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“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.

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Chef Rudy Boquila manning the Crispy Pata station at a tasting dinner.

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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.

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With Chef Starling at the AdoboAid-Toronto

Lydia Go’s sinigang na lechon is the best I’ve ever tasted; her arroz caldo with lechon skin, instead of chicken, an epiphany. God knows how many reincarnations of leftover lechon she can create so masterfully.

Tastes like these never leave the memory. That’s why, last Christmas, I squirrelled some scraps of the roasted pig and channeled Lydia Go as I cooked sinigang na lechon for the first time.

“But why is my sinigang na lechon too soupy and not as thick?” I asked Lydia Go at our Thursday Group’s year-end get-together. She leaned over, as a master chef would to share a secret with an apprentice. “Dagdagan mo ng gabi.”

Is that it, just add more taro? No other secret ingredient, no extra rituals, no conjuring of spirits? And isn’t adding more taro to thicken sinigang soup already public knowledge?

Dagdagan mo ng gabi… she said softly.

But knowing how much more taro to add to a pot of sinigang requires an instinctive grasp of alchemy, a cellular memory that probably goes back to the invention of fire and the discovery of how it transforms the enzymes in a piece of meat, or a root. It’s not so simple for the less gifted, more so for the latecomer in the kitchen, like me, who will need years of trial and error to hone such instinct and, eventually, trust it.

Dagdagan mo ng gabi... actually left a lot unsaid, I realized. “Take the pieces of taro,” Lydia Go must have meant to say,”… weigh them in your hands, pay attention as you mash them into the soup, seek that delicate balance between the sour and the salty, the broth and the starch, and listen. Listen to your inner chef, the voice of your mom, the laughter of the family at the dinner table, listen for stirrings in your memory , listen until that moment of recognition comes, which is quite like a snap of a finger, only softer, the gentle crescendo of an mmmmmmm….”

Now I get it. Thank you, Tita Lyds.

(You’ll find a lot of posts about Lydia Go in my old blog. But you’ll find a good one in Anton Diaz’ Awesome Planet, here, about a dinner that Lydia Go hosted for us, a group of bloggers, in 2007.)