DIN­ING

The re­cent world­wide ex­plo­sion in the pop­u­lar­ity of Philip­pine cui­sine has its cra­dle in the au­da­cious new ea­ter­ies of the coun­try’s capital,

Prestige Hong Kong - - CONTENTS - writes chris dwyer

The rise and rise of Philip­pine cui­sine

YOU COULD BE for­given, 10 or even five years ago, for rais­ing an eye­brow at the thought of Philip­pine cui­sine find­ing a dis­cern­ing global au­di­ence.

Beyond its home coun­try it was nei­ther hip nor read­ily avail­able.

It wasn’t al­ways this way, how­ever. In 1972 a Filipino restau­rant called Aux Iles Philip­pines opened in Paris, quickly win­ning cov­eted men­tions in the Gault&Mil­lau guide for dishes like crab pancit and gam­bas à la Pam­panga, and at­tract­ing reg­u­lar pa­tron­age from per­son­al­i­ties such as Si­mone de Beau­voir and Brigitte Bar­dot. An­other Filipino restau­rant, Ma­har­lika, then opened in 1974 on New York’s Fifth Av­enue. It seemed the fu­ture could be bright for one of Asia’s most un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated culi­nary sto­ries.

Sadly, those flames were snuffed out by the early ’80s and for decades the coun­try’s dishes were largely lost to global din­ers. How­ever, the wheel has come full cir­cle and to­day, just a few blocks from the for­mer Ma­har­lika, sits Pig and Khao. It’s where Filipino-Amer­i­can chef Leah Co­hen’s street food has won her rave re­views from the likes of The New York Times and The Huff­in­g­ton Post. Bad Saint in Washington DC was ranked Bon Ap­pétit’s num­ber two restau­rant in the US in 2016, while Lasa in LA was named one of the restau­rants of the year by Food & Wine. And that’s just some of the US met­ros. Din­ers across Europe and beyond are also be­lat­edly dis­cov­er­ing the joys of the tamarind soup sini­gang, the spicy taroleaves-in-co­conut-milk dish laing or the sim­ple porcine per­fec­tion of le­chon.

All of which makes a gas­tro­nomic trip to Manila time­lier than ever, to see, hear and taste why the time for Filipino chefs and food is now.

Jordy Navarra at Toyo Eatery was named “One to Watch” in the pres­ti­gious but of­ten­con­tentious Asia’s 50 Best Restau­rants awards. Navarra’s im­pec­ca­ble ré­sumé in­cludes stints at He­ston Blu­men­thal’s Fat Duck and Alvin Le­ung’s Bo In­no­va­tion, both three-Miche­lin­star es­tab­lish­ments. In 2016 he opened Toyo, named after the Ta­ga­log for soy sauce. It’s a seem­ingly hum­ble and sim­ple in­gre­di­ent, but one that’s ac­tu­ally com­plex, making it the per­fect metaphor for the ex­cep­tional plates he de­liv­ers.

The in­te­rior is con­tem­po­rary and in­dus­trial-cool, with beau­ti­ful din­ing fur­ni­ture and soft light­ing, but the feel is re­laxed and the food is the star. Served on gor­geous table­ware made by lo­cal pot­ters, an 11-course tast­ing menu is a rev­e­la­tion.

Gar­den Veg­eta­bles is a stand­out, a bril­liant cre­ation in­spired by “Ba­hay Kubo”, a folk song learned by ev­ery Filipino child. It looks like a seedling em­bed­ded in a mound of soil but is, in fact, a mix of all 18 veg­eta­bles men­tioned in the song, but painstak­ingly dis­guised as earth. It’s de­li­cious, show­ing the qual­ity and fi­nesse of lo­cal pro­duce, as well as gen­tly nos­tal­gic – but it’s also proudly Pi­noy (Filipino), as Navarra ex­plains.

“As much as it serves its in­tent of teach­ing kids about their greens,” he says, “‘Ba­hay Kubo’ also came to serve as the rev­e­la­tion re­gard­ing

our pur­pose as a restau­rant. It be­came clear then that re­assess­ing, re­dis­cov­er­ing and find­ing a deeper un­der­stand­ing of Filipino cul­ture through food was what we as­pired to.”

More seem­ingly hum­ble dishes in­clude pork bar­be­cue skew­ers, sticky and deep in flavour, served with ridicu­lously mor­eish and beau­ti­fully ex­e­cuted gar­lic rice, an­other homage to the coun­try. Some of my favourite dishes come at the end in the form of a dulce de leche caramel in­fused with fish sauce (se­ri­ously), and dainty desserts of burnt cas­sava cake and haleyang ube latik – pur­ple yam with caramelised co­conut curd.

The softly spo­ken Navarra ex­plains the changes he’s seen: “The culi­nary scene has be­come a lot more di­verse and de­vel­oped. It’s great, be­cause I find that we have more ac­cess to bet­ter in­gre­di­ents and knowl­edge, while the peo­ple have been more open to dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to food. So, com­par­ing where it is now to where it was be­fore? It’s to­tally night and day.”

At Manila’s Gallery Vask, only the sec­on­de­ver es­tab­lish­ment in the Philip­pines to break into Asia’s 50 Best Restau­rants, Span­ish chefowner Chele Gon­za­lez agrees. He’s watched the rise of Navarra and isn’t sur­prised by his suc­cess: “Jordy is re­ally cook­ing Filipino food and chang­ing the way it’s un­der­stood. He def­i­nitely has a very clear style. He’s ar­guably the leader and the one who takes most risks, but he’s cre­ated a very sus­tain­able en­vi­ron­ment in the restau­rant, which al­lows him to be free and do what­ever he feels. He’s both a purist in cook­ing Filipino food, but at the same time the most ex­per­i­men­tal as well.”

Next we head to Test Kitchen, where An­glo-Filipino chef Josh Bout­wood serves beau­ti­fully com­posed plates. He stud­ied in Spain, ap­pren­ticed at Ray­mond Blanc’s Bel­mond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and then spent time at the leg­endary Noma, be­fore re­turn­ing to Manila as both head chef of Test Kitchen and cor­po­rate chef of The Bistro Group.

The com­pact, wel­com­ing venue seats just 22, mean­ing that ev­ery­one has a front-row seat to the ac­tion as Bout­wood’s team cre­ates six- or eight-course menus. We start with lamb ham. It’s odd how lamb is so rarely seen cured, but Bout­wood is a char­cu­terie mas­ter and al­lows fen­nel seed,

ju­niper, rose­mary and hints of chilli to work their magic. It’s served along­side lo­cal pota­toes cooked con­fit-style and aged brie dot­ted with aged bal­samic vine­gar and olive oil. The bal­ance of nu­ance and tex­tures is per­fect.

An­other dish stops this diner in his tracks: a tartare made from ox heart served on a brioche made with Ja­maican all-spice, pink pep­per­corns and black tea. The fi­nal flour­ish, as with any good tartare, is golden egg that dots the tasty meat.

When it comes to cham­pi­oning the in­cred­i­ble va­ri­ety and qual­ity of Filipino pro­duce Bout­wood is an evan­ge­list – as seen with his take on roast chicken, where lo­cal heir­loom car­rots are in many ways the hero of the dish. That’s be­cause they’re both lacto-fer­mented and puréed, re­mind­ing you of the oomph that a hum­ble veg­etable can de­liver.

The se­ri­ously ac­com­plished menu crescen­dos with a dish of spelt berries that have been sim­mered in a dashi made from kelp, making for an umami tsunami of mouth­feel. It comes dot­ted around thin slices of radish with mi­cro greens and pop­corn made from the spelt crown­ing it. It’s the sort of cook­ing that makes you won­der why Manila isn’t on ev­ery Asian gas­tronome’s radar. But also, more to the point, why Filipino pro­duce, cui­sine and chefs don’t have the pro­file over­seas that they clearly merit.

We then head to Hey Hand­some, helmed by an­other young Filipino chef, Nicco San­tos. His vi­brant, flavour-packed plates meld the best of South­east Asia, fol­low­ing his im­mer­sion into the cuisines of Malaysia and Sin­ga­pore. Through his ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing with chefs and home cooks, as well as at hawker stands, he learned the tech­niques and bal­ance that have con­trib­uted to his unique menu in Manila.

Fol­low­ing a spell in New York, San­tos re­turned to open the pan-Asian spot Your Lo­cal, in­spired by the ca­sual neigh­bour­hood ea­ter­ies of Brook­lyn. Pub­lic and crit­i­cal ac­claim fol­lowed be­fore he launched Hey Hand­some in Fort Boni­fa­cio – “The Fort” – in 2016. Its sim­ple in­te­rior is bright, thanks to floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows and tile-cov­ered walls, while an open kitchen lets din­ers see the chefs at work.

Stand­outs on the fre­quently chang­ing menu in­clude stir-fried Manila clams, and two takes on the clas­sic Malay fra­grant-rice dish, nasi le­mak: bar­be­cued seabass and fried chicken, both of which fre­quently sell out. All the dis­parate el­e­ments that make the dish such a de­light are ex­e­cuted per­fectly, from the dried an­chovies – ikan bilis – to a bril­liant sambal that you’d hap­pily buy by the jar. Also un­miss­able are the beef ribs, which are grilled, cut up and given a world of flavour thanks to fra­grant herbs, chilli, tamarind and the waft of bar­be­cue smoke.

While the cui­sine at Hey Hand­some may not be strictly Filipino, the ap­pli­ca­tion and ex­e­cu­tion of a chef to mas­ter an­other culi­nary dis­ci­pline speaks vol­umes about a com­mit­ment to au­then­tic­ity and a burn­ing de­sire to learn. All traits shared by Navarra, Bout­wood and San­tos, just three of the count­less Filipino young guns chang­ing per­cep­tions of their coun­try’s cui­sine, one bite at a time.

IT’S THE SORT OF COOK­ING THAT MAKES YOU WON­DER WHY MANILA ISN’T ON EV­ERY ASIAN GAS­TRONOME’S RADAR

CLOCKWISE FROM OP­PO­SITE TOP: TOYO IN­TE­RIOR; JOSH BOUT­WOOD AT WORK IN THE TEST KITCHEN; BAR­BE­CUE SEABASS NASI LE­MAK AT HEY HAND­SOME

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