BEFORE Tagaytay became a metropolis, Filipino restaurants and bulaluhan stalls dominated the dining scene, followed by the Italian trattorias.
The resort city’s rapid development has spawned more restos of diverse cuisines.
Inquirer Lifestyle recommends four new homegrown dining spots.
We also give our thumbs-up to familiar favorites such as Amira’s Buco Tart Haus, which recently opened its largest branch at the Twin Lakes strip mall, and the under-the-radar Il Gallo Nero, the restaurant of Alfonso Hotel.
What do they have in common? They are run by owners who are enthusiastic about their enterprise.
Just when you think Tagaytay has gone the way of Taguig, there lies La Bella, a subdivision in Barangay Neogan tucked way in a grove of pine trees.
Nestled among the foliage is a white stucco Mediterranean building with tiled flooring, wrought-iron furniture by designer Noel Tañada, plants and Cubist artworks a la Picasso.
Chef patron Arnaldo Limeta brings his 14-year experience in Ibiza to Tagaytay.
El Cocinero remains true to the Spanish tradition, down to the minute details such as the allioli, the Catalan sauce from garlic, olive oil and salt, to the chambering of skins in the tomatoes. Most of the dishes have been baked for hours to lend their distinctive tastes and are colorfully plated to tempt the eye and the palate.
The signature dish, El Cocinero Paella, packs in the flavors of healthy crabs and prawns, meat chunks, vegetables and chorizo atop fluffy and creamy Arborio rice. (When this same dish was served in the original Nasugbu branch, a diner rated it as “best paella in the Philippines” on TripAdvisor.)
The fideua is a pasta version for people watching their waistlines.
The Pescado Al Horno is grilled lapu-lapu, partnered with special fish sauce or allioli and wine. The hefty fish is served on slices of baked potato and a mound of mixed Tagaytay greens and steamed asparagus and tomatoes.
The mesclun salad is made refreshing with avocado and a mild balsamic reduction.
Another wow item, the herb-infused Rollo de Pancetta or crispy bacon roll, is pork belly that has been roasted for hours for a tender meat while keeping the golden skin.
While other restaurants favor imported beef for steaks, Limeta says he can make the Batangas beef just as exciting with the right marinade and cooking techniques.
For the health-conscious, the Pizza El Cocinero has a thin crust with a chewy density, bubbling with four kinds of cheeses over the allioli. Before serving, it is topped with a salad of fresh mixed greens and cherry tomatoes to balance the richness.
End the meal with Crème Catalan, custard with caramelized sugar. The crispy, sugary churros are dipped in thick, dark chocolate.
The merienda fare can be a hearty bocata, the Spanish submarine sandwich using baguette and filled with chicken, beef, pork or jamon Serrano, chorizo, tomato and cheese.
At sunset, one can have classic tapas or appetizers such as gambas, pancetta or salt-cured ham, and callos with Ramon Roqueta wines, made by a respected Catalan producer. Cochinillo or baby suckling pig is ordered in advance.
Although the recipes are deceptively simple, the chef seeks out only the best ingredients and doesn’t do shortcuts in the procedure.
As added feature, visitors can explore Bodhi, the metaphysical shop and library and the furniture showroom owned by Derek Ramsay’s mother, Remedios.
El Cocinero is at La Bella Residences, Brgy. Neogan, Tagaytay; tel. 0916-3412489 and 0920-2954612)
Tinges of lemongrass, chilies, onions and galangal (a stockier ginger) are ubiquitous, bringing zesty flavors that heat the body.
Mekong Cuisine is the new kid on the Tagaytay block, an unlikely restaurant for Destination Hotel near the rotunda. Then again, James Puyat Concepcion—the restaurateur, entrepreneur, hotelier, engineer and owner of the largest cookbook collection in the Philippines—takes the unconventional route.
Instead of offering the usual Filipino food served in most restaurant hotels, he took to the cultures along the Mekong River—Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and a bit of Thailand and Vietnam.
The chef, Virabhongse Milintawgura, aka Pong, is a Thai national who was part of the First Quarter Storm of the ’70s. Today, he is at the forefront of creating the menu.
Guests of the 85-room Destination Hotel were initially upset when they didn’t get their breakfast fix of tapsilog. But when Mekong Cuisine offered tom khem, the Laotian caramelized pork belly over jasmine rice, it reminded Filipinos of humba, but with less fat and more star anise.
Then there’s Laotian rice topped with bamboo shoots, eggplant and straw mushrooms. The beef pho or noodle soup is filled with thinly sliced tripe, tenderloin and fatty beef, crunchy sprouts and laced with aromatic Thai basil and hoisin sauce. It’s the closest thing to bulalo because the broth is cooked with tendons and infused with cinnamon and fennel.
Instead of longanisa, the restaurant recommends the skinless, free-form Burmese sausage made of pork tenderloin and fatty pork and flavored with kaffir lime, lemongrass, ginger and onions.
For eggs, the Mekong omelette folds in crunchy noodles with sprouts, with tamarind sauce added. Instead of pancakes, the Burmese paratha is sweet flatbread with pineapple, banana, coconut, ginger, guava, nata de coco and thick coconut cream sauce.
The cuisines show a lot of cultural influences such as the Indian samosa, the pastry with vegetable and potato filling. The Burmese samusa is a fried triangle with black and orange lentils with tamarind sauce, paprika, chili and turmeric. These triangles are often mixed with salads or soups for more flavors and texture. One of the soups also contains Burmese falafel or baya jaw, with chickpeas and vegetables.
While the Vietnamese have the banh mi, a thin baguette with meat, the Mekong version doesn’t have the charcuterie, and instead holds huge chunks of meat drenched in heavy sauces, making it a bit messy but tastier.
Mekong Cuisine also pays homage to national foods such as Cambodia’s amok, likened to a fish mousse with coconut milk and a curry paste made from lemongrass, turmeric root, garlic, shallots and ginger.
The lahpet thoke (tea leaf salad) is served in every occasion in Myanmar. Lahpet means fermented tea leaves, combined with carrots, salad greens, cilantro, tomatoes and peanuts.
Although the dishes are spicy, they are balanced with homemade juices and Thai iced tea, made from black tea leaves, with evaporated and condensed milk. End the meal with Mekong Halo-Halo, a colorful bowl of iced coconut milk. It’s got candied ginger, kaong, coconut strips and candied squash and is sweetened with palm syrup.
Mekong Cuisine is at Destination Hotel, Tagaytay Prime Residences building, Aguinaldo Highway, Tagaytay City; tel. (046) 4439988 and 0922-3688956.
Dreamland Arts and Crafts Café
When entrepreneur Phoebe Duran started selling handmade accessories online, customers asked if she had an outlet where they could see and touch the jewelry. The business, Indie Green Culture, developed a following for its bohemian bracelets, necklaces and bags.
She then went on to realize her dream of owning a health food café and store in her hometown of Lipa, Batangas, then opened a second branch in Tagaytay.
Dreamland Arts and Crafts Café is decorated in shabby chic style, with mobiles of American-inspired dreamcatchers, hoops of feathers and beads that supposedly give the owner good dreams. The place sells phone cases, crocheted knapsacks, ethnic pants, hats, boots, woven sandals and other unusual items.
To encourage a healthy lifestyle, the store has fruit juices, organic barako coffee, salads and whole wheat wraps with chicken and vegetables. The star products are the Green Tea Black Sambo, a green-tea infused cream base with velvety chocolate, and macaroni and cheese in a big cup and buffalo wings.
The DIY Smores engages diners to roast their own marshmallows over a natural gel fire. The pasta is infused with moringa (malunggay), a staple ingredient in most of its meals. Frozen yogurt substitutes for ice cream.
Phoebe’s husband, RJ Mangubat, concocted great coolers such as strawberry-lemon juice with mint and Pinomansi, cucumber and calamansi with mint.
The food is cooked a la minute to guarantee freshness. While waiting, guests can entertain themselves by playing sungka or engaging in some coloring or crafts.
“We didn’t want any WiFi. This is the time for social media detox so you can connect with your companions,” says Duran.
As a bed-and-breakfast place, the place offers three bohemian-theme rooms, decorated with tulle, printed fabrics, stickers and Tivoli lights.
Dreamland Arts and Crafts Café is at Purok 157, Barangay San Jose, Tagaytay City, tel. 0977-8263271)
Bulalo ramen lures the kind of followers who either seek out the city’s signature beef shank/bone marrow soup or authentic Japanese cuisine. A perfect foil to the cool weather, this soup is made with stock from bone marrow and cooked with garlic, ginger, carrots and white onions. The slender noodles are topped with pechay, sake-infused marinated meat, fresh corn kernels and hard-boiled egg.
This handsome restaurant atop design exporter Rene Alcala’s Domicillo bed-and-breakfast has an understated elegance.
Aozora gets a fresh supply of ingredients from Japan every week, down to the leaves for garnish. Chef Seiji Kamura taught the kitchen staff that the simplest dishes demand utmost precision.
Take the grilled gindara. This simple codfish in teriyaki sauce is artfully plated on a fresh bamboo leaf with small touches of romaine lettuce and parsley for balance.
Dragon maki is composed of pink slices of kani tempura with curly edges perched on top of vinegared rice.
The ebi tempura, made with fresh prawns, uses only fresh oil, unlike other establishments that recycle.
Still, most people go there to order familiar favorites while enjoying the view. At night, diners have to pay P500 a table for the open deck that overlooks Taal Lake and Volcano.
Aside from salmon dishes, the restaurant is known for its meats. The stone-grilled Japanese Wagyu leaves a smoky taste on the palate. These plates are affordable, from P450 to P1,500. The restaurant offers other classics such as the chicken teriyaki with its nuanced sauce.
The miso ramen is topped with egg noodles and ground pork, while the sake-infused shoyu ramen includes the classic charsiu or marinated pork belly strips. The sukiyaki is beef sautéed in butter, glass noodles, Japanese mushrooms and carrots.
Vegetarians can partake of the yasai itame, stir-fry vegetables which, unlike the Chinese version, is crispier. The Aozora salad is tossed with lolla rossa and romaine, kani strips, mango, cucumber and sesame dressing. Fish roe is optional.
End the meal with fried mochi with red mung bean ice cream or mango tempura ice cream.
Domicillo Hotel is at Km. 58, Gen. E. Aguinaldo Highway, Tagaytay City; tel. 0906-3501704, 0915-5038800, or (046) 4134486.
Il Gallo Nero Italian Trattoria
Alfonso Hotel’s main dining room, Il Gallo Nero, is modest and warm, with dark walls, brick arches and dark wood tables and big windows that open to the still-untouched landscape.
While studying at the prestigious Les Roches International School of Hotel Management in Switzerland, Joseph Fernandez noted the popularity of Italian cuisine.
Back home, he and his Japanese wife, Nayori, put up the Alfonso Hotel and, subsequently, one of the first Italian trattorias in Cavite.
Despite the proliferation of Mediterranean and Italian restaurants, Il Gallo Nero became one of the favorite destinations of Japanese tourists and celebs like TV host Boy Abunda and singer-producer Boboy Garovillo. Its brick oven makes one of the best pizzas in town, served steaming hot with a golden crust.
The pizza margherita is made with roasted tomatoes and bracing mozzarella. The piece de resistance, the pepperoni pizza, has a crunchy crust with a dense snarl of molten cheese and sweet slices of meat.
For more carbo-loading, there are the penne gorgonzola, the seafood pasta and the puttanesca with lots of green and black olives and anchovies to cater to the typical Filipino’s salty-sweet palate. The rustic rigatoni is drenched in homemade tomato sauce, melding with the feta cheese and bell peppers for crunch.
Il Gallo Nero isn’t just a pizza and pasta place. It’s also known for salsiccia, the herb- and mushroom-infused Italian sausage, plump chicken breast with bacon, thyme and rosemary, and beef salpicao made from US-certified Angus beef.
Even simple dishes such as Caesar salad is special because of the homemade croutons and imported bacon bits. Grigliata di carni is the classic herb-marinated, succulent grilled pork, while the duck in orange sauce can be had with advance notice.
Fernandez attributes the robust flavors to the quality of the ingredients. The restaurant sources its products from the best suppliers.
As a side trip, visit the Alfonso Hotel Farm, two hectares of campsites, rope courses, swimming pools, stables for horses and accommodations that make it perfect for team building.
Il Gallo Nero Italian Trattoria is at Alfonso Hotel, #4 Washington Ave., Royale Tagaytay Estates, Alfonso, Cavite; tel. (046) 4130770, (046) 4134077, (046) 4134076.
Amira’s Buco Tart Haus
Since coconut trees are abundant in the Southern Tagalog region, enterprising housewife Virginia Malipol took advantage by baking buko pies and selling them to retreat houses in Silang and Tagaytay. The daughter recommended making tart versions for easier selling.
Today, Amira’s buko tart is associated with comfort and a sense of place. Each bite is linked with recollections of Tagaytay. With four branches, Amira’s has become the go-to place for pasalubong.
While other buko pie stores sell pies with extenders, Amira’s doesn’t scrimp on ingredients. Sandwiched between buttery and flaky crusts, the coconut pie comes in two kinds of creamy fillings—the fully scooped, firm coconut meat or the thick meat strips.
Another star product, the egg custard tart, has a lightly caramelized top over a silky center with a delicate consistency that dissolves on the palate.
Then there are fruit and cheese tarts, with their pillow-soft crusts and the tangy appeal of strawberry or blueberry. Malipol doesn’t deviate from tradition in making a rich ube halaya, melt-in-your mouth pichi-pichi and the buttery but crunchy sans rival.
Her Pinoy tiramisu is a velvety melange of cream, custard and chocolate cake, making it lighter in weight. She also takes pride in the coconut macaroons that are more like chewy mini golden cupcakes, made with freshly shredded coconuts.
The cookies are a perfect match to the homegrown coffee from Amadeo. Kiwi Cake has all the airiness and moisture of a butter cake, but with fruit pulp.
Another crispy variation is the Kiwi Cookie with chocolate and rice crispies. Scraps from the Holy Communion hosts are upcycled into crunchy Angel Cookies.
On weekends, Amira’s brings out the savory pies filled with beef, pesto chicken and mushrooms. Amira’s opened in Twin Lakes to cater to travelers taking the alternate routes to Manila. The new branch sells such consignments as puto seko, dried mangoes, pastillas, and teas from other provinces.
Amira’s Buco Tart Haus is at Twin Lakes, Tagaytay-Nasugbu Rd., Dayap Itaas, Laurel, Batangas; tel. 0916-3602849.