“If you have yet to acquaint yourself with the characteristically tart, sour, and fermented flavor palate, now’s the time.”
This recent article in The New York Magazine was – rather belatedly – referring to Filipino food. Since 2012, Filipino food has been predicted to surface in a big way and somehow the buzz persists. Its epicentre is, of course, New York City, thanks to restaurants like Purple Yam, Maharlika and new additions like Pig and Khao and Talde. Buoyed by the attention, good reviews and the business success all that brings, Maharlika, which started out with pop-up brunches, has now opened its second, family-style restaurant, Jeepney. Purple Yam, on the other hand, has chosen to go back to its Philippine roots. It has taken the lead in the research, exploration and preservation of Philippine traditional ingredients and cooking methods via Sariling Atin (translated, Our Very Own), a Philippine-based foundation set up by Purple Yam Chef Romy Dorotan and his wife Amy Besa. Plans for another Purple Yam – not New York or another American city but in Manila – are also in the works.
While Filipino food hasn’t yet risen in popularity to the same level as Japanese, Thai and Korean, it’s good that our kababayans (compatriots) in New York keep stoking the fire, and the curiosity, for this “the most underrated cuisine in Asia”.
Meanwhile in Toronto, there’s Lamesa Filipino Kitchen.
This restaurant on Queen W and Bathurst opened when the buzz about “the next big food trend” had just started. Expectations were high: finally Toronto had a full-service Filipino restaurant that promised to bring our food into the mainstream, give our “tart, sour and fermented” repertoire a contemporary, approachable spin.
If contemporary meant “fusion” and deconstruction, and approachable implied toned-down flavours, Lamesa might have disappointed traditionalists, including a Globe and Mail food critic who bewailed that Lamesa has “softened the cuisine’s edges, pulled back the sours and the gut-filling fat.” The Adobo, for one, comes to the table on a pretty plate: pork belly that’s confit then deep-fried, resembling lechon kawali more than its braised and saucier cousin, with a black garlic pureé and a small cup of adobo reduction on the side. Not exactly the adobo of the common tao (Everyman), but one for the novice who may be put off by the adobo’s vinegar-garlic edge. Another Filipino classic, Sisig, reincarnates as a trio of beef-pork-chicken, again a less polarizing version of the original dish which is chopped up pig’s face and jowl served on a sizzling plate. Refined, minimalist plating is certainly not something we associate with Filipino food. It’s supposed to be messy, sometimes scary – a scary mess of sweet-sour-spicy-fatty deliciousness.
Nevertheless, young second-gen Filipino-Canadians and their largely multicultural community of friends have embraced the concept. Some nights the place is rocking full – especially since their new, priced-down menu includes a Merienda Platter (5 snacks/app items enough to feed a barkada, for only $18) and the shareable $18 Crispy Pata (Deep-fried Pork Trotter) with the crunchiest pork skin on the planet, served with 3 dipping sauces. For the soy sauce sensitive or the garlic averse, there’s the house banana ketchup, sweetish and moderately spiced. You can probably ask for San Miguel Beer to go with all that porky goodness, though I didn’t see that in the Beer/Cocktail menu the last time I visited. Lamesa also has one of the best-value, 3-course prix-fixe dinners in the city at $30.
Lately, I’ve been seeing more and more innovations on classic Filipino dishes coming out of the Lamesa kitchen – inspired, unexpected twists, and this time more forward with their Filipino flavours. Try the Bicol Express Fries, their take on your good old poutine (fries and cheese curds) except the gravy is a spicy coconut-milk adobo reduction. Lamesa Chef Rudy Boquila has also experimented with grilled squid delicately suffused in a similar coconut milk adobo sauce, a subtle but thoughtful embellishment on the traditional Adobong Pusit, and it works! His Sinigang Risotto, served at a recent dinner benefit, picks up on the Filipino’s peculiar habit of mixing soup and rice. I’d welcome a bit more asim (sourness) but the idea is brilliant! I hope to find these two dishes in the regular menu soon. There’s a recent write-up, too, about Chef Rudy’s Christmas Eve Jamon en Dulce (sweet ham), his first attempt at replicating his mom’s recipe for this Noche Buena staple, to be served at brunch during the holiday season. That, with queso de bola, is what for me makes a perfect Filipino Christmas morning.
Lamesa has definitely built that much-needed presence for Filipino food in Toronto. But where it has contributed most, I think, is in the resurgence of confidence and pride for our food. Through its series of collaborative dinners, it has brought together equally young and talented Filipino chefs to cook in its kitchen: Jeff Claudio formerly of Yours Truly, Robbie Hojilla of Hudson, Dennis Tay of Richmond Station. We can expect more to step forward and proclaim their Filipino heritage at the dining table. Chef Rudy’s passion for our cuisine is simply contagious.
Chef Rudy Boquila manning the Crispy Pata station at a tasting dinner.