Like an old dog who doesn’t like it when the furniture gets moved around, I’m not so keen on things changing.
I’m aware that Chele Gonzalez has closed Gallery Vask and reopened it as Gallery by Chele, in one of those dramatic, phoenix-like transmogrifications that have become somewhat de rigueur in the restaurant world (along with giving back one’s Michelin stars or refusing to be listed on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants).
Despite this, I confidently told the guard at the Clipp Building that I was going to Vask. He held up a finger: Parking for Gallery by Chele, he corrected, was on the fourth level. The restaurant remains on the fifth level.
A brief moment of nostalgia is needed for the old Vask complex, confusing as it was. There was a casual restaurant area, a bar in the balcony area where “tugsh-tugsh” events were held, and the fine dining was at Gallery Vask, on the far end.
I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the old Gallery Vask space, but I really didn’t pay very much attention to it either. It was elegant in a nondescript manner.
But we had a lot of good meals there, including fantastic collaborations. A few people came for the tapas and casual dining, but the flagship was Gallery Vask, especially after it was voted one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants two years in a row.
Gallery by Chele is Gallery Vask writ large, now redone in a warm, wooden glow, shutters masking the glass panes, marble and granite surfaces interrupting the sea of wood grain.
The kitchen has been reconfigured a bit, a Josper oven put in, a space for aging meats, a fermentation room, and there’s now a laboratory with a few seats around a kitchen, in the manner of Atelier Robuchon—or the old GoodAh!, if anyone remembers—where Gonzalez will do his more experimental dishes.
The party balcony is being converted into a garden, where herbs and vegetables will imbibe the unique terroir of Bonifacio Global City.
A lot of what Gonzalez and his partners are doing seem to be geared toward answering the question: What can we do to keep customers coming back?
This is a problem for this sort of restaurant in a city that isn’t a global hub—unlike in London or Singapore, where there are enough people coming into the city who’ll want to try the restaurant and will have made reservations well in advance by e-mail.
While Gallery, with M Dining and Toyo Eatery, will always be one of the restaurants where Filipino hosts can take their guests, all other places need the local market to survive.
There are only so many four-hands dinners one can do in a year. People have to want to come back and hang out, even if there isn’t a new tasting menu.
So Gallery has à la carte, as well as three different tiers of tasting menus: short, medium and unabridged; and the unabridged, you have the option of making it even more extensive by adding two courses.
Eight courses for the full menu are, in the realm of this sort of dining, already quite concise, though it took us four hours to work our way through the dishes.
Not listed on the menu except as “Bites,” the assortment of amuses-bouches (I have no idea why they’re no longer called that) is quite extensive, and kept on coming: little sparkly explosions of complex flavors and textures and unexpected ingredients.
I can see how hanging out with those people who inexplicably don’t eat, could just order a few rounds of drinks, and have these coming in a steady stream. (This might eventually become an option, I am told.)
From there, the meal hewed to a steady, almost minimalist path. By minimalist, I definitely don’t mean simple. This food is difficult to do well, and Gonzalez is known for his obsession with precision and meticulousness. Rather, it means shorn of garlands, of trappings and flourishes.
Inevitably, people will compare the old Chele Gonzalez with the new one that has emerged from the chrysalis, and my verdict is that they are very different.
Even in the later stages of Gallery Vask, the need to dazzle was there, as was the instinct to complicate.
The last vestiges of elBulli continued to haunt the way the menu was put together, the way a new ingredient would be used.
Gonzalez describes the new menu as being more “organic” in its approach to food. I feel that it takes a very different approach, beginning with the ingredients, and then building upwards, deciding on what the most interesting and innovative way of dealing with an Aklan oyster or a local lobster would be—the latter is thrown on the coals of the Josper oven for a minute or two.
Another inevitable comparison is Jordy Navarra of Toyo Eatery. I won’t really extrapolate on this, except to say that Navarra and Gonzalez are on different, if complementary, paths, with different projects.
What they are trying to do in the sphere of “modern Philippine cuisine” is radically distinctive, even if on the surface it looks like they are similar.
On a more practical note, apart from being friends who support each other, they also need one another—the Philippines cannot be a food destination if there is only one restaurant to visit. This is the problem with restaurants like Noma or Fäviken, of what on earth you’re going to do with the rest of your time.
So Chele Gonzalez is back—but it’s not quite what we were used to, and while it’s surprising, it’s a good thing.
Anyone interested in experiencing a chef at the top of his game working with local ingredients and regional influences —or just having a good time with some top-notch cocktails—should check out the new Gallery. –CONTRIBUTED