SOUTH­EAST ASIA’S RIS­ING STARS

These restau­rants are quickly step­ping up as the re­gion’s next hottest din­ing desti­na­tions

Wine & Dine - - CONTENTS - WORDS MICHELLE YEE

A look at some of the re­gion’s hottest din­ing desti­na­tions

Gag­gan may have taken the crown again at the 2018 edi­tion of Asia’s 50 Best awards cer­e­mony, mak­ing it the fourth year run­ning the Bangkok restau­rant is at the top of the list. But the restau­rant and chef that was at the cen­tre of me­dia at­ten­tion was Toyo Eatery in Manila, helmed by chef-owner Jordy Navarra, who bagged the ‘Miele One To Watch Award’ for Asia.

Al­though barely two years old, the 50-seat es­tab­lish­ment, tucked in a cor­ner of Chino Ro­ces Av­enue in Makati, has quickly be­come one of Manila’s top favourite restau­rants, serv­ing re­fined Filipino dishes pre­pared with lo­cal in­gre­di­ents and tra­di­tional cook­ing meth­ods. For the long­est time, Filipino food has been de­scribed as com­fort fare that is best ap­pre­ci­ated in peo­ple’s houses, cooked by a lov­ing grand­mother, but chef Navarra, who cut his teeth at top restau­rants like He­ston Blu­men­thal’s The Fat Duck, UK, and Alvin Le­ung’s three-starred Bo In­no­va­tion in Hong Kong, has showed that it could be that and more—that Filipino food, like French or Ja­panese cui­sine, is ca­pa­ble of ab­strac­tion and com­plex­ity.

One of his sig­na­ture dishes is pork bar­be­cue, a pop­u­lar street food that prac­ti­cally ev­ery Filipino has grown up with. At Toyo, he el­e­vates the dish by us­ing three cuts of pork (shoul­der, belly and butt), lay­ered to­gether to play on flavours and tex­tures be­fore skew­er­ing and cook­ing the meat over char­coal and wood, fin­ish­ing it in pork bone broth in a process that takes about 12 hours. The end re­sult is re­fined and spec­tac­u­lar.

Now, with the award un­der his belt, chef Navarra is set to fly the flag for Filipino cui­sine on the in­ter­na­tional stage.

“The dream has al­ways been to make food that rep­re­sents who we are and where we’re from,” says Navarra. “We wanted to make food and an ex­pe­ri­ence we could be proud of, and to be the best we could be at rep­re­sent­ing who we are. There’s still so much to learn and to do and we are happy just try­ing to get a bit bet­ter at it ev­ery day.”

Chef Navarra was re­cently in town for a four-hands din­ner with Labyrinth’s Han Li Guang. The col­lab­o­ra­tion gar­nered a lot of in­ter­est from food­ies who were ex­cited to see what two culi­nary ge­niuses could put to­gether with in­gre­di­ents, tech­niques and dishes that are mak­ing waves in their own coun­try. The two-nights only menu was in­trigu­ing and in­ven­tive, show­cas­ing two food cul­tures on the same plate. High­lights in­clude the ‘Jor-Li Bee’ chicken and chi­acharon com­pris­ing a fried chicken lol­lipop, pork crack­ling and curry sauces, as well as the Sing-sig (Sin­ga­pore play on Sisig) con­sist­ing of all parts of the pig served with egg yolk, char siew sauce and fried rice.

Navarra and Han make up a new gen­er­a­tion of Asian chefs who are not only show­cas­ing their coun­try’s cui­sine on a world stage, they are also giv­ing sexy creative spins to their her­itage food and na­tive in­gre­di­ents.

THE CHANG­ING FACE OF SOUTH­EAST ASIAN CUI­SINE

More chefs in South­east Asia are do­ing things dif­fer­ently, mod­ernising their coun­try’s cui­sine by com­bin­ing lo­cal pro­duce with a mix of Euro­pean and tra­di­tional cook­ing tech­niques.

Take Lo­ca­vore in Bali, run by chefs Ray Adri­an­syah and Eelke Plas­mei­jer, who pride them­selves on us­ing only sus­tain­ably sourced lo­cal in­gre­di­ents through­out their menu like banana blos­som, bangkal hi­tam (a breed of lo­cal pig, also known as the her­itage black Bali sway­back), oys­ters from Sum­bawa Is­land, and more.

The food served at Lo­ca­vore is de­scribed as “con­tem­po­rary with a touch of In­done­sia” and has at­tracted food­ies from all over the world. “At Lo­ca­vore, we don’t cook In­done­sian food. We use only In­done­sian pro­duce. The set­ting is mod­ern, but every­thing else is lo­cal. It is an In­done­sian ex­pe­ri­ence. What we do is that we try to use In­done­sian pro­duce as much as pos­si­ble and let that speak for it­self,” chef Plas­mei­jer shares.

Not one to rest on their lau­rels, the duo is de­ter­mined to take In­done­sia’s din­ing scene to the next level by con­tin­u­ously ex­per­i­ment­ing with new ways to present their food. Over the past two years, the pair have un­veiled other con­cepts in Ubud in­clud­ing Lo­calab, a food lab­o­ra­tory and test­ing kitchen where the team com­bines lo­cal in­gre­di­ents with sta­teof-the-art tech­niques to cre­ate new dishes. Lo­calab also serves as a train­ing hub to raise aware­ness of young In­done­sian cooks.

“WE FEED OUR CRE­ATIV­ITY INTO THE FORM, SO THE PRE­SEN­TA­TION MIGHT NOT BE WHAT PEO­PLE ARE USED TO, BUT THE FLAVOUR STAYS TRUE. THAI COOK­ING HAS A LONG HIS­TORY, SO YOU NEED TO RE­SPECT THOSE WHO WROTE THAT HIS­TORY BE­FORE YOU. THAT SAID, WE IN­NO­VATE ABOUT 20 PER CENT, AND WE KEEP 80 PER CENT OF THE TRA­DI­TIONAL DISH.”

Over in Cam­bo­dia, French chef Joan­nès Rivière is draw­ing in­ter­na­tional eye­balls with his brand of Cam­bo­dian dishes pre­pared us­ing lo­cal in­gre­di­ents pre­pared with French cook­ing tech­niques. At his restau­rant Cui­sine Wat Dam­nak in Siem Reap, the chef, who has lived and worked in Siem Reap for sev­eral years, serves de­li­cious creations such as the steamed Mekong lan­gous­tine with pineap­ple and herbs, pork shank curry and bat­tam­bang as­para­gus cake.

Most of the cus­tomers who pa­tro­n­ise Cui­sine Wat Dam­nak are lo­cals be­cause as chef Rivière de­scribes, “My food is re­ally Cam­bo­dian. I sim­ply take lo­cal dishes apart and put them back to­gether.”

When he launched Cui­sine Wat Dam­nak in 2011 with his wife Ca­role Salmon, he was the only for­eign chef in town us­ing lo­cal pro­duce like frogs, young green jack­fruit, wild mango ker­nels and pra­hok (salted fer­mented fish boiled to make stock) to pre­pare dishes with au­then­tic flavours, undi­luted for for­eign palates.

THAI CHEFS FORG­ING A FRESH WAY FOR­WARD

In Thailand, the cui­sine and restau­rant scene too, has evolved tremen­dously over the past five years, with the cap­i­tal city of Bangkok es­tab­lish­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as a se­ri­ous culi­nary cap­i­tal, boast­ing world­class Thai restau­rants along­side in­no­va­tive es­tab­lish­ments. Thailand restau­rants also fea­tured promi­nently on this year’s Asia’s 50 Best List with nine com­ing from Bangkok. Among them is Paste, run by che­fowner Bongkoch ‘Bee’ Sa­tongun and her hus­band Ja­son Bai­ley. Their es­tab­lish­ment serves in­no­va­tive Thai cui­sine pre­pared with lo­cal pro­duce.

“We want to keep the taste au­then­tic,” Sa­tongun says. “We feed our cre­ativ­ity into the form, so the pre­sen­ta­tion might not be what peo­ple are used to, but the flavour stays true. Thai cook­ing has a long his­tory, so you need to re­spect those who wrote that his­tory be­fore you. That said, we in­no­vate about 20 per cent, and we keep 80 per cent of the tra­di­tional dish.”

The menus at Paste change reg­u­larly, but din­ers can ex­pect in­tensely flavoured, colour­ful dishes such as char-grilled lan­gous­tine salad with north­ern Thai for­est in­gre­di­ents, and beef rib, braised for 12 hours and served with long pep­per, roasted toma­toes and mush­room soy.

In­creas­ingly, more at­ten­tion is given to Asia’s bur­geon­ing restau­rant scene. These days, top Asian chefs share the me­dia lime­light with their com­pa­tri­ots from Europe and the United States. And where South­east Asian cui­sine like Cam­bo­dian and Filipino food were once un­rep­re­sented, they now fea­ture on the in­ter­na­tional food stage, thanks to in­creased me­dia at­ten­tion and awards like Asia’s 50 Best Restau­rants, which shine the spot­light on Asia’s finest es­tab­lish­ments.

Here’s a look at some of South­east Asia’s top restau­rants.

Chef Jordy Navarra of Toyo Eatery in Manila

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