Thursday, October 13, 2011
The Beach and the Alchemist
This year, I wanted to celebrate my birthday in a different way. I have always enjoyed being surrounded by family and friends, finding joy and excitement in food, drink and revelry. But, on my 33rd birthday, I’ve decided to go on a trip with Matt- my husband, favorite dining companion, occasional fashion stylist, hardiest sparring partner and dearest friend. I chose the island of Boracay because it’s fun, accessible and relatively affordable compared to going abroad. Besides, some of our favorite food haunts are on that island, so I can still easily fulfill my favorite birthday indulgence, which is to pig out.
For our fancy birthday dinner for two, I consulted with fellow bar owner and epicure Christine San Diego- whose creperie and French bistro Ti Braz is as much a Boracay icon as Willy’s Rock- on where I could have a nice romantic dinner with Matt. Among a couple of others, she mentioned Alchemy- Josh Boutwood’s small beach front restaurant serving modern cuisine. I Google it and find a few blog entries about him and his food, and I am immediately intrigued by this 24-year-old chef who is marching to the beat of his own drum in a small Visayan resort town where grilled local dishes reign supreme and fast food franchises are growing in prominence. We correspond through e-mail- discussing Matt’s dietary restrictions (no pork and seafood, except fish, hold the ginger), me asking if I can bring bottles and him graciously waiving corkage (thanks to my association with Christine, of course)- and we agree on an eight-course menu which will only be revealed to us on the evening itself. Matt and I were naturally excited.
Alchemy is situated in the busy commercial area on White Beach, between boat stations 1 and 2. It is on the ground floor of a structure it shares with Ti Braz, with a neat bar area and seating for around 15-20 people inside, and a few more tables outside on the beach. The fresh, modern seaside décor- with its white plastered walls and psychedelic mural- would not be out of place in more progressive coastal cities like Miami, and the vibe is hip like a neighborhood joint in the East Village. We are welcomed by the bubbly and charming Janice and seated near the front of the resto. Chef Josh pops out of the kitchen to greet us, making sure he got the details right regarding what Matt can/not eat, then quickly returns to his work space. The staff is notably young, efficient and unobtrusive- just like the owner/chef.
To placate our growing hunger, we were given some potato bread and some brown butter served on an oyster shell. The butter had a fragrant, burnt flavor to it, like caramel. Matt, who adores good bread and has a renewed (long story) love for butter, is so enamored by the taste that he sent Janice to ask Chef Josh what was in it. Of course, like a true alchemist, he coyly refuses to reveal his formula.
The first course arrived atop two white pumice rocks- Raw Tuna, Dehydrated Tuna Roe, and Soy Jelly. Naturally, the raw fish and the strong, concentrated soy flavor was a solid match, a perfect opening number to a seaside dining event. Janice has begun pouring our champagne by then- a bottle of NV Delamotte that I have purchased from Premium Wine Exchange. I loved it, and Matt (who usually professes that he is not discerning when it comes to wines) loves it for its super crisp character and toasted bread notes.
My favorite dish came right after, which was the Mahi-mahi with Dill and Alugbati on top of Risotto. The sauce was the same butter served with the bread, and it was a fitting companion to the firm and hearty fish. I normally do not like mahi-mahi because- when overcooked- it could be dry and tasteless like cardboard. But this one was expertly prepared- the fish was moist and flaky, even buttery in the middle- and combined with the butter, the rich, creamy risotto and the ethereal dill, it was the dreamiest fish dish I have had in a while.
The next fish dish we had was also well-prepared- Red Snapper, Horseradish Puree, and Banana Heart. The fish was light and flaky, the outer skin seared to a crisp. I have only had banana heart in its most popular local preparation, which is stewed in coconut milk and ginger, but Chef Josh’s version is equally appreciated for its light creaminess and balanced seasoning. I believe this dish would have shined more if it was presented before the mahi-mahi, since the flavors were much lighter and more subtle. We also started pouring the ’95 Campillo Gran Reserva at this point, and although it was not a good match with the snapper, we started sipping it just because it was so darn good.
In between the fish courses and the meat courses was a peculiar one- Caramelized Onions doused in a light broth. I love onions- raw, battered and deep-fried, in soup- so I got what the chef was trying to do. Kind of. It was definitely aesthetically-appealing, with varying degrees of sweetness and texture. But, Matt was clearly puzzled by it, mumbling “What the f…?” even as we walked towards Juice Bar after dinner.
The fifth dish was Roast Native Chicken Breast on Top of Pickled Cabbage, with Popcorn and Baby Corn. From what I have picked up from the next table’s conversation, I believe it was supposed to be pork belly dish. I point this out to Matt and he is overcome with guilt. Although he does not eat pork, he is very much aware of how much I love this particular part of the pig. The chef, aware of Matt’s restricted diet, has substituted the fatty, delicious pork belly with chicken. Naturally, the end result was not the same, to say the least. Flavor-wise, the dish does not leave you wanting, but in terms of the natural moisture of the meat, the unctuousness of pork fat- you cannot replicate that with chicken.
The last savory dish was, in my opinion, also the most intricate, and truly showcases the chef’s technique and food philosophy- Braised Ox Tongue with an Assortment of Mushrooms and Vegetables. The tongue was mildly flavored, allowing the slight gaminess of the meat to come through; the accompanying vegetables were a play in sweetness (from the carrots), texture (from the popcorn) and umami (from the mushrooms). There was almost something whimsical and organic about this dish, almost like a tableau of what sustainable gastronomy (something the chef must have learned during his stint at Noma) is about.
Pre-dessert was a simple dish of Orange Pieces and Lemongrass Oil. Simple maybe, but highly beneficial in digestion, which I suspect is its main purpose. Matt, with his aversion to ginger, was not particularly fond of the spicy, heady lemongrass, which he found too strong a flavor for a dessert. Personally, I found it to be fragrant and cleansing.
Finally, dessert was served, and it was scrumptious- Cappuccino Ice Cream, Peanut Butter and Pound Cake Crumbs. Not too sweet, flavors balanced and complimentary- and everything was homemade. We’re impressed.
Matt and I chit-chatted a bit with the chef after our meal- who, by the way, does not like being called “chef” (“I never wear chef’s whites”, he points out, motioning towards his dark blue t-shirt and board shorts). While I enjoy his endearing British accent, I look upon this young man with the tremendous talent and confidence, and I found myself thinking, “Is this guy for real?” He comes to the Philippines after working in the best restaurant in world, decides to apply what he learned in his own restaurant, and sets-up shop- nope, not in a hotel, not in the ritzy Makati CBD- but on a beach in Aklan. Like a true alchemist who deals with elements in their purest form, I believe Josh Boutwood is truly in his element and likes to stay true to it- cooking the food that he is passionate about, in an environment where he can be who he truly is. In this state, he is able to create gastronomic masterpieces that provoke and amaze. And, as Matt mentioned, I can only imagine what the young chef could be capable of in the years to come.
Between Boat Stations 1 & 2
(Beside Ti Braz Creperie & Bistro)
White Beach, Boracay Island
Mobile no. +639173041570
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org