Save for strawberries, Baguio has never really been known as a food destination. It has been more popular as an artist’s community, while non-artists have appreciated this summer capital for romance, honeymoons, and family outings, with the kids’ agenda centered on horseback riding.
But in the past few years, a chef’s community has been shaping up that is turning Baguio into one huge food adventure in itself.
Billy King at Forest Lodge and The Manor
The King of fine cuisine continues to create impeccable fine dining dishes at Camp John Hay. Responsible for the success of Le Chef at The Manor, Billy King is now also handling the menu of the recently opened Forest Lodge (formerly The Suites), also inside Camp John Hay. You can actually just enjoy a cup of Baguio blend at the expensive and expansive Forest Lodge lobby, by the fireplace.
But why waste the opportunity to have a bite of the creations of The King? I just recently found out that aside from having created menus for all post-Edsa presidents of the Philippines, he has also prepared special menus for no less than the late great Diana, Princess of Wales, Tina Turner, Elton John, and so many other jaw-dropping names while he was running F&B at the May Fair Hotel in London.
So have that perfectly seared foie gras or a beautifully charred steak at Le Chef at The Manor. It’s a classic menu but it still shows that almost 30 years later, Billy King is still happening. (N.B. Ask if he’s in the kitchen.)
Mitos Yñiguez at the Hill Station
Hearty dishes with European, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and even African influences will greet you at the Hill Station, located at the revived Casa Vallejo. Start with an appetizer of Picado, a Portuguese version of beef salpicao. Experiment with the South African Steak and Prawn Peri-Peri. Or share a paella. A personal favorite on the menu is the Cambodian Coriander and Garlic Chicken, whose flavors are as vibrant as the personality of the chef. The attentive waiters instead recommend the slow-cooked Cocido Mexicana.
The restaurant is spacious, with large glass windows allowing in the fresh Baguio air. The curved pair of staircases leading to the hotel will not go unnoticed. Photographs by great Baguio photographers are on display, including an amazing 1984 “mother and child” photo by Wig Tysmans of Mitos Yñiguez herself with her son.
But best of all, if you catch the enthusiastic owner/chef at the resto, you will get a contagion of happiness that should be a great Baguio souvenir.
Alvin Emuang at Chef’s Home
The husband and wife tandem of Alvin and Gina Emuang started out in the garage of a sari-sari store. President Noynoy Aquino would reportedly order Chef Alvin’s chili crab and have it delivered to the Mansion House. Word of the kitchen prowess of this Malaysian chef got around so that during holidays, there would be a long line for his Roti.
The couple’s dining place has since moved to a better location, still near the Mansion House but now operating as a real restaurant and no longer a hole in the wall.
I’ve said this in a previous article but I am happy to say it again: At Chef’s Home, you are served no less than Asian cooking at its finest. It is a humble “home” but it can compete with or even beat the dishes served at any fine-dining restaurant or hotel in Manila. After all, Emuang is a former executive chef at Novotel Resort in Phuket, Thailand.
The tom yum soup is authentic Thai. The very tender beef rendang’s spices cling to your tongue. The nasi goreng is alive. An interesting dish is the coffeelicious pork rolled in coffee and cilantro sauce. Recently they’ve added beef murtabak to the menu.
But best of all is the chili crab. Forget Singapore, just drive up to Baguio. (Call ahead to make sure they have crab and not just prawns.) After all, the chef has ingredients flown in from various parts of Asia through friends so the cumin, coriander and chili you taste are authentic. Even the Thai fish sauce for the tom yum soup is flown in from Bangkok. I dare say this is the best Asian restaurant not only in Baguio but in the country. I hope the couple keeps it up.
Evelynne Acosta Bond of Eve’s Garden
It’s a long drive to the top of the world but like heaven, it’s worth the trip. It is cooler and greener here and a great place to forget your problems. You might feel like a Benedictine monk on a mountaintop monastery or like a Jedi in training when you do a tour of the grounds where the monkey bars are. But that’s the idea: It’s as much a foodie adventure as it is a retreat.
Eve doesn’t promise a rose garden but there is a lettuce garden and what you eat on your plate will be fresh greens from the source just downstairs. Committed to nature, Eve also adds bursts of color to the salad with edible flowers like organically grown nasturium. In keeping with this theme, Eve slices her carrots in the shape of a flower and designs it with sesame seeds.
The menu is set so you will have to call in ahead so she can ask you if you prefer chicken, beef or fish. I would go for the chicken. But honestly, after the gargantuan serving of salad, you will be too stuffed and would probably just take the chicken home. The salad is the definite highlight of the meal (and the best cameo award goes to the pineapple iced tea). Eve also plays with textures and has you wrap carrots, turnips, raisins and almonds in lettuce leaves. Delish!
Vicky Tinio Clemente of Mama’s Table
This is a by-reservation-only private fine dining experience for a group of six persons, minimum. It is also a blow-your-mind eight-course experience with items such as Truffled Custard with caramelized onions or Shrimp and Fish Cake with coriander and mint.
Trained in classic French cooking, Ms. Tinio-Clemente also offers an amazing Moroccan salad as a digestive. But she is Filipino after all because her nibblers include chicharon that you dip in a smoked bangus spread. The elegant setting complimented by the spectacular view is also bound to take your breath away.
Old-timers look for this institution of a Baguio restaurant on Session Road. It is now across the street. The prices are oh-so-reasonable and the servings are heaping. The resto is known for its giant cinnamon bread usually sold out by noon.
The weary traveler can chow down on the camaron rebosado and lemon butter chicken. Pair them with yang chow fried rice and you’re good to go. Some of the waiters are still from the original Star Cafe and grew their grey hairs on the job. It’s a classic.
A cluster of restaurants on the road to the Mansion House gives you choices of Thai, Northern Filipino, Malay and American cuisines. Sit at any establishment—Canto, Rancho Norte, Happy Tummy, Cafe Circolo or Rumah Sate—and feel free to order from the others. It’s a great place for hanging out with friends or just to while away time. And you will need time because service, while extremely accommodating and pleasant, can be rather slow. There is much to develop in terms of cooking except for Rancho Norte whose tapas are a real experience. You have a choice of deer, carabao or horse (tapang usa, tapang kalabaw or tapang kabayo). There will be an aftertaste but the meat is oh so tender and the flavors are amazing. Their pinakbet with bagnet is also extremely satisfying.
Finally, to bring a piece of Baguio home, here are a few finds: the jams at Le Chef, raisin bread from Baguio Country Club, guava jam from the Hill Station, ube jam by the Good Shepherd, and of course strawberries from the market.
Clearly Baguio is very much back in business. How’s that for a transformation to a food destination? •
Baguio City is an approximately 7-hour drive from Makati City. For accommodations, search agoda.com.
Forest Lodge and The Manor, Camp John Hay. Tel. (074) 424-0931 to 43. Open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wheelchair accessible.
Hill Station. Casa Vallejo, Upper Session Road. Tel. (074) 423-9100. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wheelchair accessible.
Chef’s Home. No. 30 Brgy. Lualhati, Romulo Drive, Tel. 0916-4445756. Open for lunch and dinner. Closed on Sundays. Wheelchair accessible.
Eve’s Garden. 132 Upper Lamtang Road, La Trinidad, Benguet. Tel. 0920-9476264. Reservations required. Open for lunch only from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Not wheelchair accessible.