A young restaurant revisits family traditions
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.”