. Those veal cheeks made me realize that French food is not only celebrated with good reason, but surprisingly familiar- “familiar” in a sense that it is comforting, even reassuring. That unassuming brown sauce told me- in a creepy, Winona-Ryder-crazy way- that in another part of the world, a young girl is eating the very same dish in her Maman’s kitchen.

And, just like that part in the movie when they start playing Journey in the background and the hero is bathed in a magical ray of sunlight- I was suddenly, deeply, madly in love.

Years later, with Je Suis Gourmand gone, this love affair continues with Marc’s new restaurant- Champetre. Meaning “pastoral” or “country”, it captures the true essence of Marc’s style of cooking- hearty, for sure, using the best ingredients, with sauces given the utmost love and attention until the deepest and most fundamental flavors are conjured. The restaurant now includes a boutique where epicures can buy goodies- sauces, preserves, cheeses, wines, among other things- to be enjoyed at home.

Dinner with friends at Champetre had us waxing nostalgic over our Je Suis Gourmand favorites- we began with orders of Steak Tartare (not on the menu, but Marc prepares it when we request for it beforehand), Duck Foie Gras Terrine with Toasts and Salad and Baked Escargots Bourgoignonne with Garlic Bread. We had these starters with glasses of Cremant I purchased from Blue Frog last year and Bott-Geyl Pinot Gris Les Elements 2006. The former’s crisp, yeasty character went famously well with the steak tartare and escargots, while the heady pear and honey aromas of the pinot gris was perfect with the Foie. I’m not a master at wine pairing, but this was practically a no-brainer.

Our two orders of steak tartare were wiped out in minutes. The tender, chopped raw beef was perfectly seasoned and enhanced with onions and capers. Nicely creamy and full of bold flavors.

The Foie Gras Terrine was its usual, beautiful self, with its smooth and rich texture coupled with the sweet, nutty flavors associated with foie. Truly life-changing stuff.

Nothing says French food more than escargots, and Marc’s pretty little snails are a must-try. He serves it baked with an aromatic butter and matched with an addicting slice of garlic bread.

For my main course, I decided on having the Champetre Pork Cassoulet cooked in Duck Fat. The dish is definitely “country”- the baked beans hearty and rich, intermingling with the flavors of the boudin blanc (white pork sausages), slices of pork and duck.

Matt and Cookie Goddess shared the Algerien Style Couscous (good for two)- a dish that Marc used to serve on special days at JSG and is now made part of the regular menu. The couscous is topped with succulent lamb chops and homemade Merguez sausages. It comes with a bowl of broth that you ladle over the couscous. This dish has its own cult following, so I do not need to stress how good this is.

I got to try Sanj’s Roasted Veal Kidney Dijonaise with Fries and Salad- another JSG classic. The mustard sauce nicely-masked any gamey-ness from the offal, leaving you to enjoy the pleasant texture of the kidney with another one of Marc’s famous sauces. I tried to quickly take a picture, although Sanj was already halfway through it just a couple of minutes after the dish got set down. “It’s the best, Chinks”, Sanj helpfully informed me. At the speed you devoured the dish, I kind of figured that out, Sanj.

Cutie ordered the Butter-seared US Black Angus Beef Onglet with Fries and Salad. Any self-respecting meat lover should try this dish at least once. Yes, it is easy to appreciate a good slab of rib-eye, but onglet (or hanger steak) cooked properly proves to be so much more flavorful. The way Marc prepares it imparts a lip-smacking combo of butter and shallots all over the meat, making it a carnivore’s delight. During those days when I am ravenous, this is my sure bet.

With our mains, we had two red wines- Cutie’s 2000 Bourdeaux and Mark’s pinot noir- a 2008 Irancy Vielles Vignes. Both wines were great, but I think the pinot noir- with its pretty berry notes- went really well with the cassoulet. Cutie said that the Bourdeaux paired well with the onglet, and I can imagine that it did with its bolder, more masculine flavors.

Often times, we are too stuffed for dessert, but this time we made sure to make room. We all shared our orders of ice cream, Chocolate mousse, Passionfruit Cheescake, among others. I should make a mental note to have Marc’s desserts more often. They are never too sweet or cloying, which is perfect for me.

And, with that meal, my love story with Marc’s food continues. Like a love-sick puppy, I stare at the menu he e-mailed me and fantasize about the next time I shall be in his restaurant again. Marc’s passion for his food is truly remarkable and you easily spot it: from the flawless cooking techniques to the well-trained staff to Marc’s natural desire to make every dining experience your most pleasurable yet.

Now, that’s love.

Champetre Boutique & Restaurant
G/F Net One Center
Bonifacio Global City, Taguig
Tel. No. 09178838801

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Thai Food Festival at Mandarin Oriental Manila

One of the few perks I get from doing what I do is that I get invited to eat for free once in a while. The good people of Mandarin Oriental- particularly Director of Communications Charisse Chuidian and PR Manager Erika Aquino- were gracious enough to invite me to the launch of the hotel’s Thai Food Festival in Paseo Uno. I like Thai food, but do not particularly love it. Although, when I saw in the e-mail that the chefs from Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai (Northern Thailand)- ranked 45th in Travel & Leisure’s Top 100 World’s Best Hotels- were coming to town to show us Pinoys a thing or two, I admit I was suddenly curious. And, aside from that, it would be nice to see my Mandarin friends whom I haven’t seen for quite some time now.

I arrived for lunch and most of the guests were already there. I was warmly welcomed by Erika and quickly called shotgun on the seat beside her. She then walked me to the small alcove where the Thai buffet was located, which will be part of the usual lunch and dinner buffet until May 15, 2011. There were 18 dishes laid out, from appetizers to entrees to dessert. I particularly enjoyed the following starters: Tod Man Pla (deep fried curry fish patties)- think fish balls with a sweet chili sauce- asian flavors we are all familiar with; Plar Neur (spicy lemongrass salad with beef)- tender and lean beef with a nice kick; and the Tom Sab Gra Dook Si Kloong Moo (spicy clear soup with prok rib)- light yet packed with flavor.

After a promising opening round, I was excited to try the main dishes (so excited that I almost walked past Mandarin’s Executive Chef Rene Ottlik, despite his imposing Brock Lesnar-esque physique). Again, the beef dish draws me in- the Pa Neang Neur (creamy red curry with beef) is this lovely mélange of thai spices, sweet basil and lemongrass, so fragrant and rich, but not cloying. The Phad Prik Geang Moo Grob (stir fried pork skin with red curry paste and basil) got me eating more steamed rice than I would have wanted.

When I scanned the buffet, I knew that I had to definitely save room for dessert. Visually, the dessert spread on its own was a masterpiece. Fruits carved by the hands of specially-trained Thai women sat prettily on their silver thrones, while thimble-sized sweets in warm tropical colors beg you to pick them up and try them. What caught my attention was the Tab Tim Grob (chilled water chestnut rubies in sweet coconut milk)- not only was I struck by the mildy sweet, almost floral flavors, but by the unique texture of the “rubies”. During the Q & A with Chef Chanin Jakkased, one of the food writers inquired how it was made, wherein the chatty chef suddenly played coy and replied: “Secret”.

But, apparently, curious home cooks can learn the secrets to his dishes since he will be hosting a Thai Cooking Class at the Tivoli on May 7, Saturday, 9 AM. For passionate Thai food lovers, this is your chance.

The Thai Food Festival at Paseo Uno will be running from May 2 to May 15, 2011 at the Mandarin Oriental Manila. Diners availing of the Thai buffet get a chance to win one of 28 vouchers at stake daily, including vouchers for treatments at The Spa at Mandarin Oriental Manila, complimentary meals and dining discounts in Paseo Uno, The Tivoli, and Tin Hau.

The Thai cooking class with Chef Chanin will feature the following dishes: Phla Pla Tuna (Spicy lemongrass salad with tuna loin), Pa Neang Aok Ped Yang (creamy red curry with duck breast), and the enigmatic Tab Tim Grob. The cooking class is priced at P3,500 nett, inclusive of a continental breakfast, three-course lunch consisting of the cooking class menu, and a custom souvenir apron.

Thank you so much to Charisse Chuidian and Erika Aquino for inviting me to this event. It is always nice seeing you both. Chef Rene, you have to admit, you look totally different in an apron. But still, I promise to be more alert next time. Do not crush me.

Mandarin Oriental Manila
Makati Ave., Makati City
Tel. no. (632) 750 8888

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Champetre Means "Country"

The name of a restaurant plays a more crucial role than most people think. It gives the guest an idea of what- and what not- to expect. It prepares you for the kind of experience that you are in for and puts you in the appropriate mood. Basically, it's the establishment's visual barker, telling people: "come inside, you want this."

When I received a text message from Chef Marc Aubry inviting me to a get-together at his soon-to-open restaurant- Champetre- I was bubbling over with excitement. Not only because Marc is my favorite French chef in Manila, but also because I was excited for my friend and his new venture. Matt and I were regulars at the now defunct Je Suis Gourmand, and over the years we have become friends with the hard-working and talented Frenchman.

But with my excitement came concern and confusion: What is Champetre? What does it mean? Will the name intimidate the non-French speaking public?

With a little internet research, I discover that Champetre (Shom-PAY-truh) is a French adjective meaning "pastoral" or "country". When we arrived at the restaurant's location (Je Suis Gourmand's former spot), what struck us the most were the colors: rich marigold-colored walls trimmed with soft vermillion- warm, cheery and definitely inviting. The space which used to be function rooms have been converted into a boutique where all kinds of delicious goodies- preserved fruits, bottled sauces, French wines, etc- will be sold. On the walls are framed prints of the French country life- a quaint farm house, rolling hills splattered with lavender, an oblivious wild boar.

Marc prods us to check out our favorite spot in the back, and I happily take a picture. Matt kids, "Chinkee will mark her territory in a bit." I ride along and say, "Yes, good thing you're not serving asparagus tonight." Marc, already used to our bawdy toilet humor, just laughs. I was kidding, of course.

The spread was simple but plentiful, and most definitely delicious: Matt devoured the mushroom quiche and was constantly stealing my puff pastry-wrapped Merguez sausages. There was a selection of cold cuts that I happily ate with beautiful crusty bread. Wine was abundant and nicely-laquered the evening's conversations, which, we were surprised to discover later on as we checked the time, lasted until the wee hours of the morning.

If the get-together was any indication of what the restaurant would be like, then Manila is definitely in for a treat. Champetre is a place that you can come to if you are craving for real country-style French cooking- none of the snooty stuff, just authentic French food. And, being a fan of Marc’s cooking for years, it will be delicious French food. The vibe is definitely laid-back and more relaxed than most French restaurants. Champetre makes you feel at home and I think that is what the owners want. After getting to know the Aubry’s (including their three beautiful and charming children) a little bit more that night, I come to the conclusion that this is definitely the direction they should be headed.

As for the name- yes, Champetre is perfect.

Champetre will be having its soft opening beginning May 5, 2011, Thursday.

Champetre Boutique & Restaurant
G/F Net One Center
Bonifacio Global City, Taguig
Tel. No. (632) 8158801-02