Menu on Demand
Maverick chefs in Manila are puting a brand new spin on eating out. Story and photographs by LARA DAY
Published on Aug 5, 2010
It's a cross between a chef’s table and an episode of Top Chef. In Manila, a handful of high-end establishments are offering gourmands “freestyle” dining, an interactive, gastronomic free-for-all where diners say what they’re in the mood for, and chefs rustle up a meal from whatever ingredients are on hand. An ideal antidote to jaded palates, this adventurous way of dining also gives chefs a chance to show off. Don’t expect any PR on these eateries, which rely purely on word-of-mouth, and don’t be afraid of getting creative. Of course, if you’d like something that’s wildly off-carte, be sure to make that clear when booking (reservations are essential). Here are T+L’s top picks.
Chef Ed Quimson made his name with Filipino-crossover dishes such as beef-caldereta paella and blue-cheese wonton soup. These days, he’s the executive chef of upscale carinderia Petra & Pilar and the gastronomic muscle behind its reservations-only private dining room 21. Seating up to 21 people (hence its name), this private function room—complete with bar and butler—is available for everything from family repasts to romantic dinners for two (though the smaller the headcount, the higher the price). “This room gives diners complete freedom,” explains proprietor Katrina Ponce Enrile. Under Quimson’s supervision, we supped on flat rice noodles with black-bean sauce, enlivened with garlic, parmesan and tomatoes served three ways (chopped, whole and pureed) in a kind of fusion tagliatelle. We also enjoyed his white wine–poached garoupa, emerging atop potatoes layered in a creamy soup and accompanied with a zingy, basil-infused tomato sofrito. Quimson is happy to take directions, or alternatively, to let his creative juices’ flow. Whatever you choose, remember not to skip dessert—Quimson’s sticky toffee pudding, also served in Petra & Pilar, is ambrosial.
Petra & Pilar, ground floor, JAKA Center Building, Export Ave. (corner of 2111 Chino Roces Ave.), Makati, Manila, Philippines; +63 2 887 5168; dinner for 21, 400 pesos per person; dinner for two, P3,000 per person
+ PURPLE FEET
Concealed within a wine store and deliberately lacking any signage, this whimsically named spot—a nod to its grape-steeped location—feels like a modern-day speakeasy for foodies. “Anything goes, so long as it’s legal,” bon-vivant chef–proprietor Marco Legasto says half-jokingly as he sips one of the venue’s house pours. Blackboards list the seafood, meat and poultry du jour; resist the à la carte dishes—they exist for the uninspired. Better yet, when one of the chefs comes out to greet you, ask what’s fresh from the market, and talk you through the possibilities. Make sure you’re hungry: Legasto deploys generous lashings of butter and cream, the dishes are often large enough to share.
During our visit, we gave the kitchen free rein, and were rewarded with pan-fried duck breast with a shoyu–tamari jus, served with baby-spinach salad dressed with raspberry-and-macadamia-nut-oil vinaigrette. We found the duck was a tad dry but tasty, while the salad had a satisfying depth. Another diner demanded nouvelle Filipino—a request that produced a traditional tamarind-based sinigang stew enlivened with lemon zest and truffle oil. Desserts were more conventional, with classic rib-sticking dishes like tiramisu and bread-and-butter pudding. Wine pairings are easy: all bottles from the shop are available, without a corkage charge. Cheers to that.
217 Nicanor Garcia St. (formerly Reposo St.), Bel-Air, Makati, Manila, Philippines; +63 2 897 3220; dinner for two P5,000
+ CHEF’S TABLE
Cordon Bleu–trained TV chef Bruce Lim prides himself on never making the same dish twice—that is, unless someone asks for it specifically. A passionate advocate of Filipino cuisine, he creates bespoke menus at his private studio–kitchen, a setting familiar to those who’ve seen his popular Tablescapes program on the Asian Food Channel. Don’t be dazzled by his TV credentials. Lim, who is Filipino-Chinese but grew up in San Francisco, is a warmly welcoming host as well as a remarkable talent in the kitchen. “I love twisting a dish inside out to make something completely new,” he says.
Phoning well in advance, we asked for a meal that was “fresh, fun and zesty.” Lim didn’t disappoint, regaling us with a dazzling array of courses. All the dishes, made using ingredients hand-picked by Lim at his local market, were prepared and served in ingenious combinations: chilled carrot soup spiked with ginger and a scallop ceviche; rocket salad with pomelo, cashews and crabmeat drizzled with Ilocos vinaigrette; glass noodles topped with soy-marinated short ribs, garnished with apple, grapes, cucumber, radish, coriander and black sesame; cinnamon-infl ected mango strudel encased in light, delicately crisp phyllo. In fact, next time we visit, we’re tempted to ask for the whole thing all over again—but then, as Lim might say himself, where’s the fun in that?
1238 Emilio Jacinto St. (corner of Kalayaan Ave.), Guadalupe Nuevo, Makati, Manila, Philippines; +63 918 887 1277; dinner for two P4,000