Around this time last year, I obliquely referred to the waning standards of quality and service in that Greenhills institution known as Gloriamaris. Our family has avoided the place scrupulously since then.
So it is to my dishonor to admit that it was greed that lured us back to the place. A credit-card promotion that dangled 50-percent off on one’s meal just seemed too good to pass up, and we figured that if it would not be a good meal, at least it would be a cheap meal.
The cathedral of kitsch, the chamber of chintz, the tavern of tawdry—the main dining room is like a Soviet-era plenary hall gone to seed, with grand sweeping staircases and dramatic chandeliers hovering over a miserable landscape of forlorn diners and indifferent waitstaff.
The area is huge; at a brisk trot you will take several minutes to walk the expanse of the main floor, from which you emerge onto yet another restaurant, slightly different in décor but filled with similarly woebegone diners. To go to the bathroom you should pack a snack of crackers.
The waiter was heavily flogging the lobster. When the waitstaff encourages you to order too much, especially the “market price” specials or the soup, be suspicious.
But you’re in luck! There’s but one lobster left, but it is a very large one—perfect for a family on a special occasion such as yours!
So we ordered the “last” lobster. Then, because we were in a festive mood, we ordered a Peking duck as well.
The lobster would arrive in two ways: as sashimi, then as stir-fried sotanghon, somewhat like the crab bee-hon we’ve been enjoying at Ming Kee.
As it turned out, it arrived three ways, rather than two: the first was in a bucket, to look at us all balefully before being hustled off. In an alarmingly short time, its decapitated head had been put on a platter, the antennae still twitching, while the meat from the body had been hacked, perhaps with a chisel or perhaps a very blunt letter-opener, into a mass of irregular flat shapes.
Someone had decided that what this giant platter of raw crustacean needed were four glazed cherry halves, stationed like sentinels on four corners of the mound of white flesh.
One piece of lobster sashimi, from a freshly slaughtered beast, was succulent and satisfying but, after about 10 minutes of eating nothing but that, you felt a strange sliminess in the stomach. In the end, we couldn’t bear it any longer and we asked them to take the rest of the meat and make a sauté.
In the meantime, the Peking duck had made its appearance, a black lump of charred fowl. The sight did not augur well. The skin was soggy, burnt and limp, with none of the lacquered crispness that comes from a perfectly roasted duck.
The worst part was the smell, as if the whole bird had been dipped in a vat of rancid fat.
The correct sauce in a Peking duck wrap is a mix—about 1:1, of hoisin sauce and sweet plum sauce. Here the hoisin sauce tasted like damson jam, thick and stodgy as though it had been watered down and merely thickened with flour.
Old-fashioned Chinese restaurants have always been about price points. Rather like a telecom or Internet provider, they compete on price but give you only as good a network, or connection, or meal, as they can get away with.
The local Chinese call it pian-chai or pian-sit, from which the word pancit was derived: It was a fry-up of starch and various leftovers and mystery meats, but it was cheap and flavorful and filling.
I’ve always been an advocate of cheap and cheerful, and even slightly dingy, Chinese restaurants as much as I’ve been of their upmarket cousins with more rarified and refined cuisine.
Sadly enough, Gloriamaris used to be an exemplar of a restaurant that straddled high Chinese cuisine and the low end with the friendly prices of a greasy spoon.
These days the spoons (and the chopsticks) are literally greasy, the prices exorbitant and the food execrable.
For five persons we spent upwards of P18,000—with discount. (The fine print is that P10,000 is the maximum amount for a discount; anything more than that is at full price.)
The restaurant was so eager to send me the bill that it interrupted me at main course and demanded that I pay then and there, as if we might slip out through a side exit with our cheeks still stuffed with lobster.
The amount per person was not more than what we would have paid for a degustation in a top-tier restaurant, but then in most cases you get what you pay for. I would have paid that amount just to not have eaten that meal.
I am young enough to have been part of the generation to whom “Let’s have Sunday lunch at Gloriamaris!” was a rallying cry, to partake in semi-authentic, somewhat upmarket, but always delicious food.
Now they just have gaudy chandeliers, waiters out to fleece, and a cashier with one hand already in your pocket.
Gloriamaris was never a great restaurant, but it was something better than that: it was beloved. It still has a chance to be once more.