What does it take to impress a chef lauded by no less than The New York Times as one of three chefs in Singapore who are reinventing the city’s traditional food culture?
Aun Koh, publisher of the Miele Guide, shouted out this challenge: “Margaux: after years of Su-Lyn and me advocating the Manila food scene, Chef Willin Low of Wild Rocket and Relish is finally heading over. Can you get the Pinoy foodies to roll out the red carpet?”
That they had been marketing Manila to the world was true (visit chubbyhubby.net) and I was only too happy to prove them right to this very important albeit youthful guest.
I had an entire itinerary rolled out: Antonio’s, Lolo Dad’s, Abe, La Cocina de Tita Moning’s… and then came the bigger challenge: “I will only be in Manila from July 9 to 10 then we fly to Palawan,” Chef Willin Low’s e-mail read.
And so it came to be that since we could not bring Chef Willin Low around to experience the Manila restaurant scene, we brought the Manila restaurant scene to him. Filipino hospitality reigned supreme as chef after chef shared the best of Pinoy cooking via Manila’s most popular restaurateurs and Enderun Colleges (thanks to Tricia Tensuan).
There was no better way to start than with Margarita Fores’ Roasted Bulalo (served only at a Pepato Pop Up at the Whitespace. See details at the end of this column).
“I want to serve it with rice and patis – that’s the beauty of it as a Filipino dish!” she explained.
So we were presented with a medium-sized slab of bulalo, with a piece of bread and truffle paste on the left for the Westernized version, and with a dollop of rice plus patis and calamansi on the right side for the Filipino version. It was an artful presentation of where Filipino cuisine is today: reaching out to the world while staying true to our roots.
From Gaita we moved to sister-in-law Malou Fores’ Kurobuta Sinigang. If Doreen Fernandez believed that sinigang is THE signature Filipino dish, a menu introducing Filipino cuisine required its inclusion. Mamou’s soup is a little thicker than the usual broth but it is arguably one of the best sinigangs in the Metro.
From Batangueño and Tagalog recipes, we moved on to Pampanga’s paco (fern) and pla-pla care of Bistro Remedios and Abe. Abe tops my list of “restaurants to bring a tourist or balikbayan to.”
Claude Tayag, the authority on Kapampangan cooking, explained, “Buro or balo-balo is a delicacy of Pampanga using rice and shrimps. We usually wrap this in mustard leaves and have it with fried fish.” Enderun’s Chef See, who oversaw the event, pre-wrapped the dish for the convenience of each guest.
Then we brought in the best of Iloilo with Chef Pauline Gorriceta Banusing presenting a stylized chicken inasal. “This is our Hainanese chicken,” Chef Pauline explained.
“Except that it’s grilled and not steamed.” Chit Juan, proud advocate of organic cooking (as practiced in Le Bistro Vert) noticed the organic vinegar used on the chicken. “It’s sinamak, organic vinegar from Iloilo,” Chef Pauline explained.
Alongside the chicken was a heritage recipe from La Cocina de Tita Moning: Suzette Montinola’s Pinais na Alimasag. Suzette, now also a professor of culinary arts at Enderun, explained that the award-winning recipe uses blue crab meat and young coconut wrapped in banana leaves and grilled.
Of course no Filipino fiesta is complete without lechon. First, we presented Chef Willin Low with the best traditional (restaurant) lechon: J Gamboa/Cirkulo’s cochinillo, masterfully chopped the Spanish way – using a saucer – by Enderun’s Chef See. Cirkulo’s cochinillo had such crisp skin with nibbles of fat pleasantly lying underneath, that it was absolute piggy heaven.
Then we presented Chef Low with the more global version: Myrna Segismundo’s Lechon Roulade, to introduce Filipino flavors to the more westernized palate. As I bit into it, though, I tasted something I had overlooked when I first tasted this in 2006: Liver discreetly tucked into the rolled pork meat. Wow.
Finally, we had the best of Filipino desserts care of Jill Sandique: Pistacchio Sans Rival and Mango Pavlova, alongside Enderun’s Kalamansi Tart.
The desserts are 100 percent Pinoy, yet the sans rival is truly “without rival” in taste: a creamy beginning, a crisp bite in between, and finally that toasted aftertaste that keeps you wanting for more.
To dot the i on this exceptional dinner, coffee was single origin Benguet Arabica from the Women in Coffee Project of ECHOstore. “We have some of the best coffee in the world,” Chit Juan explained.
A menu to die for? A menu to live for!
If the Department of Tourism is paying attention, please note that we can increase the number of tourists to our shore by sheer virtue of our chefs’ creativity and the force of flavors in our food. Singapore has taken this route and we’d be wise to follow! If there was anything that was proven that night, it’s that Philippine cuisine rocks.
The evening ended with the Singaporeans offering a toast to Filipino food and hospitality. “I will definitely come back to Manila,” Chef Willin Low exclaimed. Mission accomplished! •
Restaurant 101, Enderun Colleges 1100 Campus Avenue, McKinley Hill, Fort Bonifacio, 856-5000 local 101. More details at 101.enderuncolleges.com. Pepato Pop Up, The Commissary at Whitespace, 2314 Pasong Tamo Extension, Makati. By reservation only, 729-0030 or 0917-5138945. More details at the Pepato page on Facebook. Bistro Remedios, 1911 M. Adriatico St., Remedios Circle, Malate, 523-9153. Abe Serendra, Bonifacio Global City, 856-0526. Freska branches at freskagroup.com. Cirkulo, G/F Milkyway Bldg., Arnaiz Avenue (Pasay Road) cor. Paseo de Roxas, 810-8735, 810-2763. More details at elcirkulo.com. Myrna Segismundo’s Private Kitchen, private dining venue for small parties of up to 20 people. 45 Sunrise Hill, New Manila, Rolling Hills Village, Quezon City. By reservation only. 721-0736. Delize by Jill Sandique 33 Sunrise Drive, Cubao, 721-7022. ECHOstore, G/F Serendra, Bonifacio Global City, 901-3485. More details at echostore.ph. Wine Story, G/F Shangri-la Plaza Mall, Mandaluyong, 633-3556 (the menu was paired with a 2003 Chateau La Bien Faisance St. Emillion Grand Cru). Chef Willin Low Singapore restaurant details at www.wildrocket.com.sg. More details, photos at margauxlicious.blogspot.com.
Photographs courtesy of Enderun Colleges