Malaysian chef Alvin Fabian Emuang warmly greeted me as I walked through the door of his new restaurant, Truly Asia, at Fisher Mall. This is his second restaurant after the success of his Baguio venture, Chef’s Home.
After exchanging niceties, I started asking questions. He replied: “Eat first, because if you don’t like my food, there’s no need to talk.”
I appreciated his candor and self-confidence.
Opening a restaurant was not part of his plan, said Alvin. Formerly based in Thailand, he first came to the Philippines in 2010 with his Ilocano wife Gina Ulat and their two children Karl and Kyliesha (their youngest, Kristian David, was born in Baguio in 2011) for a vacation.
He wanted to spend more time with his family, rest, explore the possibility of sending his children to school here, and then maybe take on a new assignment.
While in Baguio, Alvin was offered a small space by Gina’s uncle Romeo Apolo and his wife Cion; it was less than 30 sq m beside their sari-sari store along Outlook Drive.
“Uncle Romeo looked at me every day and watched me do nothing,” recalled Alvin. “I was just hanging around… He said, ‘I’ll give you this small place, you cook something.’”
Without knowing who he was going to cook for, Alvin did as he was told.
The eatery with no name started with just Alvin and Gina running it. The first two months were slow. On the third month, things took a turn for the better, thanks to photographer Ompong Tan, who went to see Alvin to order food for a party he was hosting.
When Ompong arrived to pick up the food, he was so impressed at what Alvin came up with that he took photos. Soon his friends started ordering “what Ompong had.”
From its humble turo-turo roots, Alvin’s small space evolved into a real restaurant with an a la carte menu.
It didn’t take long for the hole-in-the-wall that seated 18 people to become a foodie Mecca. Alvin had to give it a name and a signage. He chose to call it Chef’s Home. The restaurant is still in its original location, but has since expanded in floor area.
Eight kinds of achar
A little bit of salt, a little bit of spice, paired with something sweet and sour, is how I like to eat. Which is why the vast display of achar (pickles) at Truly Asia caught my fancy. Here, each
table is served with an achar sampler. Chef Alvin makes more than eight different kinds, each with its own unique flavor, meant to enhance and further whet the appetite. My favorite is the crisp red onion.
Shortly after the chef presented his dishes, I fell in love with his crunchy papaya salad. His rendition was not just made with fresh green papaya, but also with green papaya strips coated in tempura batter, deep-fried, like kakiage. Imagine the crunch, alongside the other traditional Thai green papaya salad components (tomato wedges, long beans, peanuts, dried shrimp) dressed in a perfectly put-together tamarind dressing.
The tartness from the tamarind and lime juice was mellowed by the sweetness of the palm sugar, spiked by chilies, and laced with the saltiness of the fish sauce.
The crispy grouper skin salad was delicious, too; fried lapu-lapu skins with iceberg lettuce, wedges of ripe tomatoes, accentuated with cilantro, basil and mint, dressed in lime and fish sauce, with hints of garlic, onions and chilies.
The chef’s pork belly was served with three sauces that were all creatively delicious. The greenish sauce was a combination of chilies, ginger, garlic, fresh lime and chicken oil. The other two were liver-based: one enhanced with garlic, cilantro and lime; and the other with chilies, peanuts and sesame oil.
The squid was to die for, coated in a sauce of buttery salted eggs, with tomatoes, onions and cilantro. Cooked with perfect technique, it melted in the mouth. I have no words to express how tasty it was!
The chef laughingly described his food as “fusion-confusion.” Well, I beg to disagree, for there is nothing confused about Alvin’s creations. His ability to balance different tastes and ingredients—knowing when to add a hint of mint, a twist of lime, a sprig of basil—without making one taste bolder than the other is praiseworthy.
And though his food is “truly Asian” in flavor, it is highly refined and pristine to the finish, considering that the ingredients that go into it are fish sauce, shrimp paste and dried shrimp, to name a few.
His no-shortcut approach, attention to detail, efficient command of the kitchen, and masterful blending of classic Western (he has worked in a chain of five-star hotels) and Asian cooking techniques are what set Alvin and his food apart.
During our short encounter, I learned the secrets to the chef’s success.
The first is his superior stock, which he makes by boiling bones and vegetables for hours, until everything is reduced and highly concentrated. He uses this as a base for his dishes.
The second is knowing who to give credit to, acknowledging that “whatever I have achieved, my skills, our business, even our customers, [they] are all by God’s grace only.”
Fresh papaya salad
Here is his Fresh Papaya Salad recipe:
- 6 pcs fresh garlic cloves
- 3 pcs fresh long beans, cut 1 inch
- 1 pc chili
- 40 g cooked peanuts
- 3 pcs tomato, cut into wedges
- 30 g palm sugar—available at Chef’s Nook (tel. 7245812)
- 90 ml Thai fish sauce
- 30 ml freshly squeezed lime juice
- 150 g shredded raw papaya
- 20 g dried shrimp cilantro sprigs, for garnish cucumber
With a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic, long beans, chili and peanuts.
Add tomatoes, palm sugar, fish sauce, lime juice.
Mix all the pounded ingredients.
Add papaya, dried shrimp and toss to coat the papaya evenly.
Arrange on a plate.
Garnish with fresh cilantro and sliced cucumber.
Truly Asia is at the 3/F, Fisher Mall, Quezon Ave., QC; tel. 3645311.
Chef’s Home is at 13 Outlook Drive corner Romulo Drive, Baguio City; contact 0916-4445756 and 0999-7746624.