Quiet days are better than the frenzied state of fiesta one encounters when visiting a place. So I was thankful that the invitation to go to Davao was before the Kadayawan, the annual festival of the capital city on the third week of August.
My home for three days was Marco Polo Hotel, the gleaming white structure that stands out because of its height and color. General manager Bruno Simeoni, a Swiss balikbayan hotelier, welcomed me, with public relations duo Meg Sta. Ines and Patty Basa, who were doubling as my guides in the city.
My body clock was set right by a late lunch in the hotel’s Polo Bistro which overlooks the swimming pool, where the flambé menu was introduced, including a steak Diane and a sweet crepe Suzette. Both dishes reminded me how Ruth Reichl, in her book “Tender at the Bone” (Broadway Books, 1998), recalled how she learned to do those dishes from Henry, experience waiter at L’Escargot.
Executive chef Ed Tuazon’s welcome was a pan-seared foie gras that got my gastric juices going. Tuazon is a Filipino chef whose success story includes going up the kitchen ladder, from helper in a Manila hotel to Davao Marco Polo’s chief chef since its founding.
The always busy Café Marco buffet has not only the usual (sushi bar, roast beef station) but also unusual offerings such as lechon with native chicken cooked in its belly, tuna tail stuffed with paella, crab claw spring roll and a native chicken galantina stuffed with dried fruit and Davao’s Malagos cheese.
The visit was also an opportunity to introduce the chefs of Lotus, Rolly Buliran and Jerome Elbit, who cook daily the specialties of this Chinese restaurant.
I am not sure how I survived the flurry of new dishes being offered, and I can enumerate only some of them here: homemade tofu stuffed with dried scallops and minced pork, stuffed squid with scallop, deep-fried prawns with taro puff, and an inventive coffee jelly where the distinct layers of coffee and milk gelatin made it look like a Chinese sapin-sapin.
Meg and Patty were going to show me more than what was offered in their hotel. They brought me to places they go to dine and drink, a kind of “My Davao” tour.
But first a visit to the extraordinary Olive Puentespina, who seems to be always doing something new each time I see her. At the Malagos outlet in the city where the famous orchids and other flowers are on sale, Olive said she now sells Peking duck to some Chinese restaurants in town, and also organic eggs.
But on the table before us were her cheeses, including a new one, soaked in red wine (from the bignay fruit) with the outside quite ruby red. Olive said she hopes this new cheese will be good enough for the 30th anniversary of the Cheese Club.
A small café-like-looking place was where we were going to taste “Unforgettable Ribs.” That name put a smile on my place. But when I tasted the ribs, they were so good that I would have called that dish the same way.
To get those ribs and many more specialties, one has to go to Lachi’s (Ruby St., Marfori Heights). Twins Mike and Melvin Aviles cook and manage the place. It was Melvin’s turn to be in the kitchen, and so Mike was in front of the house that day. Most of the recipes are the family’s own—their mother’s dishes.
Mike also said they have to butcher the pork themselves so that the ribs come out of the same size and thickness.
There was a succession of desserts, because the place is mainly known for its cakes and pastries, especially two creations with a hint of the aromatic durian—sans rival and baked cheesecake. There was a delightful crème brûlée cake and a cupcake of Nutella almond.
A look at the display revealed the familiar cross of the Tarta de Santiago. Mike hesitated to make me taste it because it was an approximation, he said, from their recipe readings of a cake made of almonds that originated from Santiago de Compostela in Spain, baked by nuns. But it was quite good, considering we can’t get the best Spanish almonds here.
As if all that wasn’t enough eating, we next went to Kusina Selera (115 Legazpi St.) in a compound in the middle of which is the 1930s house of the Lat family. Three partners from Manila decided to offer food and beverages to hotel guests at the Legazpi Suites at the back. It is at Kusina Selera where Filipino food is served.
F&B manager Andrew Chiew wanted us to taste the seafood bilao, a special for the coming fiesta. It had grilled fish and squid, steamed shrimps and mussels, seaweed and stray strands of unseafood pork longganisa.
We had soup of imbao (big clams), pinakbet and two desserts, a tres leches maja blanca and buchitaw, an imaginative combination of buchi and palitaw.
In the same compound is a pastry shop, Osvaldo’s Cakes. Owner and cake creator Joel Rodriguez worked as an airline steward and now owns and bakes in his shop, which has cakes refrigerated in one corner and a center table where one can enjoy Rodriguez’s output.
It was the blue cheese, fig and walnut cheesecake that caught our eye and our palate. Joel said he was inspired by the cheese platter he served on the plane. A displayed certificate from Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionery Art, plus lessons with pastry chefs Jill Sandique, Dorothy Ferreria and BooBoo Maramba, show where he learned the skill to do creative cakes and décor, which now also serve as the canvas for his painting talent.
Next was an extended nightcap at Forth and Tay (J.P. Laurel Ave.), a spirits and wine shop essentially, but there was good eating here, too.
I was reminded how a small world it is when young Louie Dacudao greeted me like an old friend; he reminded me that we met the first time in his aunt Mel’s place. He and Tricia Baluyot took care of our drinks, and Carmina del Rosario cooked the appropriately paired dishes. Again, Carmina knew another nephew, Third Fenix, when they both were cooking in New York.
We started with refreshing watermelon cubes made more interesting with Malagos cheese paired with a Nederburg Sauvignon Blanc 2009. A Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz-Cabernet 2007 was just the drink to go with savory mushroom toasts and tender, flavorful slow-roasted Angus shortplate.
Not used to a hard drink (if that’s what it’s called), I nevertheless sampled the 10-year-old single malt Glenmorangie The Original taken with peppery chevre gratin. But then the Thai-style grilled lamb riblets came with another single malt, the richer Glenmorangie Lasanta, which also went well with chocolate truffles.
We went home just before the “no-drinking-after 2 a.m.” Davao City law was in effect.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to eat all the time. We also watched patisserie students doing their lessons at the Joji Ilagan International School, one of the city’s culinary schools. The school had all the facilities to train cooking and tourism students and provide them a TAFE certification—Australia’s Technical and Further Education vocational courses—when they have finished.
It was quite a refreshing change from the usual tourism places and fiesta fare. And it was more fun.