We’ve been seeing busy shoppers rushing about in the cool breeze of November, which means it’s going to be balikbayan season soon.
Actually, when is it not balikbayan season? Like Far Eastern mooncake or Via Mare bibingka, which are no longer a seasonal treat, balikbayan are a year-round phenomenon. But it is around this time of year that their numbers swell, like migrant wildebeest, eating more Shakey’s pizza than a healthy person should, and posting pictures of themselves eating balut on Instagram. And, afterwards, they turn to their hosts and ask about what new restaurants have opened this year.
It’s been a comparatively quiet year in terms of restaurant openings compared to last year—by which I mean that there’s only about one interesting new restaurant opening a week compared to three last year. A lot of this has to do with the successful openings from last year, who are opening second branches or franchising, rather than opening new concepts: Wildflour, for instance, is now a citywide restaurant empire, rather than a Bonifacio Global City phenomenon.
This is welcome news for me: I’ve never quite liked the crowd of the original Wildflour, even if the buko pie kept me walking through their doors.
The balikbayan will also undoubtedly ask, as they always do: Where do we get real Filipino food these days? What an awfully complicated question. But for practical purposes, this year I have two answers.
For the experience of Filipino food taken to a degree of refinement one usually expects from Japanese sushi masters, visit Toyo Eatery. They have an entirely new menu, which I will write about in a future column, so even regular visitors will have something to look forward to. Regular readers of this space know how much I love Toyo Eatery, so I needn’t go into further detail.
For down-home down-to-earth eating with friends or family, I usually suggest Sarsa, which is still a viable option and has more branches than ever. But this year I’d add a new option: Manam by The Moment Group, which is known more for their upmarket concepts than a place where a whole bunch of people can have a good meal without fearing an astronomical bill.
The balikbayan might be exchanging their dollars at a cosy P52:$1, but inflation is up by 3–4 percent and there’s simply a lot less money sloshing around (most of it is sloshing its way overseas)—so a restaurant that’s comparatively downmarket makes sense. It’s not cheap, but it’s definitely the cheapest Moment Group restaurant, and you get the silky-smooth service and slick, cheeky design they’ve come to be known for.
And the food is really rather good. Their signature dishes are a “crispy sisig” that’s actually crispy (and yes, I do know that the word “crispy” doesn’t formally exist, but the times they are a-changing), and a dish they claim to have invented, watermelon sinigang.
As with the black swan, until we see one we have to assume that all swans are white; so unless someone can produce evidence of watermelon sinigang that predates Manam we will give them credit for this dish that, once you’ve had it, seems like it should have been obvious to generations of housewives in the Philippines, who have thrown just about everything into their sinigang.
Their extensive menu is divided into classics on one hand (the left hand, specifically), and innovations on the other, right, hand, which solves the problem of families who have arguments over where to go among the reactionary faction who wants traditional Filipino food and those who want their food “with a twist.”
The twisty people can order off the right-hand side of the menu, while the good old-fashioned (for me, less interesting) stuff is present and accounted for on the left.
Service is brisk, quality of food is high, serving size is not bad for what you’re paying. The only problem is that you can’t reserve, nor can you send someone ahead to hold a table for you. They will only seat a party of seven if all seven of you are present in the flesh, not just in spirit. The queue to get in can get long at dinnertime on weekends, so I would definitely advise weekdays or odd hours, or weekdays at odd hours.
Manam is the kind of Pinoy restaurant everyone thinks they can do but is actually fiendishly difficult to pull off properly. It has a long menu, with items that require different cooking styles and times (as opposed to, say, a barbecue-only restaurant). And because people are on familiar ground, they are more likely to criticize and be picky with Filipino food than with, say Turkish. They are also more likely to complain if prices are too high, because after all, it’s “only” Filipino food.
Since we’re on the topic of a good old-fashioned authentic Pinoy Christmas, I’d like to invite you to join me in the movement to bring back fruit cake. Remember that joke that there was only one fruit cake that was regifted endlessly throughout the Christmas season? It seems that it has gone missing.
No one has given me fruit cake in years. I want to buy fruit cake to give out. If I were to make my own I should have started last month so that it could begin ageing in time for Christmas, but I can’t even find the tubs of angelica, raisins, currants, sultanas and glace cherries that make their appearance at this time of year.
It can’t be that I’m the only person in the country who misses fruit cake, can it? –CONTRIBUTED
Manam is at G/F, Net Park Bldg., Bonifacio Global City, Taguig. (Other locations available).