While we were living abroad, huddling in the gray chill of late autumn as the dark nights drew in, a rose-colored apparition would manifest itself in our frost-bitten imaginations about sitting down to a smorgasbord of hearty Filipino fare, with long-lost friends sitting around the table in cheerful bonhomie.
And quite often this fantasy would be set in a place with cheerfully nostalgic lighting, filled with colored frilly trinkets and lace and old furniture, like a house decorated by a grandmother on an acid trip.
Not unlike, in fact, the interiors of Café Juanita, where most of these reunions would take place every December, or whenever we want a relaxing place to get together at any time during the year for the best kare-kare in town.
Pasig is the place one repairs to for comfort and blowing off steam, just as Makati is where one goes to try new restaurants and eat complicated food and see snazzy friends, and Maginhawa is where one goes when one is feeling introspective and hipstery and in the mood to play vinyl.
It’s a 25-minute drive from Makati on a weekday night, the same amount of time you’d spend looking for parking at The Fort. Aside from Café Juanita and Charlie’s Burgers on Capitol Drive, the best Korean restaurant in the city, Jang Ga Nae, is hidden in a small alleyway off Escriva Drive. It’s very raucous and slightly dingy and you’re unlikely to schmooze with fashionistas, but this is why one comes to Pasig: The food is good, the prices are reasonable, and you can let your guard down.
The newest addition to the roster of comfortable midrange restaurants is Haru, a Japanese restaurant that’s beside Café Juanita and run by the same owner, ‘Doc’ Boy Vazquez. It’s apparently this middle-age man who is responsible for the food, and perhaps even the décor, of Café Juanita.
For Haru he has gone for a minimalist aesthetic, at least by his standards, which still means that a chandelier appears out of nowhere and glass cherry blossoms wrap themselves around the lights. But it’s definitely brighter and more streamlined than its neighbor.
The menu, at first glance, seemed disappointingly abbreviated, given that Juanita’s menu has the scope of a Victorian novel, but the many empty laminated pages hinted at future additions. I hunted down the chef, the dignified Tom Yamasaki, and pried him out from behind the sushi bar.
“For now, dry run only,” he explained. “Then adding more items. Not for Japanese people, for Filipino people! I’ll put new dishes for Filipino taste. Japanese favorites. And my own inventions!’
For the moment you may be disappointed that the menu doesn’t have the hardcore wobbly stuff that you find scribbled on the chalkboard at a joint in Little Tokyo. But the reason I felt this restaurant was worth a review was that what was there was very, very good.
And the “short” menu isn’t that short either: There’s a good selection of sashimi, of sushi rolls both traditional and “new world” (spicy salmon maki, dynamite roll, soft-shell crab), a decent list of ramen and udon, extremely well-executed tempura, teppanyaki, and rice topped with beef (gyudon) and breaded pork (katsudon).
It reminded me of Sugi before it got expensive and mediocre, or Kimpura before it became bland and oleaginous. As it turns out, the head chef is an alumnus of Sugi, as are several of the sous chefs. One of the perks of it being next door to Juanita is that one can order dessert from there, tempering the virtuousness of eating raw fish and rice with a decadent turon or buko pandan.
There’s enough space in the city for different kinds of Japanese restaurants to coexist: those hushed temples of authenticity where even the eggs are imported and the chef bursts into tears if you mix the wasabi into the soy sauce; fusion places where the chef is trying to do something interesting by twiddling with the basic Japanese vocabulary; and Japanese-for-Pinoy places like this one, where the rules are relaxed but the food adheres to a fairly high standard that the chef creates for himself: Cooking ‘for Filipino tastes’ doesn’t mean being sloppy.
The “short” menu is already worth driving to Pasig for. I, for one, can’t wait to see what the full menu has in store. One hopes, though, that the expanded repertoire does not lead to a diminution in quality.
In a city overflowing with Japanese restaurants, a consistently good one is still a mirage worth the apparition. Say Haru to a very promising newcomer.
Haru Sushi Bar and Restaurant is at 21 West Capitol Drive, Barrio Kapitolyo, Pasig City; tel. c/o Café Juanita 6320357