Terraza Martinez: Where the food touches your soul and the Valencian chef takes you places | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

There’s no shortage of Spanish restaurants in Manila. Plenty of them exist either on or off everyone’s radar—from deep-rooted institutions like Alba Restaurante Español to newer and flashier brands such as La Picara.

But with the imminent arrival of Terraza Martinez, a collaboration between Valencian chef Luis Martinez of Siargao’s Alma and The Nikkei Group, you would wonder if this is simply another case of a Spanish restaurant stepping into an overcrowded scene.

Yet a casual conversation with Martinez gives the impression that the Spanish-Mediterranean restaurant built in between “jokes and laughs” has a shot at reenergizing Spanish cuisine’s presence in Manila.

For one, this Campolivar denizen—who was a veterinarian back in Valencia before making the decision to move to the Philippines in mid-2019—has enough culinary creativity and credibility under his belt despite the fact that he eschews the title “chef.”

“The profession of being a chef is a profession in which I have a lot of respect for—respect for the effort, dedication, talent, and knowledge,” Luis Martinez says earnestly.

“The profession of being a chef is a profession in which I have a lot of respect for—respect for the effort, dedication, talent, and knowledge,” he says earnestly. “I prefer to consider myself passionate about cooking and food who puts a lot of effort and dedication in the kitchen, more than a chef.”

That kind of dedication manifested itself early on when he mastered paella at seven years old at his home kitchen and then again when his Siargao restaurant Alma (which literally translates to “soul”) bore the brunt of the pandemic and Typhoon Odette last year.

“I remember a good friend of mine telling me that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. There is no doubt that I’m more alive than ever and there is no pandemic or typhoon so strong as to stop my intention to return the soul to Alma,” Martinez says, speaking on his feelings and thoughts about the unfortunate events.

And instead of closing this chapter with an anxious whimper, Martinez squares up with fate once again by partnering with Carlo Lorenzana to find himself in Bonifacio Global City with Terraza Martinez.

“We had a nine-day vacation in Siargao and met Luis in Alma. We were very impressed with the concept and the food so we decided to meet and the rest is history,” Lorenzana says. “It wasn’t without challenges but in the end, everything fell into place.”

Experience rules at Terraza Martinez

Make no mistake though: Terraza Martinez isn’t a nostalgic ode to Alma. Rather, it is, as Martinez explains it, Alma’s more experienced brother.

“Both follow the same common thread in terms of atmosphere and Mediterranean vibes. However, both have their personalities well differentiated. Terraza Martinez is an adaptation of Alma in the city, taking advantage of the variety of products Manila can provide and that are totally impossible to get in Siargao.”

Situated at Shangri-La at The Fort, Terraza Martinez signals the kind of relationship Martinez has with all the places he belongs to.

There’s an inherent Spanishness drifting throughout the menu and yet it’s underpinned by a romanticism with the Mediterranean coast and the Philippine tropics. The pursuit of poetry in food and the thrill of the hunt for knowledge likewise affected the gastronomic intention of Martinez.

“Know the environment and the product. Eat with your ears, eyes, and mouth. Use all your senses and create a concept and an atmosphere around that, but do not leave aside neither the environment nor the product with which you work and be multifaceted,” Luis Martinez says when establishing a restaurant.

“As passionate about cooking and food [as I am], I dedicated the last six months to the study of the environment, the market, and the product, which, together with my experience and know-how, have made it possible to create a fun and, in some cases, surprising menu.”

The menu manages to be classic, inventive, and honest where Martinez unpacks an experience that alternates between his Valencian roots and his vision on breathing life into ingredients.

“I bet on products of lower value, or sub-products, since I want to show that in the kitchen, many times, less is more for its simplicity. I mean, cuttlefish with mayonnaise, fried kurobota pork tail or local octopus are a nice sample of those products.”

Amid an extensive menu, the restaurant flexes some creative muscles with thoughtful focus. Their Croquetas de Calamares (squid ink croquetas) and Rabo de Cerdo Fritos (fried pork tail) get a contemporary update with the use of red snapper and Esguerra Farms Kurobuta pork tail while the Pescado del Dia (catch of the day) and Presa Ibérica de Cerdo (Iberico loin) suffuse the Spanish experience from the southern Andalusian hills to the Valencian coastlines.

“I didn’t forget the Valenciana paella with fresh artichokes and bomba rice, for being the authentic paella, and the one that moves me so much to the place I belong.”

All things considered, Martinez has imbued yet again some of his soul into what he wants Manileños to expect and hope for. This is very much a product of someone clearly in love with what he does.

On the Paella de Vaca (where he employs US hanging tender and bone marrow), Martinez gets candid about the rice dish when I pointed out my experience enjoying it in El Palmar close to Albufera Lake in 2019.

Paella has always been a proximity dish in which foraging for ingredients within the area forms its essence. But Martinez takes it even further with an explanation that will remind you again of the significance of food in our lives.

“Perhaps that is one of the advantages of cooking, that if by proximity you do not have the ingredients, you can make the consumer travel the world,” he declares.

“The best paella is not the one that overflows with rice and meaningless toppings, but the one that is in perfect balance.”

“It’s what I intended with this paella—take them to a mountain area where they will find wild mushrooms, cows, and that characteristic smell of rosemary and thyme.”

And if you discover (or revisit) how Spain savors its cuisine, Martinez’s methods portray a nation that doesn’t see eating as merely an act of survival. “Life revolves around food, and any social gathering or celebration is the perfect excuse to share a meal.”

Province and provenance

While Martinez is undoubtedly grateful and privileged for another opportunity to bare his brand of “soul” food in Manila, there is also a less positive side that some chefs and restaurateurs hailing from outside the capital continuously contend with: the fundamental challenges of Manila’s restaurant scene.

The larger and possibly more discerning demographic. The density of stiff competition. The changing consumer behavior. The pressures of inflation. The demands needed from chefs to take an overall view.

Said Aska’s Fredrik Berselius on the trials of establishing a foothold in New York City, “My approach shifted to be more expansive in the sense that I was now in charge of [not] just one element of the picture, but of the whole thing.”

“You need to really love challenges to open in Manila kasi hindi ka mauubusan,” admits Anthony Ang of Blue Posts Boiling Crabs & Shrimps when we interviewed him five years ago.

And if you discover (or revisit) how Spain savors its cuisine, Martinez’s methods portray a nation that doesn’t see eating as merely an act of survival. “Life revolves around food, and any social gathering or celebration is the perfect excuse to share a meal.”

But operating in a relatively faraway location like Siargao offers its own set of difficulties that hones your determination to overcome them. “[A foodservice] undertaking on an island with clearly limited suppliers and resources requires specific skills and a great capacity for adaptation,” says Martinez.

And where the challenges are massive, the rewards are just as notable. “You have the enormous privilege of using ‘kilometer zero’ products, [are] face to face with local fishermen, farmers or artisans in a unique environment.”

Then there’s the support that an experienced partner like Lorenzana—whose F&B concepts and collaborations have hit the sweet spot of community and creativity—can bring to the table.

“I think it doesn’t matter where you will open,” he believes. “You will encounter the same challenges and you will need to find solutions.”

Taking the road less traveled

Over three years on since his life-changing decision, Martinez appears to have found his footing on his roller coaster adventure halfway around the world.

“It’s crazy because if [there was] something I knew [back then], [it] was that I didn’t want to open a restaurant. That was a very big step for me because I have a degree in veterinary medicine and I never studied culinary arts. I ended up in the kitchen because I couldn’t find a better way to express myself.”

Whatever mixed feelings he had when he left Valencia for Siargao have now been replaced with a willingness to take the bull by its horns and an enthusiasm for the view beyond his horizon.

“I had everything that made me really happy. However, there was something inside me that pushed me to know more, to live new experiences, and to take the risk knowing that if something went wrong, home would always be there for me.”

Strangely enough, I can’t help but think that Terraza Martinez might only just be the start for Martinez and that we’ll be hearing more from him in the years to come.

The story was first published on F&B Report

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