Archives for category: Dining Out

“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.



Oh no, not again. I’m filled with nostalgia for home. Worse, it’s a nostalgia for the tastes of home, thanks to this link I found on Facebook, “10 Best Filipino Restaurants in Manila”.

True, the best Filipino food I’ve ever had is right there, happening, in the city I’ve left behind. Much of this nostalgia perhaps arises from the fact that I’ve practically witnessed Filipino cuisine evolve – what with more than 30 years of eating out, and counting! From the uncompromisingly traditional, mouth-puckering sinigang and sinus-busting bicol express at Cely Kalaw’s Grove Restaurant many many moons ago, to that jolt of an innovation – corned beef sinigang – more recently at Sentro in Greenbelt, Makati. Sentro’s sinigang was just as mouth-puckering, by the way, but non-traditional in that one would be given a sampling of the broth and the liberty to choose the level of its sourness. It also blew my mind that corned beef, something I always associated with breakfast – and an American import at that – was used in the most traditional of Filipino dishes. This, possibly, was my introduction to Filipino modern or fusion food.

Filipino fusion cuisine is a “double-kill” of a term, if you ask me. Filipino food is – and always has been – fusion, to quote Anthony Bourdain.  The late Doreen Fernandez surely meant “fusion” too when she described our food as “the adaptation of various flavors merged with our culture”. Indeed, our pot is a hodgepodge of various influences – from China, Melaka, India, Mexico, Spain and North America.

The challenge now is not so much to define what Filipino food is, but to answer “What is authentic Filipino food?”, if there is such a thing. Or, for a Filipino dining out in another country, whether there’s logic in seeking out authentic Filipino food.

Paradoxically, it’s this fusion of influences that has brought about a cuisine that is vibrant and unique in itself and, in that sense, authentic. Let me put it this way: it’s cuisine that has managed to keep its soul in spite of.  The same way a Filipino will speak in fluent English, at the same time  point to a direction with his lips. By “authentic” I refer to its bold flavours – unabashed seasoning with garlic, the liberal use of coconut milk, and often there’s vinegar in the mix. Take the Kaldereta for example with its peculiar Filipino marinade of garlic, soy sauce, vinegar and kalamansi, or the adobo that keeps its Filipino flavor profile despite additions of paprika, curry and the like. “Authentic” involves thick, rich sauces – to spoon on and mix with rice as we eat. Of course, “authentic” means bold aromas, too, of patis (fish sauce), bagoong (shrimp paste), and in some homes, the extract of charred coconut meat. We are after all a people that sniff-kiss our babies, whose descriptive for great grub is “langhap-sarap”*. And true, there’s a lot of sentimentalism every time we seek out authentic Filipino food, a pining for heritage, home and family-style gatherings at the table.

Bold flavours and a dose of sentimentality. I’m afraid that’s what some new Filipino chefs cooking for a global table don’t get. They have become gun-shy with our flavours. Is it food shame? Are they fearful our food’s vinegar-y and often pungent edges will turn off the western palate? Or are they just too preoccupied chasing the buzz around deconstruction, molecular cuisine and the latest food trends? Where does the discomfort lie? Tradition doesn’t preclude a nice plating for a bit more colour than our ubiquitous brown, does it? And it need not involve bamboo and banana leaves! Neither does it shun the idea of deconstruction as long as it doesn’t compromise the harmony of its flavours but instead highlight the inherent simplicity of our cuisine. Unexpected embellishments – like the corned beef in Sentro’s sinigang – can accentuate the adaptability of our cuisine that’s fusion to begin with. Surely, as the chefs in Manila continue to prove, all it takes is transforming this cuisine for the Filipino audience, first and foremost, playing to the inherited memories and cultural history that have shaped our palate. Let the Filipino embrace it, and the rest of the world will follow. I think this is an easy enough start for any chef who aspires to elevate Filipino food on the world stage.


Footnote: I have dined in only 6 out of the ten restaurants mentioned in the list, simply because the other four are recent additions to Manila’s dining scene. My top choice would also be Sentro 1771. “When a cuisine banks on heritage and homestyle flavors, it doesn’t leave much room for playing around. Innovation, after all, opposes tradition, and no cuisine emphasizes the latter more than Filipino fare. But Chef Vicky Pacheco of Sentro 1771 knows how to toe the line, keeping the vibrant profile that Filipinos love while adding a few embellishments here and there.” That pretty much sums it up for me.

* Langhap-sarap is a term coined by Filipino adman Minyong Ordoñez for a Jollibee ad campaign. It means “smell of delicious taste” or “smell the delicious taste”.

Other Filipino food terms: Sinigang, a Filipino sour soup; Bicol Express, dish with chillis and coconut milk, named after the train route between Manila and the Southern Tagalog Region; Kaldereta, a beef stew; Kalamansi, a Philippine lime.


Would anyone really pay $24 for a plate of spaghetti with tomato and basil? At Scarpetta, people apparently do and in fact say they’d happily (pay and) eat this simple dish again. Scarpetta, that restaurant with a New York pedigree and of Scott Conant’s fame, opened in Toronto a couple of years back. The reviews were mixed, some even harsh, but that plate of spaghetti with tomato and basil was always singled out as excellent – and, as one food critic said, “irreproachable”. It was for this reason that I always had my eye on Scarpetta: just how good can pasta with nothing else but tomato sauce and basil get? But in Toronto, where the food scene is quickly evolving and new restaurants are opening practically every month, plans for such a splurge can easily get sidetracked by news about “electric” $3.75 tacos, nonna-style chicken liver agnolottis being served in Parkdale, and grilled pulpos that leave Toronto folks awestruck.

That’s why when my neighbour, Andrew Starling, announced that he was hosting a pop-up dinner at his place, I quickly responded with a “Please count me in!” Of course, not before I checked his menu and made sure a pasta dish was part of his 5-course dinner. Why? Because Andrew Starling just happens to be Scarpetta’s pasta chef!

Screen Shot 2013-12-01 at 1.44.00 AMThe pasta he prepared wasn’t spaghetti with tomato and basil as I had hoped, but a ricotta+parmiggiano-reggiano ‘agnolotti dal plin’. Was I disappointed? Not at all. On hindsight, Scarpetta’s spaghetti with tomato and basil – excellent as it is – is, after all, just another “template” dish. I was more interested in Andrew’s take on pasta in general and even more on how he’d roll out a 5-course dinner that didn’t rely on pasta alone. 

I knew the dinner would be good the moment we entered his house. The wall along the stairs to the basement was stacked high with jars of preserves – berries and fruits picked during his bike rides. The kitchen, partially seen from the dining area, had a calm and readiness one usually didn’t expect from a dinner staged at home. The courses featured local, sustainable ingredients, some Andrew himself foraged in Don Valley, like the crabapples in the appetizer and the dessert. The home-made 5-spice ketchup was delightful and I thought, yeah, Heinz could pack up and go for all I care! The man knew and was passionate about food, and I was rather embarrassed that up to this moment I had only thought of Andrew as a pasta chef.

Overall, the menu was well thought out, the courses building from one to the next with precise cadence and good progression. More importantly, Andrew and his wife Francine created an ambience that was convivial – a surprise for me as my first impression of Andrew was that he was one very formal guy. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and I’m sure the other guests had a great time too.

Another thumbs-up for Toronto’s food scene, and what luck it’s just a couple of doors away from me.


With Chef Starling at the AdoboAid-Toronto

I just posted a shout-out on Facebook for an Open House Friday – or more accurately, an Open-Kitchen Friday. It’s a clever way of rounding up friends for my kitchen experiments. For this Friday, I was thinking of reprising my kare-kare.

My first kare-kare, which I cooked a couple of months ago, tasted okay; in fact, it was good. But its color was off-putting: a brackish orange-brown.

What went wrong? Could it be the banana blossom which discolored the moment I sliced it and then stained the rest of the ingredients in the pot? Or the bagoong that I stirred into the sauce to season it?

My friends and I were in New York over the weekend and, as planned, had dined at Purple Yam in Brooklyn. That’s when I had the compulsion to cook kare-kare. If Purple Yam didn’t do fusion – just good old traditional Filipino cooking – how come their kare-kare looked and tasted different?

Purple Yam’s peanut sauce was almost brick red, a color I didn’t associate with kare-kare. Kare-kare was always orange – no thanks to Barrio Fiesta, which seemed to have set the standard in terms of color (bright and perky) and consistency (thick and very peanut-y). Very much like we did it back home, actually.

Another thing: there’s no heavy peanut taste in Purple Yam’s kare-kare. And surprisingly, I preferred it that way. I was tasting the toasted rice with the peanuts and, I was almost sure, there was no peanut butter in it. The sauce was closer to thick broth than cream.

Chef Romy Dorotan, right, with Gene F and me.

As I ate, my mind was busy tweaking my recipe for kare-kare. 1) Use equal proportions of toasted rice and roasted peanuts, 2) Omit the banana blossom and 3) Serve bagoong on the side, as tradition called for. I’d also scratch out peanut butter from the list of ingredients and, yes, make my own achuete oil.

And I did, right after we got home. To make the achuete oil, I followed the recipe I found in Memories of Philippine Kitchens, a book written by Purple Yam owners, Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan.

There’s more to Dorotan’s recipe than just annatto seeds steeped in hot oil. There’s bay leaves, garlic and ancho chiles – all these, I figured, added a dimension of taste, not just that trademark reddish hue, to the dish.

After an hour or so, I got a small jar of achuete oil sitting in my ref, actually more than I needed for Friday’s kare-kare.

Hmm, do I see langgonisa in my next open kitchen?

Is this where Purple Yam's kare-kare gets its trademark reddish hue?

Here’s Purple Yam’s recipe for Achuete Oil:

2 cups vegetable oil; 1/2 cup achuete (annatto) seeds; 6 whole garlic cloves; 2 bay leaves; 2 ancho chiles, crushed, stemmed and seeded (I used chile flakes – a generous pinch of!)

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, warm the oil with the rest of the ingredients. When it begins to bubble, turn off heat and allow the mixture to steep for at least 1 hour or up to 2 hours. Strain the oil through a fine-mesh strainer and let cool. Store in an airtight container and refrigerate.

The achuete oil can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.