Meals in this place are as exclusive as they can be. You can’t just pop in and get a seat; you have to be invited.
It’s not a private membership club where you pay dues to gain entry, or be of certain social status to belong. You just have to come from the food industry, be part of the family, or be a good friend of the host.
“She loves doing this for her loved ones, and it just so happens that she has many friends in the food industry. I suppose they are also the ones who appreciate these types of meals the most,” said Sunshine Puey of her mom, Bella Yuchengco, who has been throwing special lunch and dinner parties for 15 years.
Driven by maternal instinct, Tita Bella, as I fondly call her, is a natural at taking care of people. And the best way she does it is through food. Case in point: Upon entering her home, she welcomes you with a glass of champagne.
Casual and intimate
Her dinner is not grand and elaborate, but casual and intimate. Her round table, big enough to seat 12, is always well-dressed. Apart from her food, it has become another way to showcase her artistry.
“My mom has been collecting plates and unique serving vessels for as long as I can remember,” said Puey. “She will find uses for cute little knickknacks that she finds on her travels. Her coffee and tea sets are older than me!”
Tita Bella finds pleasure in the details. Days before a get-together, she chooses her plates per course, the centerpiece, and even the paper to print the menu on.
As for the cuisine, it is usually a tossup between French, Japanese or Chinese. She composes the meal by plucking inspired dishes from her own cookbooks, a product of years of Saturday kitchen experiments with her daughters and grandchildren.
“Those are the times she tries out new recipes,” said Puey. “Then we decide whether it’s a yes to include in her menus, or no, meaning to throw it out. Whatever makes the cut gets written down in a notebook, with her personal notes and tips. She has probably written over 20 notebooks by now.”
On my third time to try Tita Bella’s special meal, Japanese was the theme. As always, the dishes and service were exemplary. It’s akin to private dining, only this has more heart as the host really gets involved in the process.
Throughout the dinner, Tita Bella dashed in and out of her kitchen, making sure every plate passed her standards.
Appetizers came as a trio—a tomato salad doused with a sweet and sour soy sauce, something she said she never fails to have whenever she is in Japan; a coin of cheese fried tempura-style and served with honey; and buta kakuni or braised pork belly nestled in a shrimp cracker.
What followed were delicious and fitting creations—a creamy mixture of crabmeat, cucumber and mascarpone in a salmon roll; corn korokke, similar to a croquette, with homemade tonkatsu sauce; and tamago dofu or egg custard married with the sweet flavors and textures of pumpkin puree, foie gras and pistachios.
The outstanding degustation crescendoed with her heavy hitters. Tita Bella’s wafu pasta consisted of a mound of creamy angel hair pasta capped with subtly sweet dried small fish she purchased from Fukuoka. Her yoshoku steak, not far from the traditional, had tender pieces of seared meat that acted as a bed for caramelized onions seasoned with mirin. It was accompanied by a bowl of shiitake mushroom fried rice.
The dessert, pineapple crumble with honey yogurt ice cream, was the least Japanese in the roster, yet it acted as the perfect meal-ender, cleansing our palates of the rich flavors that had come before it.
The dinner was beautifully conceived. Tita Bella also goes as far as giving guests food to bring home. In my case, it was Sunshine’s take on buko pie, which she had posted on her Instagram.
I had offered to purchase a whole order of the pie, but after the meal, she surprised me with it. I happily shared it with everyone.
Tita Bella is so thoughtful that she even proudly presented us with products made by her daughters—bacon jam by Aimee, and water tumbler bags by Sunshine from her Gourmandise line.
Such are the meals typically hosted by Tita Bella. Her food is as comforting as the company she keeps. Her gatherings are something I’ll gladly trade a seat for in many of Manila’s restaurants. —CONTRIBUTED