Don’t call Hapag the next great Filipino restaurant
Want to know what the future Filipino dining landscape looks like? Set your eyes on Hapag
Minutes before service at Hapag starts, we stand by the bar that separates the kitchen from the dining area, watching chef and co-owner Kevin Navoa prepare a dish called laing stones, carefully placing dark blobs of squid ink-covered laing inside a pot of herbs and stones, co-owners and fellow chefs Thirdy Dolatre hunching over a laptop, and Kevin Villarica explaining the tasting menu to a group of diners.
It’s a common setup that has the earmarks of a self-respecting restaurant—an open kitchen; minimalist design; carefully plated food; and a sense that the people behind the kitchen would rather not be doing anything other than what they were currently doing. And the people sitting on the other side know this, too.
Or at least that’s an assumption anyone would make upon entering the 24-seat concept. It’s not easy to secure a reservation at Hapag. The three owners tell me they’ve had to turn down reservations as well as the brave few who have ignored (or believed) social media hype and walked in hoping for a free table.
Hapag is one of Manila’s younger homegrown concepts whose food is a straightforward reflection of its owners’ philosophy—“authentic Filipino food but cleaned up.” An obvious precedent is Jordy Navarra’s Toyo Eatery, whose takes on traditional Filipino food have been read by diners and critics alike as attempts at “elevating” the shapeless, sauce-heavy dishes of our childhoods.
Villarica was particularly concerned about this empty uniformity. One of his laments goes: Kare-kare, for all its complexity flavor-wise, was too often reduced to a mass of dark orange sauce that had nothing going on for it in terms of texture. The messiness of it, too, was an issue.
“We deconstructed it, pinaganda, and at the same time we made it easier to eat. ‘ Yung hindi ka na kukuha sa pot tapos maghihimay. The sauce is mixed into the oxtail flakes and in the rice, so when you take a bite, all the flavors are there already,” says Villarica.
This dish, as is the rest of the items on the menu, reflects parts of all three chefs’ distinct culinary styles and personal histories: The oxtail was supposed to be served as whole pieces, but that didn’t look good so the classically-trained Dolatre stepped in to troubleshoot and tweak a few things; so did Navoa, whose talent for precision cooking manifested in the clean delineation and artful layering of the dish’s components; meanwhile, the idea of using a classic Filipino dish as a base for experimentation is Villarica paying homage to the tradition-heavy culinary culture of his hometown Bulacan.
There’s an obvious concern about quality, sure, but that’s only a byproduct of the chefs’ commitment to getting a certain message across. “What we want to do is to let people eat in a setting where they will respect the food,” says Navoa.
“Food, obviously, is not only for eating,” wrote the late
Doreen Fernandez in her essay “Culture Ingested: Notes on the Indigenization of Philippine Food.”