HOME-COOKED

A young restau­rant re­vis­its fam­ily tra­di­tions

Cebu Living - - Front Page - By OLIVER EMOCLING Im­ages by JIM UBALDE and NAPOLEON BOJOS, JR.

Rain­drops were trick­ling down the white walls of Cocina de la Casa when we ar­rived there one Tues­day af­ter­noon. “My grand­mother built this house in the 1960s,” co-owner Mar­gette Gar­cia-Sarmiento says of the place. “She built sev­eral houses for us, the grand­chil­dren. When my brother got mar­ried, he lived here for about 30 years un­til he moved out.” In­deed, you can still imag­ine where the di­viders might have been be­fore. Al­though the house has been turned into a restau­rant, there re­mains a hint of ex­u­ber­ance that’s found only in lived-in spa­ces. Giv­ing color to the white walls are city maps made by Ta­gay­tay-based artist Wataru Sekuma. At the ta­ble, set against D’Oro Barandino’s rub­ber art­work, a big fam­ily en­gages in postlunch rev­elry.

“[Chef and som­me­lier] Stephen Az­nar and I would talk about the menu as we opened his recipe books,” Gar­cia-Sarmiento re­calls of the time when they were still play­ing with the idea of open­ing a restau­rant, two years be­fore it fi­nally opened. The two part­nered with Gar­ci­aSarmiento’s friend Ina Ron­quillo-Aboitiz who was tasked to han­dle the would-be restau­rant’s fi­nances.

“The menu is ac­tu­ally a com­pi­la­tion of recipes that I’ve gath­ered, tried, and tested in my trav­els,” Az­nar, who trav­els twice a year, says. With a thick port­fo­lio of the coun­tries he has al­ready vis­ited, plus work­ing with an­other chef who had trained at Martha’s Vine­yard in Mas­sachusetts, Cocina de la Casa’s menu com­bines var­i­ous cuisines. There’s Moroc­can braised lamb shank with cous­cous, In­dian style beef tri­an­gles, ori­en­tal spring rolls, and French-in­flu­enced chicken liver paté with Con­treau. Aside from these dishes, Az­nar has also con­cocted his own ver­sion of the spicy North African sauce called harissa. “When you’re talk­ing about food, you’re also talk­ing about the cul­ture of the peo­ple, and food is the fastest way to learn an­other cul­ture,” he says. For their wine se­lec­tion, he chose Chilean and Por­tuguese wines to be the house wines.

Nena Gar­cia, Gar­cia-Sarmiento’s mother, also plays a big role at Cocina de la Cassa. “My mother grew up with food, and I grew up that way, too. Food was the cen­ter of our home and ev­ery­body just loves eat­ing good food.” Az­nar, who has been friends with Gar­cia-Sarmiento for 35 years, cites the ma­tri­arch as his first culi­nary men­tor. “Tita Nena taught me how to do [the Mi­lanese dish] osso buco. It was re­ally like cook­ing 101,” he re­calls. While fam­ily recipes are usu­ally kept within the fam­ily, he was for­tu­nate enough to be trusted by Gar­cia. “This is the first time my mother taught some­body else,” Gar­cia-Sarmiento af­firms, to which Az­nar re­marks, “I guess ev­ery good cook wants to share her dishes.”

Two of those dishes are the cal­los and lomo

de ba­calao, and their recipes are orig­i­nally from Gar­cia’s great grand­mother, passed down to the next gen­er­a­tions. “We try to keep them as they are. We don’t want them to change be­cause that’s how you pre­serve the food,” Az­nar tells of the heir­loom recipes. Cal­los is usu­ally made with beef tripe, but theirs uses

ja­mon ser­rano, chorizo, and beef knuck­les; a spoon­ful of the dish eas­ily melts in the mouth. Mean­while, the lomo de ba­calao is cod loin in tomato sauce, served with thinly sliced pota­toes on top. De­spite the tomato sauce, the ba­calao re­mains on the salty side, but the ad­di­tion of pimiento and pota­toes keeps the salti­ness from over­pow­er­ing the palate. If you’re look­ing for some­thing spicier, the harissa goes well with both dishes.

“The soul of the house is the kitchen,” Gar­cia-Sarmiento explains the restau­rant name. “[And eat­ing here feels] like go­ing to your home.” While the goal is to nur­ture a sense of com­fort­able fa­mil­iar­ity among the din­ers, it’s the value that the peo­ple be­hind the restau­rant have put on their friend­ship and fam­ily tra­di­tions that nur­tures this “soul.”

MAR­GETTE GAR­CIA-SARMENTO AND

STEPHEN AZ­NAR CEL­E­BRATE A 35-YEAR FRIEND­SHIP THAT WAS

AL­WAYS MARKED BY SE­CRET FAM­ILY RECIPES, GOOD WINE, AND GREAT ART THAT NOW COME TO­GETHER IN

THEIR JUST OPENED RESTAU­RANT.

A COM­MIS­SIONED WORK BY D’ORO BARANDINO ADORNS THE WALL PER­MA­NENTLY, ALONG WITH A RE­VOLV­ING DIS­PLAY OF HOME­GROWN ART FOR SALE; NENA GAR­CIA’S LOMO DE BA­CALAO, A RECIPE UN­CHANGED THROUGH GEN­ER­A­TIONS.

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