There’s nothing that can’t be enlivened by a garnish of parsley. That, at least, seems to be the opinion of the chefs at Bistro Pamana, an energetic little place in the heart of low-rise buildings at the Makati central business district.
This belief apparently includes desserts: Puto bumbong, bibingka and even palitaw came with a merry sprig of bright green parsley on top.
This little touch encapsulates the experience of the place—it tries to make Pinoy classics a little prettier, a little edgier than it was in lola’s kitchen, but only just a little.
To me, that’s a good thing. I’ve sat through too many attempts to complicate deliberately or deconstruct traditional Filipino cuisine and had to chomp through the well-intentioned Frankenstein creations of cooking that ensued. I say this with the greatest respect for those who are pushing the envelope for Filipino food, and I believe that this work should be continued.
I’m just saying that there are very few who manage to get it right. And also that, on most days, I’d rather go for the standard version rather than have a complex, cerebral experience.
Like most complex cuisines, Filipino food is relatively easy to get almost right, but extremely difficult to get exactly right.
Heston Blumenthal, for instance, plumbed the depths and scaled the heights of this exercise to get as close to the platonic ideal of the standard repertoire of British cooking when he worked on his “In Search of Perfection” television series and books.
The movement to explore a cuisine should go in two directions: to push it forward, even sometimes to the point of its deconstruction; but also to learn how it works and how to put it together in a knowledgeable, replicable manner.
Promise of authenticity
Bistro Pamana, true to its name, mines the promise of authenticity by virtue of knowledge passed down from generations of cooks.
The restaurant claims lineage to the original Barrio Fiesta and has been gaining acclaim for, among other things, its crispy pata and kare-kare.
Ever since what used to be the best kare-kare in town—the great vat of wobbly bits at the Aristocrat restaurant along Roxas Boulevard—went downhill in a mess of pallid yellow gloop, I’ve been in search of something that could compare.
The kare-kare at Pamana still falls short, but it’s definitely on the short list. The boneless crispy pata was the one dish that disappointed—the outer layer was crisp enough, but there was only a wafer-thin layer of fat underneath, and then lots of lean meat.
In the bagnet we found the fat that we were looking for; Pamana has a version which is infused with the scent of tiny fried chillies, absolutely divine, with melting, creamy fat and a crunchy, dry exterior.
The binakol was no humdrum chicken soup that happened to be served inside a husk, but had the sweetness of the young coconut mixed with a flavorful chicken stock and a generous kick of ginger.
I’m not quite sure exactly how the restaurant pulled off the baby squid with a crust of fried ink around it, but it was excellent with the little tub of aioli that came with it.
The trio of fried spring rolls wrapped around fillings of cheese, sausage and smoked fish was less scintillating than it could have been. A platter of ukoy (crisp, with lots of shrimp, not the lonely one or two on a soggy base that one so often gets) went quickly as well.
I was less impressed with the tuna and tofu sisig, and this is not because I dislike either tuna or tofu.
Where Pamana stumbled hard, I felt, was with the desserts. The palitaw would have been good had it been less sweeter; the puto bumbong slithered out of an ornate presentation as a kind of chewy, oily worm; the turon was, heretically, made from latundan, not saba.
We were the only guests on a payday Saturday night, and I had been warned when I made the reservation that it closed early on Saturdays and wasn’t open on Sundays.
Its clientele, it would seem, is not the weekend night crowd but rather the day crowd from the offices in the neighborhood. This is reflected in the prices, which were surprisingly reasonable for the amount of food we had, and for a restaurant in the middle of the central business district.
The trendy action seems to have moved to Bonifacio Global City (BGC) these days, where rent is much higher but the clientele is willing to pay much more for food. I’ve been avoiding BGC of late because there’s nowhere to park and the streets are filled with villainous traffic marshals. Also, I hate trendiness.
Apart from its predilection for parsley, Bistro Pamana gets most things right.
It’s an unassuming place with down-home food, but for reclusive eaters in search of plenty of fat and flavor, this is the place to be on a Saturday night.
Bistro Pamana is at 109 Perea St., Legaspi Village, Makati. Call 8151823.