Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Quick Bites: Achiote's Guacamole

When I was a tiny foodie, I associated avocado with breakfast. Growing up in Antipolo, we had seasonal harvests from the avocado tree in my grandma’s backyard. Naturally, we would eat them the way my mother grew up eating them, and that is grated into thin, spaghetti-like strands, showered with white sugar, and doused with a lot of fresh milk. Groggy, my sisters and I would eat them before we left for the five-minute ride to school, energized soon enough by the fatty fruit and strung out from all the sugar.

When I discovered Mexican food, I became aware that avocado can be savory, too. And it is delicious. Guacamole is an avocado-based salsa which is served alongside some of the more popular Mexican dishes, such as quesadillas, tacos and nachos. But once in a while, it does take center stage, such as in Rosa Mexicano at Columbus St. in Manhattan, where young and trendy New Yorkers scarf them down with blue corn chips and pomegranate Margaritas. The first time I tried them almost a decade ago, prepared table-side and served in what looks like an Aztec artifact, I was immediately hooked on the stuff and would search far and wide for something that would come close in flavor and quality.

Finally, and without much fanfare, I discovered the Naked Guacamole in Achiote. Matt and I were excited about their other dishes- tortas for Matt, tacos for me- and ordered their guac with chips and salsa more as a mandatory appetizer. “Pre-game”, if you will. It arrived quickly in its chilled margarita glass, majestically rising an impressive four-inches from the base. I scoop up a sizeable amount with a crisp tortilla chip and very little expectations.

It was love at first bite. The pronounced flavors of scallions, tomato and cilantro with the creamy chunks of avocado were immediately addicting. This guac is not your run-of-the-mill condiment that you slather on top of a cheese quesadilla- it commands your full attention, with only a crisp corn chip acting as a tasty spoon. I am happy and smitten… and delighted that I no longer need to hop on a plane for excellent guacamole.

Achiote Tequeria
G/F Powerplant Mall
Rockwell, Makati City
Tel. no. (632) 9229336

Monday, January 30, 2012

Boudin Noir et Moi

I don’t like to be disappointed, especially with food. And with French food, I have become quite picky. Not because my palate has become so refined (read: maarte), but that I do have my favorites. Those who follow my blog know that I have my go-to French bistro here in Manila and I am fiercely loyal to it, to the point that I befriended the snooty French chef/owner even if I really do not like him that much, only so I get first dibs on the good stuff. (Just kidding, Marc. You know I love you.) I know what dishes are good, and which ones are great, and so I stick to them and they keep me happy.

Therefore, every time a new French restaurant opens, I proceed with caution. I am not easily impressed by a chef’s nationality, pedigree or educational background- I have learned from experience that these factors do not ensure great-tasting food. Like some bloggers, I do not feel the need to be the first one through the door on opening day. I allow these restaurants to get the hang of things, and also to get a feel if their food was well-received (by the right people, of course… those whose opinions do matter to me).

Brasserie Cicou is relatively-new, so new that I would normally not have eaten there just yet for fear of the “soft opening blues”. But I did want to see my friends (couples Aaron and Jo; Noel and Catha) whom I haven’t seen in quite a while, and they suggested that we eat there. Noel’s family has already eaten there before and they are very good friends with chef/owner Cyrille Soenen. During a Facebook conversation, Aaron also reassured me that, “They’ll make sure the food’s good since we’re with Noel.” So finally, after months of planning, our triple date finally pushed through one Tuesday evening.

Cicou’s dining room is lovely and spacious- the sun-bleached wood of the tables and chairs with the muted pastel palette are fresh and delicate, almost pretty. It reminded me of the interiors of the now-defunct La Cabane along Pasay Road, which I visited a few times years ago. There was an elevated sitting area which encouraged lively and relaxed conversations over wine or Pastis.

When Matt and I arrived, the rest have already ordered and cava is already being poured. There are also three bottles of Rioja wines from the region’s top producers which Noel said were sent by a supplier for tasting. Him and Aaron (of ADP Industries, the importer of cava giant Freixinet in the Philippines) have a “small business” wherein they bring in and distribute some of the best Spanish wines. I remember telling myself, “If the food bombs, at least I was able to drink some really good wines.”

The food did not bomb. In fact, there were some really good dishes that evening that I would be happy to come back for.

Like the Steak Tartare, for instance. It was very nicely-seasoned, flavored generously with tart whole capers, chopped green onions and parsley. Not worth a long drive to Greenhills (for those who live in the south of Metro Manila), but I would surely order it again when we do find ourselves back in Cicou.

My favorite among all the starters was the Escargot Bourguignonne. No need to navigate through awkward tongs and scooping out squiggly forest-floor creatures from their “homes”- the snails are already conveniently de-shelled and swimming in little tubs of melted herb butter. And these were not diminutive, petite snails- these were definitely the ones who drank mama’s milk, and lots of it. Thick and juicy, decadently-flavored with aromatic herbs and fine butter, I was definitely tempted to dunk little pieces of bread in the special escargot dish. But then, sitting next to lovely, poised Catha, I had to restrain myself.

I was very happy I took a gamble and ordered the Boudin Noir for my main course. Boudin Noir is blood sausage made in the French style, and in Cicou, the sausage is sliced and placed over a fluffy bed of potato puree, drizzled with jus, and topped with a roasted peach. I was expecting the sausage to be offal-y with a texture similar to liver, but it was the opposite- the flavors were actually very delicate and the sausage itself seemed to melt in my mouth. The peach lent an interesting flavor and textural contrast. Overall, it was a highly-successful dish and I look forward to having it again.

I must also note that Cicou serves a mean Steak Frites. Noel shared some of his- cooked perfectly rare- and I enjoyed the tender, flavorful meat, simply accented with sea salt.

The most popular dish from this young resto has got to be their dessert dish called Kouign Amann. The texture is that of a thick croissant, covered in candied sugar which seems to have melted into the flaky pastry as it baked. On the side is not the usual salted caramel ice cream but vanilla, and everyone agrees that it seems to be a more refined match. It really is quite dreamy with its sweet, flaky, buttery goodness, and now I understand why it has quite the cult following.

It was a lovely dinner with friends who share some of the same passions we have. The wines, of course, were exceptional, and I leave the business partners to launch them at will, with proper wine notes and all. I do hope they bring them in soon, and for sure cases of the stuff will be wiped out in no time and a sure hit at any respectable dinner party.

Even if I don’t see this group as often as I want, we always have good fun and wonderful conversations. Quality, not quantity. And I must admit that I did not regret coming to the newly-opened Cicou- the kitchen, although without their head chef, churned out some pretty tasty dishes. It was interesting to know later on that my favorite Boudin Noir (who also got high marks from BN veteran Catha) was prepared by Noel and Catha’s niece, Nicole, who is part of the brasserie’s young staff.

Lovely meal. I shall be back for more.

*Photos of the Steak Frites, Kouign Amann, and the good-looking people are by Noel Ermitano.

Brasserie Cicou
57 Annapolis St.
Greenhills, San Juan
Tel. no. (632) 6619200

If you want to be included in Noel and Aaron’s mailing list so you’re updated on what fabulous Spanish wines they’ll be bringing in next, please send your contact details to Aaron Palileo- terruno@adpic.org.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Go South for Swiss Food

This low-carb diet really got in the way of me doing the things I love to do. I cannot even remember the last time I stepped into an Italian restaurant! (Actually, I do- it was more than a month ago. Too long.)

One weekend, I just told myself: Screw it. A day of carbohydrate overload could not be that bad. After all, Matt and I have been good- oatmeal for breakfast, smaller portions, and no more midnight phone calls to McDonald’s and Yellow Cab Pizza. So off we went with our favorite foodie crew to Appenzeller- our favorite Swiss restaurant south of Makati.

I was contemplating on putting this entry under the “Brunch-ing Manila” series because my favorite Swiss dishes seem to comfortably fall under that category. I can imagine people having some of these dishes any time of the day- most especially after one of those alcohol-laced nights when you crave hearty, fried food. But then again, Appenzeller’s line-up for Swiss/Central European/Continental dishes are so diverse that it would be misleading to just zero in on the roestis and the schnitzels.

Matt and I heard about this cozy eatery from some friends living in Alabang who love the authentic cooking and laidback vibe which highly-encourage leisurely meals, probably followed by a few drinks. The bar is bedecked with popular spirits and some Central European liqeur, including one from the Swiss region after which the restaurant was named.

Arriving a little after one in the afternoon, our group was famished, and we began our meal with some German wheat beer and appetizers.

Oettinger Weissbier is a refreshing, mildly-fruity beer, a style that I enjoy. This is not my favorite Wiessbier, but since it is the only one Appenzeller carries, it will do. In fact, I had two, a feat that a beer lightweight like me rarely achieves. It was just so good with the food, I tell myself, feeling slightly guilty as I start counting carbs in my head. But just as soon as I began, I conveniently shoved those restrictive thoughts back to the back of my mind and allowed myself to enjoy.

The Buure Schublig- a cured Swiss sausage, reminiscent of Spanish fuet- was a great accompaniment to the beer. It was moderately salty, a bit chewy, and very flavorful.

Being a Swiss meal, we just had to have cheese. And what could be more over-the-top than Deep Fried Camembert? Camembert is an unpasteurized soft cheese from France which is beloved for its mild flavor and gooey texture. In Appenzeller, it is given the schnitzel treatment as it is rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried to golden perfection. I eat it spread over crackers and topped with a little bit of preserved beets. Delicious, although I believe they can find better crackers than Sky Flakes. Nothing wrong with Sky Flakes, in fact I eat it at home. But that’s exactly what I mean- if I wanted to eat cheese and Sky Flakes, than I would have been happy to do so in my pajamas.

The Veal Bratwurst with Potato Salad was also a must try, something very popular in that region. Sanj enjoyed the sausage very much, much more than the Buure Schublig. We asked the server if it was homemade and she confirmed my suspicion that it was sourced from Swiss-owned Santis Delicatessen. Two things I learned from their veal brat is that, 1) caramelized onions and white sausage is the bomb, and 2) a nice sear on a sausage from a scorching-hot pan or grill makes a world of difference.

After a short lull, the main courses arrived all together. Matt, Cutie and Mark V. ordered their own, while Sanj and I ordered several dishes to be shared with all.

A Steak Tartare lover recommended the Appenzeller version, so Sanj decided to order one for the table. Interestingly, the waitress asked us if we wanted it spicy. Funny how this is the first time I was asked this in a restaurant, since I think the spice level is a vital characteristic of this particular dish. True enough, the steak tartare was nicely-seasoned and piquant- exactly how I would have wanted it to taste if I made it myself. It could be less fine though, as I prefer steak tartare a bit chunky. Otherwise, it develops a strange, mousse-y character- something I don’t want associated with raw beef.

The Zuercher Geschnetzeltes- one of my favorite Swiss dishes to order (not only because it’s so good, but also because I like to brag how I can pronounce it with ease)- was, sadly, our least favorite dish. The flavor of butter was overwhelming, which is never a good thing, in any style of cooking. What a waste of good spaetzle (pasta dumplings).

The Berner Roesti, another favorite, is one of those dishes I can easily have for brunch as well. Roesti- crisp on the outside, moist and soft in the inside- is a popular Swiss potato dish, similar to hash browns. You can pretty much toss in whatever you want to make it more exciting. In this case, the Berger is a roesti potato topped with cheese, bacon and egg. I devoured my order of this the first time we ate here, but the second time I found it to be a tad lackluster. More my fault than the kitchen, though- since we ordered so much food, the cheese hardened as the dish got colder. Note to self: Give the Berner Roesti the attention it deserves- no double-booking.

Another repeat performance came from the Beef Stroganoff (served with a side of buttered pasta). Mark V. and I are particularly fond of this dish- the beef strips are sliced generously and cooked a perfect medium, covered in a robust, demi-glace-based sauce. It’s hearty and comforting, a dish you would love to curl up with on a cold or rainy day.

I love brunch-ing at this restaurant with friends, not only because of the food, but because of the easy vibe, something that is also synonymous with the area. And with the Skyway, it is no longer the “road trip” it used to be. After the three-hour meal, we did some shopping at South Supermarket, where I even found a stall selling Alamid coffee (that expensive stuff which is actually poo from some forest creature) and had my first taste. It was a good day with friends, one of those things that I live for.

Appenzeller Bar & Restaurant
Alabang-Zapote Road
Alabang, Muntinlupa

Directions, from Makati- Go south on the Skyway and exit at South Station (Alabang-Zapote Rd.). Just go straight until you hit the Acacia Avenue intersection. Right after you pass that, you will see a row of low buildings on your right. Make a right on the next break on the road and go back. Appenzeller is on that row, next to Tile Depot.