by Geraldine Rullan-Borromeo
(Manila City, Philippines)
Published in the Daily Tribune Life
Monday, 27 August 2012
Painstaking Filipino cuisine done the traditional way harkens family food memories when matriarchs ruled the kitchen with an iron hand and maids bustled round about them. Family cooks would go to market at the crack of dawn to get their hands on choice produce and, upon their return, spend hours in the kitchen before the whole clan would gather for a weekend feast. A feast that would sustain each one of them during the deprivation come workweek.
During the weekday, an elaborate home-cooked lunch or dinner is definitely out of the question unless one gets to borrow the matriarch’s cook for a day or two. The craving for a traditionally prepared comfort Filipino food can gnaw at one and, if one were away from the hometown, it can be downright nostalgic, to say the least.
When I heard of Bistro Filipino, owned by a couple, chefs Rolando and Jackie Laudico, and their creative rendition of traditional comfort Filipino food, I was curious about how truly comforting this modern Filipino cuisine would be, if at all.
The debate among local chefs on how to present Filipino food has been raging unresolved for many years now — some holding fast and true to tradition and others defending their venture into Filipino food fusion.
I wasn’t quite sure where to put Bistro Filipino in the spectrum of this debate. Leaning on the traditionalist side of the argument, I was quite skeptical on what creativity could do to culinary traditions, and so it was with some reserve that I stepped into the restaurant at the ground floor of Net 2 Building on 3rd Avenue, Fort Bonifacio Global City.
It was the very Filipino interiors that initially struck me. The dining place did not look like the polished and stiff dining rooms of many ancestral homes, yet it was comfortingly Filipino from the chairs to the tables, the place mats and light fixtures and even the hanging woven dividers from the main table in the center of the restaurant.
When the first course of a trio of appetizers was set before me, the aroma and ingredients used was familiar alright, except that the lumpia ubod (egg roll filled with coconut heart and chorizo) was in a crisp cone and its vinegar dip was a granita; the sisig (grilled and sauteed pig’s cheeks and ears) was in a crisp, tart-shaped lumpia basket with a chaser of half a quail egg at the bottom of a shot glass; and, the lone prawn sauteed into gambas was atop its own baby pool of sauce.
I would have raised my eyebrows at the unusual though admittedly pretty sight, except that I had never mastered this small act of restrained disdain. The contrast of the hot crisp cone with the soft coconut heart with the iciness of the piquant granita swept away any doubts of the culinary creativity of Chef Rolando. The sisig made with the usual ingredients with the addition of etag (salt pork that is cured and aged underground in an earthen jar in the Cordilleras) had a distinctly cheesy taste from the aged meat. This culinary revelation of a traditional curing method in the North makes for a truly Filipino experience that opens one’s taste buds.
The next hot appetizer course was a mushroom cappuccino soup, one that I have had in many ways from different chefs, except that Chef Rolando makes it Filipino by making adobo a main component. Again adobo in a soup had me raising my eyebrows (in my imagination) as the thick, rich, salty-tangy sauce could hardly be sipped and traditionally must be mixed with lots of steamed white rice to temper its strong flavors. One sip of Bistro Filipino’s bestseller soup had my doubts flying out the window, again, as I savored the fresh pureed mushrooms marrying with the adobo flavors. I finished my soup to the bottom of the bowl, and Chef Rolando smiled as he saw me tipping it forward to get every last bit of the foamy broth.
When I spotted the dainty pandesal which were half a fist, I sighed in regret as I was trying to stay off limits simple carbohydrates. Chef Jackie caught me looking at her pandesal, and when she said it was made with butter churned from carabao’s (water buffalo) milk, I had no chance at resisting. I slathered more butter as the thought of tasting fresh churned artisanal local butter was making me feel like a true gourmand. All I can say is that contrary to my almost no-carb diet, I finished the whole roll and the pats of batter served alongside it. I had no regrets except that it left me wishing I could afford another roll.
The mesclun of salad greens, arugula, Romaine and red leaf lettuce with three kinds of mango was a cold appetizer that surprised me with the use of the dried sweet and chewy mangoes along with the expected green and ripe mangoes. It was refreshing and sweet with the tang of green mangoes providing the zing and the cashew crusted kesong puti providing the creaminess and crunch to balance the flavors.
When the main course of deboned tuna panga (tuna fish head) was presented to me, I was in for a surprise. Grilled “anything” in a high-end restaurant usually lacks the depth and flavor of charcoal-grilled seafood. I was expecting a clean-tasting, modestly tasty ceramic or gas grilled tuna. Instead I was confronted with the bold flavors of true charcoal grilled tuna panga with all the moisture intact that it flaked to the bite and all the citrusy flavor singing through the classic soy calamansi (calamondin) marinade.
The buro sauce (fermented rice) lent its earthy tanginess to the rich tasting tuna panga, with the buro flavors accentuating the calamansi’s citrusy flavors. Making it boneless made it doubly faster to consume and I was convinced by then that Chef Rolando’s creativity was not a con-fusion but a harkening to tradition with his own culinary flair.
The next main course, a flat iron kitayama steak atop a croquette of sweet potato mash and organic kale was a hearty foreign sounding dish except that the kitayama was a local Wagyu bred in the hills of Bukidnon and the kale was locally grown.
The penchant and passion of the Laudico couple for sourcing local ingredients to make stellar dishes was coming across loud and clear at this point. I then realized that Bistro Filipino is not just about Filipino dishes but about Filipino ingredients coming to fore in its menu that is world class in presentation and taste.
For dessert, we sampled three desserts by Chef Jackie, a panna cotta made with carabao and coconut milk, so Filipino indeed it tastes almost like maja blanca (coconut milk and corn pudding) sans the corn. The suman with latik (rice cake with coconut caramel) in a shooter. The coconut lace cookie crisp served with it instead of shredded coconut is ingenious and endearing as I usually shy away from too much coconut in a single dish. Chef Jackie manages to get me to love coconut again in this doily like cookie that crunches away the coco-shyness of my palate.
The dulce de leche cheesecake laced with creamy kesong puti (local white cheese) and sweetened with the Spanish-Filipino caramelized condensed milk is a diet killer, but as the creamy sweetness reminiscent of my mom’s dulce de leche melted on my palate, I was glad the dessert was a sampler as a portion consisted only of about three spoonfuls, the exact count for sweets for someone on a diet.
The pralines of Chef Jackie — all Filipino, flavored with mango, pandan, coconut, lemongrass, jackfruit, etc. — in dark and milk chocolates are melt-in-your-mouth confections that re-introduce one to the elegance in local ingredients that are highlighted in her pastry creations.
This playful ending to the Filipino dining experience of feast proportions, but presented with style and Filipino pizzazz, had me looking forward to the next time I step into Bistro Filipino. I yet have to taste the kare-kare, which I heard is slow cooked for eight hours. Until then, I’m sure I will have a whole lot more to say of classic Filipino cuisine served with international flair.
Bistro Filipino may be contacted through telephone number 856-0634/0541 or mobile number 0917800-CHEF (2433) or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.