For some time, it seemed, the Manila restaurant-going crowd would never go for it. It was only a few decades ago when most restaurants were run by amateurs and served various versions of spruced-up home cooking; that time is still in living memory. We naturally gravitate toward the exotic and the new, and to what we think is urbane and sophisticated.
In the West, however, the reaction to the hyper-stylized, over-abstracted high-end restaurants has been a backlash against molecular “food” that is about as edible as a John Galliano or Alexander McQueen runway design is wearable. It has engendered a move toward slow, home-cooked food with a rural, natural bent.
We always knew that “organic” would be a hard sell in a country where even the middle class are moaning about the soaring costs of ordinary eggs, battery-farm chicken, and local fruit and vegetables.
“Organic” and “non-GMO” fancypants philosophies? First-World concerns. And because the vestiges of an agricultural society still run deep in the city, selling the idea of “rustic” and playing farmhouse was a tricky line to walk.
Despite this, Green Pastures is the second (after Grace Park by Margarita Forés) farm-to-table venture that has materialized. And it seems to be taking off. It’s popular, has been well-reviewed and is always packed.
We showed up at half-past five on a weekday afternoon, and by 6 p.m. all the tables were taken.
And by all the tables I include the ones beside a pillar, out on the corridor, nearer the escalator than the kitchen.
The ambiance is rubbish. So are the plaid shirts the waiters are given to wear to make them look like farmhands (we are not in Wyoming or in an Abercrombie & Fitch commercial).
But all this is incidental, because the food is really worth braving the mall for. We went a little overboard with ordering, because everything looked interesting.
I wanted to try the homemade sourdough bread to compare it with Johnlu Koa’s loaves at L’Artizan, but the waiter steered us in the direction of mushrooms and homemade ricotta on toast and what turned out to be a kind of Scotch egg with longganisa stuffing beneath the fried crust.
I thought that the egg (organic, with a gooey, fragrant dark-orange yolk perfectly cooked, I would guess, at around 62 degrees) didn’t need the crust, but the yolk went rather well with the mushroom toast.
Fish and chips was well-executed, with organic (as the waiter pointed out several times) vinegar in a spritzer like a mosquito spray. The chips weren’t chips but were fries, which is a distinction that is getting increasingly thin, even in Britain, but the menu does give you the choice, so I feel entitled to nitpick that the chips weren’t chippy enough. They come dusted with parmesan-like coating, which is a bit of overkill.
The sliders, which are intended to be a sampling of each of the three signature burgers, weren’t polite little things but proper-sized burgers, about the size that a McDonald’s burger
shrinks to if kept in the car overnight.
By the time the roast chicken was dispatched to us, we could hardly move, but it was organic (as pointed out), brined in kombu so that the usual stringiness of organic chicken was banished and only melting tenderness remained.
I feel I have to point out that this isn’t really rustic cooking; it’s all the favorite things that people in Manila like to eat and are trendy at the moment, but with an organic, local, “tree-huggy” twist (Katipunan craft ale for the fish batter, homemade bread and cheese, organic greens at the salad bar, a promise of no MSG).
While we’re on the subject of monosodium glutamate, what the food lacks in crystallized umami, it more than makes up for in its natural forms; sometimes it feels as though the chef is a little anxious and trying to pour it on in rococo excess. This might be due to nervous overcompensation or a natural profligacy with flavors, but I myself felt it could have been turned down just a little.
The disparate breadth on the menu also smacks of trying to be everything to everyone, like a Samsung phone with too many features. Some dishes are more successful than others. But the essential spirit of care and respect for ingredients is not lacking.
After many years immersed in the debate over “organic,” I’ve become very skeptical of its use as a marketing tool, and whether or not it’s healthier or worth the price. On a personal level, all that I care about is: Does it make it taste better?
In this restaurant, at least, I would say it does. I would recommend this restaurant not because it checks the culinary buzzwords, but because it’s good and generous food.
Green Pastures is at 4/F East Wing, Shangri-La Mall. Call tel. no. 6543219.