If there is anything that distinguishes Filipino cuisine from that of our Asian neighbors, it would be the heavy influence of Spanish gastronomy. Unlike other Southeast Asian countries that have distinctly light-textured yet very spicy recipes, we have heavier meals that veer towards the salty; saucy and sweet. This is in large part due to over 300 years of Spanish colonial rule and the osmosis of Spanish flavors into our own culinary lives. Hence, our love for flavors based on chili peppers, tomato sauce, garlic and onions.
Food historian Felice Sta. Maria, in her book “The Foods of Jose Rizal,” quotes recollections from French physician Jean Mallat who described foods for sale in Manila from 1840 to 1846: “From Spain came casks and barrels of red wine from Catalonia, sweet wine from Malaga, and other wines from Xeres and San Lucar… The ‘most sought after’ of Spanish food imports, Mallat noted, were ‘sausages, preserved artichoke hearts, olives, cheeses, Galicia hams, Flanders butter, chorizos, oil, chick peas and beans.’”
Today we are lucky that we can get these delights from reliable delis like Terry’s, Santi’s and even Rustan’s Gourmet to Go, thanks to the meticulous curating of gourmet Beth Romualdez.
But even more fortunate is that we no longer have to rely on our personal kusineros (or ourselves) to recreate Spanish dishes. In recent years, a few Spanish chefs have migrated to the Philippines to cook at newly opened Spanish restaurants. The Spaniards have taken Manila, once again, by storm. This time, though, in a good and very delicious way.
In fact they’re just what we need at this point in the growth of the Philippine restaurant industry. Before this resurgence of Spanish chefs, menus in the Metro were becoming predictable. Foie gras, truffles (or truffle oil—pardon the non-purists) and steak were practically becoming restaurant staples.
Enter the “invaders.” In Makati, the men of the hit BGC tapas bar Las Flores put up Rambla, with Chef Pepe Lopez whipping up Ibiza-worthy creations in the kitchen. At the Fort, the Aboitiz family honors their San Sebastian roots as Chef Pablo Iglesias brings in Donosti cuisine (“everyone in Spain knows that Donosti is a food mecca,” said their maitre’d). And a group of hip young restaurateurs put up Vask, with Chef Jose Luis “Chele” Gonzalez, who once worked at El Bulli, El Celler de Can Roca, Mugaritz and Arzak, creating out-of-this world recipes. Finally, in Alabang, the Black Pig has been making waves with the creations of Carlos Garcia, a young Spanish chef who left London for Manila.
Suddenly, there is a diversion from the usual salmon and sea bass to the glories of the octopus. At Rambla, it is offered as an octopus carpaccio. The incorporation of hummus and chickpeas make it a unique Mediterranean experience. But it’s the crisp, sharp flavors, with the help of fresh onions and basil, that make this Rambla specialty very memorable. Over at Donosti, the pulpo is cooked a la Gallega, boiled and grilled, given an earthy character with spices. “Ito yung sikat namin, Ma’am (this is our popular dish),” the waitress proudly shares. It is a signature dish of Galicia.
Eggs also suddenly find themselves on center stage. Both Rambla and Donosti have selections of huevos or egg dishes. Rambla offers a 65° egg with chistorra while Donosti has Huevos Estrellados con chorizzo picadillo. Both would go perfectly with draft beer on a rowdy Saturday night. “You should serve garlic rice with this dish. It’s like a high-brow version of the Filipino longsilog (long-ganisa, sinigang, itlog) without the rice!” I kid Donosti’s Spanish restaurant manager.
“In Spain, we eat with bread,” he educates me. “But where’s the bread? It didn’t come with bread! I need to order that separately?” I challenge him. “Yes because we are kuripot,” he jokes in return. But he is right. There is pleasure in spreading these delicacies on bread and later cleaning up your plate and sopping up the sauce with it.
At the Black Pig, the poached egg and mushroom puree is egg-cellent… when the kitchen pays attention. The yolks were not runny as they should be on two of my visits so get ahead of them and warn them against this as you order because when they hit the mark, it is an egg-citing dish!
But the octopus and eggs are just the beginning. The numerous ways in which these three restaurants please the palate are impressive.
Rambla presents a dusky kind of arroz caldo called Balearic rice, bejeweled with crispy strips of jamon and clams. Apparently this is how they have their rice in the Ibiza region. Then the chef ventures into Italian territory:
Gnudis, a ball of ricotta that melts in your mouth, is a delight when smothered with the cheese candy that the chef uses as a garnish. And their version of beef cannelloni, called In and Out Cannelloni, is impressive, with meat that melts in your mouth, accented by cheese and onions. I am convinced even Italian cooks would fall in love with this—I have it on good authority that Casa Artusti’s Margarita Fores did.
The Black Pig is another showroom of creativity. The chef, who previously worked with Alexis Gauthier in Gauthier Soho, a Michelin-starred restaurant in London, shows very strong Ducasse influences. (Gauthier trained with French culinary master Alain Ducasse at Le Louis XV in Monaco). The dead giveaway is his chocolate cake. It is just like the Louis XV at Enderun’s Alain Ducasse Institute.
But more relevant to Ducasse-style cooking is the chef’s commitment to using the best local ingredients and creating beautiful works of art on each plate. The humble mackerel becomes an expression of chic, cut elegantly and accented with teeny slices of avocado and beet. The humble kangkong leaf is used to accent a unique one-piece dumpling soup that presents a superb broth. And the pork used, save for those on the charcuterie board, is local as well.
Black Pig being the name chosen, the expectation for excellent pork is high, but easily met with the charcuterie board, which boasts of cebo (which is really masebo—your heart will need muriatic acid to wash down the fat), chorizo, lomo and salchichon (take note that you can only order the special bellota separately). Although that’s a cop out because you can easily buy these at the deli. The chef in fact proves his prowess with the pork terrine, ornamented with pistachio nuts and apple chutney. This will have you at hello.
Come to the restaurant with an open mind, as you would a restaurant in Soho, London or in Soho, New York. When you order the pork belly and chicharon (pork cracklings), try not to be that narrow-minded nincumpoop who stares a Warhol in the face and says there is no beauty in a can of Campbell’s soup, i.e. resist the urge to compare these to the pork we know as exalted in the best of Pampanga’s incomparable cottage industries. Or you will miss the beauty of it all.
There is no lechon kawali here—you can go to Dencio’s for that. Instead, there is an obviously meticulously chosen slab of pork belly whose meat will make you smile. Beside it is a baby carrot that has been specifically selected over an ordinary one—discover its purpose. And to the side is a slice of apple to douse the impact of the fat. The only flaw of the kitchen is that its pork skin is not consistently crispy, varying on visits, which shouldn’t be.
The same philosophy goes for the bone marrow. Resist the urge to compare it to the bulalo you can get at Rose and Grace in Tagaytay and complain that the serving is sparse. The marrow here is baked and given its own character with the use of oregano and cheese. It is different but clearly how the artist desired it to be. Let your tongue wiggle out of its comfort zone and appreciate the art.
If you cannot get out of that comfort zone, head over to Donosti at Fort Bonifacio instead. The chef here, imported from Madrid, brings the best of traditional San Sebastian cuisine to BGC. The fabada uses morcilla (blood sausage). And only one batch of paella is cooked per day. “The best time is at around 1 p.m.,” the chef tipped, when we whined about not getting any for a 9 p.m. reservation.
Experience the bacalau at least once (Lord have mercy on their prices—over a grand for a cup’s worth!), which is different from the tomato-based versions we are used to at Filipino fiestas. Here it is perfect for munching with slices of bread. Then cheat on your love for calamares with younger squid: the chopitos here are addictive, crunchy and chewy and not at all oily.
I bet, though, that at the end of the day everyone will still find themselves back at Terry’s for traditional Spanish cuisine. On a weeknight in the course of this review, I still caught Chef Juan de Terry minding his store, even if he can afford to just rest on his laurels and laugh as everyone else tries to catch up. I observed him from afar, personally tending the kitchen at the original Terry’s on Pasong Tamo, slicing the jamon from its stand, testing a dish before it was bussed out, mentoring a young cook, then enjoying a meal alone as if he were critiquing his own work. The chistorado that evening was divine. •
Bienvenido de nuevo, Españoles! You are trying to conquer the Philippines again, one Spanish dish at a time? Don’t worry, this time you are welcome to stay. •
Manolo’s. 0917-8746793. By reservation only.
Donosti. G/F, NAC Building, 32nd Street, Bonifacio Global City (across Home Depot and the drive through Starbucks). Tel. Nos. 0917-8492205 and 216-4677. Closed on Sundays. Monday to Saturday 11a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Major credit cards accepted. Reservations recommended. Parking available across 5th Avenue (Warning: Parking very hard to find.)
Rambla. G/F Joya Bldg., Joya Drive, Rockwell, Makati City. Tel. Nos. 0926-690 9774 and 823-6468. Open daily from 11 a.m. onwards. Appetizers only from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Parking available on the street or in nearby Power Plant Mall.
The Black Pig. Commerce Center, Commerce Avenue cor. East Asia Drive, Filinvest, Muntinlupa. Tel. Nos. 808-1406 or 0917-8462674. Closed on Mondays. Open Tuesday to Sunday 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Wheelchair accessible through elevator. Major credit cards accepted. Reservations recommended. Basement parking available.
Terry’s. Unit 2 Karrivin Plaza, 2316 Pasong Tamo Extension, Makati. Tel. No. 8441816. Open daily 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Second floor accessible by stairs only. Major credit cards accepted. No reservations required. Parking available.