Sunday, September 25, 2011

San Francisco in Six Courses

I do not gamble. But, this time around, I just had a really good feeling. So I rolled the dice.

Based on his Facebook statuses, I figured a few months ago that San Francisco-based chef Christian Vecin was coming to Manila for a quick visit. I am particularly fond of the food porn he would post on his wall- mostly dishes he would prepare at Buon Appetito in San Mateo, California- so I have been curious about his food for some time now. Being the self-indulgent glutton that I am, I thought it would be in everybody’s best interest to have Chef Chris do a one-night-only dinner at No. 38 Sports Lounge & Grill- a restaurant/bar that I co-own with my sisters, our husbands, and a cousin. So, without having tried his dishes, I invite Chef Chris to collaborate with us, based solely on a gut feeling that he loves food just as much as I do. That, in my opinion, is a better gauge for talent than any culinary degree or affiliation with a stuck-up resto.

Having been open for more than a year, No. 38 has become a popular spot in Makati for a laid-back night out with friends and live music. What a lot of people do not know is that we are just as serious about our food as throwing a good party. The Bay Area-themed dinner with Chef Chris was the perfect opportunity to show a different side to our establishment, which in essence is that other part of us that loves to sit down to a good meal.

No. 38’s dining tables and cocktail seating were decked out that night with black table cloths and pristine white napkins. The ambience was definitely still relaxed, but spiffy-d up for a proper dinner event. Personally, I loved it- it felt like I was looking at my teenage son (if I had one, that is)- in a freshly-ironed shirt, every strand of hair in place- before he goes off on his first date.

Food lovers and friends came to support the event, including some Manila-based friends and family of the chef. Matt and I were in one table with two friends from the press- Vince B. and Cesar C. It was fun being around people with the same love for food and who, like myself, understand that a good meal is not just about delicious food, but easy, delightful company as well. The conversations flowed naturally, and the light, fun banter pretty much captured the theme for the evening.

I advised the chef that he can start serving as soon as the early birds were settled (while sipping on their Kiamoy Martinis), and that the rest can be served their food as they arrive. The first course was a Roman Egg Drop Soup- chicken stock infused with egg and topped with grated parmesan. This was a wonderful starter- light in texture, but heavy in flavor. The broth was clean and devoid of greasiness, so all you get is the wonderful textural element from the tiny flecks of egg and the deep flavorful broth.

This play in texture and flavor are again expertly portrayed in the salad course, a Heart of Palms Salad- heart of palms, romaine lettuce, julienned dried mangoes, and homemade guava jelly vinaigrette. Once you have overcome the shock from the gargantuan portioning (something common with all of the dishes), you begin to appreciate the contrasts of sweet and tangy, crisp and chewy- a lovely homage to the tropics, yet something that resonates with the multi-cultural melting pot which is San Francisco.

My favorite dish of the evening- and currently my favorite fusion dish EVER- is the third course, the Tempura Tacos- tempura shrimp or kamote served in flour tortillas topped with honey chipotle aioli & crispy onion rings. I could have had three more of these, called it a night and would have been a happy camper. The tempura was light and crisp, and so were the onion strings. The inherent sweetness from the onions and honey complemented the shrimps, and the distinct spiciness from the chipotle gave the dish just the right amount of kick it needed. It was perfectly-balanced and yet so comforting in its familiarity- definitely one of those “Why-Did-I-Not-Think-of-That” moments. I still find myself dreaming about those tacos to this day.

I had to stop myself from finishing the second taco to save room for the dishes to come, but it was still not enough space for the fourth course, Baked Truffle Mac & Cheese- macaroni baked with a truffle three-cheese sauce (cheddar, smoked cheddar and parmesan). It came out in a big block, and I knew that there was no way I could finish it. I liked that the flavors were mild, and so was the truffle aroma, which tends to be overpowering when applied with a heavy hand. I believe the dish would have benefited from a little more baking, since the leftovers I took home tasted much better after I heated it in the oven.

Despite the groaning I heard from all around the dining room, we knew we still had the main course coming. We had a choice between the Pinot Noir Braised Short Ribs (served with garlic mashed potatoes) and the Homemade Butternut Squash Ravioli. Judging by the trend of the portioning, I knew Matt and I could eat off each other’s plates and still have food left over, so we got one of each. The short ribs, although tender and unctuous, fell a bit short on flavor. A little more braising would have done the trick, I believe, as the leftovers were once again tastier after reheating. Unfortunately, the ravioli was unsalvageable- the pasta was tough and dry, the filling bland.

However, whatever shortcomings the main dishes had were over-compensated by Chef Chris’ final salvo- The B-52 Brownie- a decadent three chocolate brownie infused with Khalua and Grand Marnier topped with Irish cream. Chef Chris originally wanted to whip the Irish cream, but our muggy kitchen made it impossible. This setback, however, did not stop this dessert from blowing us away (pun not intended)- the almost-flaky top shrouds a dense, moist, tender inside, while the liqueurs faintly flavor the coffee-enhanced chocolate, topped off by the light Irish cream. It was- hands down- the best brownie I have ever eaten.

Despite the hiccup with the main courses and the extra-large portions, the dinner was a success. I believe that Chef Chris was able to display the diversity of Bay Area cuisine and executing it with combined classical precision and casual ease. Thankfully, this particular gamble paid-off, and I am truly hoping that we would see more of this talented chef on local soil. The humble, down-to-earth guy that he is, Chef Chris shared the credit with our kitchen staff as well- headed by No. 38’s Chef Arnel- and points out that our guys definitely know what they’re doing.

Cesar C. called the event “a breath of fresh air” amidst the usual dinners they have had to attend (and these traditional writers get invited to a lot of them). He said it was a welcome break from the typical degustations in fine-dining settings where you cannot really just relax and show up in denims. Hearing that was a small victory in my part, having introduced this concept to No. 38 patrons while at the same time staying true to our persona as a cozy, laidback place where you can just be yourself. We will definitely be doing this again with other equally-talented young chefs, and like we always say, everybody’s invited.

No. 38 Sports Lounge & Grill
114A Jupiter St. Bel-air 2
Makati City
Tel. no. (632) 5191806

No. 38 is open for lunch on weekdays and serves a Mongolian lunch buffet at P320 net/head from 11am-2pm.

Ala Carte menu is available for lunch and dinner. Try our famous Awesome Nachos,Buffalo Wings, Disco Fries, Crispy Bulalo, Grilled Liempo and many more!

No. 38 is a great venue for private parties and corporate events. For inquiries, please call the number above.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Meeting the Meat: Reflections of a Carnivore

I grew up on carnivorous excess, having been raised in a family that has no dietary restrictions. My early memories of fiestas in my father’s hometown in Quezon are pervaded by the panicked clucks and squeals of chickens and pigs being butchered. Baptisms and birthdays sometimes called for whole-roasted calf, and I was always a happy participant in devouring the tender, aromatic meat. There has always been a natural awareness that the meat being consumed was once a living, breathing creature, and there was nothing wrong with that. It was just the way things were.

The catalyst that spurred my musings was the killing of a goat during a trip to our island retreat. The animal belonged to my cousin Vic, whom I discovered has set-up a farm in one of their properties inland which included a growing legion of cattle, roosters and other livestock. It was decided, during the lambanog-laced conversations of the men during our first night’s dinner, that dinner the following night would be Caldereta (a rich tomato-based stew) made from freshly-butchered goat meat. The adventurous foodie in me was excited, having only tried goat a few times in my life.

The following morning, I wake up to sunny skies and go for a quick swim with my five-year-old niece, Nana (actually, it was low tide, so we did more of “wading” than “swimming”.) When we returned to the house, I go to the dining area to grab a piyaya and then I saw it- tied to a tree in the back of the house was a white goat. Its coat pristine, his three-inch horns jutting out of its small forehead, it looks placid and unperturbed, completely oblivious to his fate, I believed. My sister, Queen Bee, thought otherwise: “It knows it’s dying”, she says. True or not, we’ll never really know, but this small proclamation suddenly changes my entire perspective. The animal lover in me suddenly overpowered the unrelenting food lover, and I am suddenly filled with compassion. I cannot even bear to look at the goat, as I imagined it praying its final Hail Mary’s while it stared blankly into space. I turn around to leave as I thought to myself: “We’re all murderers.”

I have always rolled my eyes at most Westerners’ aversion to seeing their food in their original form before consuming it. In developed countries, it seems that people have gotten so used to seeing their meats and fish properly filleted and deboned, that the idea of seeing a chicken or fish head in a dish renders even the burliest man squeamish. This, as Nana would say, is just plain “silly”. I mean, do they really think there is a factory somewhere in Middle America where a giant Steak Machine churns out perfectly-cut rib-eyes, vacuum packed and then shipped to the nearest Wal-Mart? Or that the fillet of sole on their plate was swimming around the English Channel looking like that, minus the beurre blanc? Ok, fine, nobody could be that “silly” to actually think that, and yes, there are also culinary traditions in the West that remain rustic and accepting of traditional butchering and cooking methods. But the question remains: What’s the big deal?

Obviously, most Asians don’t seem to mind. The Chinese are happy to serve a beautifully-steamed Garoupa whole, to be deboned table side and then served (always) with the head intact, showcasing the prized fish cheeks, jaws and eyeballs. In several cultures, whole pigs roasted on a spit or cooked under dirt and coals are traditional festive fare. During Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” tour of the Philippines, foodie/author/restauranteur Claude Tayag and him were happily picking away at a goat’s head swimming in a bowl of flavorful broth at a kambingan in Pampanga.

But, after that chilling encounter with the live animal, there was a little voice inside of me that screamed, “Don’t let them kill the goat!” For the few moments after, I was almost sick to my stomach, wondering if what we were about to do was absolutely necessary- I mean, we brought enough food to feed our group for an entire week. Did we really need more meat? As I distracted myself with other things- a rousing game of Uno, some Spanish Rosado, more piyaya- I see the house staff gathering at the back of the house, and I knew what was coming. I heard the goat protesting at first, and then its agonizing cries as it struggles for breath. And then it was over. Soon, I hear the matador’s machete striking against stone as it butchered the goat by the poso.

Do not get me wrong- I am not about to go vegan, or any level of vegetarianism. But, there is a sudden reverence for animal life that was not there before. I have always loved animals, but the fluffy kind, or the ones you find at the zoo. To me, livestock was different, and they were meant to be in my belly. But, seeing that goat before it was butchered truly struck a cord, and I am somehow less jaded and callous. I still think people who cannot eat fish with heads are silly, but at least I know now not to scoff at those who cannot slaughter their own dinner.

After the goat-killing drama, dinner set me back to my old perspective- which is, meat is awesome. The calereta- cooked by the butcher himself- was exactly what I imagined it to be: a spicy, robust sauce perfectly complimenting the tender and mildy-gamey meat. The little bones are easily picked off the soft tendons and the meat is juicy and tender. It was excellent. Being the drama queen that I could be, I declare with mock conviction, “The goat did not die in vain.” My dad gags at the joke, rice kernels almost shooting out of his nose, but I was only half kidding.

There were no (more) goats harmed during the writing of this entry. The photo of the live goat is from and is not the actual goat butchered for the caldereta. It looks like it, though.