Outside of the Filipino community, there are very few people that I know in Ontario that have a clue of what the cuisine of the Philippines has to offer. Can you name three dishes? Indigenous products including a vast array of seafood, fruits and vegetables have been augmented by influences and staples like rice from China, Malaysia, Spain and of course, the United States. In some areas like Clark, a former US air base near Manila, they still celebrate American Thanksgiving after years of the post WW2 presence. Traditional dishes are rich, intended to keep you fuelled for a day of hard physical work. Most are presented family style and it seems like nearly every meal is a celebration; Filipinos are happiest at the dinner table with family and friends. Feast meals always look to the roasted pig, Lechon, golden and crisp skinned. There is always rice on the table and tastes look to sweet, sour and salty. Sour comes from either vinegar preparations or tangy fruits. Noodles from China are a big player but the new world ingredients brought by the Spanish, like potato, tomato and chile are never far away. On our earlier trips, I was always dared to try the balut (google it) but now I know what I like and steer in that direction.
There is a huge roster of new restaurants opening all the time and every cuisine imaginable is available but many of the young chefs wishing to revitalize local classics are doing it right. I have to admit that the suggestion of going to another restaurant where “the chef has created a list of dishes that are his/her interpretation of local classics” usually makes me want to run but we enjoyed two excellent examples of fresh, bright and intense flavours.
Locavore – Chef Mikel does party food for sharing, seasonings intense and flavours rich enough that you might not be able to eat the whole dish yourself but a bunch of spoonfuls of this cooking makes for a great meal. We had chicken wings in Kare Kare (peanut sauce usually served on braised oxtail, root vegetable chips with aioli, prawns in coconut, milk fish Sinagang (sour fruit soup), braised beef with green beans and an amazing Sissig, usually crisp fried stewed pork head bits but in this case crisp pork crackling, deep fried oysters and a French inspired sauce made creamy with chicken livers and butter. If I read the dish description on paper, it would not appeal to me but it was so well balanced and rich in texture and flavour that I felt I was dining on class Escoffier style haute cuisine. The pastry chef did a wonderful job of blasting us with coma inducing desserts to finish off the evening.
Grace Park – this is the restaurant of Margarita Fores, named Top Female Chef in Asia for 2016. She has a calm sense of cool style, the room decorated in comforting colours and quirky antiques and artifacts to provide a farmhouse appeal. Her food is very much “I am looking after you, my chubby little baby” style, wonderful flavours, ample portions and each dish obviously made with great care and attention. Braised meats are cooked long enough to be melting tender, seafood cooked just enough to fall apart but still with that snap that says super fresh. We had roast bay scallops on the shell with mullet roe, crisp battered mushrooms with aioli, pasta with uni and fresh shrimp in tomato, Flinstones-like short rib, marlin in a “dry” style Sinagang and a leprechaun’s pot of gold, rather braised lamb adobo served in a traditional clay pot with Chinese barley. This is the kind of dish that you wish to eat alone in a darkened room. Food this good makes decent people greedy.
We also put on a dinner sponsored by the Canadian Embassy featuring Alberta Beef, BC fruits and Icewine from Niagara (Inniskiln) with a wonderful support from the staff of the Makati Shangri-La. I was especially impressed by the personal attention of the Executive Chef and other kitchen leaders who worked service from start to finish. This is a super busy hotel with a half dozen restaurants, plenty of banquet rooms and a whole list of reasons why they could have not been there to work but they all pitched in, an effort that did not go unnoticed.
Now, after several visit to the Greater Manila Area, I feel I am starting to get comfortable enough to incorporate some Pinoy cooking into my own style. But will it be the next greatest thing on the world dining stage? Who knows. It will be the next greatest thing at the Olson home kitchen soon. Thanks Manila!