There has been a proliferation of KitKats in various strange flavors circulating around the office and among friends lately. Along with strange staplers that don’t require steel clips, the KitKats are consolations for those who were left behind…
Essentially, everyone who could afford it went to Japan this summer and flooded social media with pictures of cherry blossoms, sushi and electronic toilet seats, and then came home and gave us KitKats.
But back in Manila—why are there so many restaurants in this city, and why do people continue to cough up the money to go to them, rather than invest in mutual funds or a health insurance plan?
We’ll get around to that when we grow up. Mutual funds are boring and a health insurance plan isn’t pretty on the plate or good to eat.
People go to restaurants because it’s the next best thing to going abroad. For a few hours we get to escape the traffic and the smog and the ugliness of the city—pretending we’re somewhere else, where things work, and in return for our money we get something that sustains the body and nourishes the soul.
And if you don’t look out the window you could be in a café in Paris, a rooftop bar in Bangkok, or a seaside restaurant in Singapore.
Ming Kee isn’t exactly by the sea; even the original one in Singapore which is out on MacPherson Road halfway to the airport. Its newly opened franchise in the Philippines is on Makati Avenue, halfway between Kalayaan and Aberdeen Court. There are bubbling tanks of live seafood out in front, as advertised (its full name is Ming Kee Live Seafood Restaurant).
The crabs are enormous, the sea mantis plump and undulating in shallow chamber, the tiny shrimp running through the water with short legs at a full gallop.
When we made reservations, the staff didn’t even ask for our phone number; and when the car pulled up outside, the staff seemed surprised to see actual customers.
We went up two flights of stairs (as with Elbert’s Steak Room, you have to work for your meal), through a building that still smelled of freshly poured concrete, and out into a dining room where we were the only people.
We know that industrial bare walls are in, but this is surely taking it a step too far: It looked like a movie set in which gaffers had hurriedly taped up lights and the barest of prop decorations for a restaurant scene.
However half-baked the decor might have been, the food was anything but. Everything was so good we wanted to chew through the plates and down to the bare cement. We haven’t had a meal this unexpectedly luminescent in a while.
The specialty of the house is the crab bee-hoon, quintessentially a Singaporean dish. Bee-hoon, as you might suspect, is a different orthography for bihon, noodles made from rice, often erroneously referred to as rice vermicelli.
Crab bee-hoon can either be in a soup or sauteed in a wok, as it was here; basically the chef had scraped out all the fatty bits of one kilogram’s worth of crab and sauteed the noodles in it, and then topped it off with the fried shallots that hint at Singaporean cuisine’s origins in Fujianese foodways.
Too much of the noodles and your head starts to spin; remember that you have to climb back down those perilous steps.
Guinness beer spareribs
We also ordered another house recommendation, the Guinness beer pork spareribs, or lacquered bits of yielding, tender pork with a malty crust. We wanted to try Ming Kee’s rendition of the oyster omelet, another traditional Fujianese dish, half-remembering that Malaysians and Singaporeans like to cook the oysters first before folding it into a fluffy omelet.
While the local version, which is closer to the Taiwanese and Xiamen version, has the oysters barely cooked and folded into the batter, which is eggs mixed with a slurry made from sweet potato flour.
What we had was excellent in itself, but others might miss the juicy, fresh oysters of the local version.
We ordered homemade tofu in an attempt to recreate the delight of the dish we had at Crystal Dragon the week before; the texture was silken enough, but the light, powdery crust and unassuming sauce couldn’t hold its own against the jubilant flavors of fresh seafood cooked well.
Apart from the Guinness-braised pork ribs, we would recommend an entirely marine-based meal. The prices are surprisingly reasonable, a fortunate byproduct of not having to recoup the costs of decorating. But after a meal like that, the bare concrete didn’t matter at all.
And with the bits of shell and sauce that went flying as we hammered, smashed and ripped at the crabs, perhaps it’s better that it wasn’t a white-tablecloth sort of place. How could one not like something as gloriously messy and orgasmically flavorful as this?
In what other city could a place like this be just down the road from a restaurant like Colin Mackay’s Blackbird and flanked by the absurdly anachronous prime rib restaurant Gulliver’s?
Perhaps Manila isn’t so bad after all.
Ming Kee Live Seafood Restaurant is at 7852 Makati Ave.; tel. 8934533