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Manila: The Next Great Food City?
WHEN IT COMES to Filipino cuisine, it's hard to get past the stereotypes: balut (boiled duck foetus), adobo, sisig, bacalao and pancit are some that come to mind.
But for the uninitiated who have yet to cast their dining net beyond the likes of say, Bangkok, Hong Kong or Tokyo, there is much more to Manila than feeds the eye.
Possibly no one knows that better than Margarita Forés - chef-restaurateur and undeniably the global food ambassador of Filipino food who tirelessly spreads the word from New York to Japan. She's the owner of Cibo - a successful Italian restaurant chain in Manila - as well as three other concept eateries and a catering business. In 2016, she was named Best Female Chef in the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants awards. Together with likeminded Filipino chefs, she wants the world to see Manila as not just a street food mecca but a serious global dining destination.
WHAT IS FILIPINO CUISINE?
''It's a real celebration of different cultures that influence what the Philippines is all about,'' says Chef Forés excitedly.
''It's an amalgamation of Chinese, Malay, Spanish and a bit of American influence,'' adds Bruce Ricketts, chef-owner of the Japaneseinspired Mecha Uma.
The Chinese influence is perhaps a little more obvious because the old business district was right beside Chinatown, says Toyo Eatery's Jordy Navarra. ''You would see Chinese dishes with Spanish names. Which is unique in itself, in the sense that all these countries influence what (Filipino cuisine) is today.'' Take for example, dishes such as morisqueta tostada - the Filipino version of Yangzhou fried rice - or arroz caldo, referring to breakfast congee. There's even a name for it - Comida China.
The difficulty in putting Filipino cuisine into a specific category is what makes it so special, says Josh Boutwood of the progressive restaurant Helm. ''We may not have a true identity but that in itself is a cuisine.''
GETTING TO THE WORLD STAGE
The rest of the world seems to agree, as attention is increasingly turned towards Manila's fine dining scene. Claude Tayag - food writer, artist and chef of private dining kitchen Bale Dutung, credits Margarita Forés' Best Chef accolade in 2016 as one of the main reasons, along with the growing number of Western-trained chefs who have returned home to flex their own creative muscles.
Jordy Navarra - who trained at The Fat Duck and earned a reputation for his modern interpretation of local cuisine - broke into the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2019 list at number 43, after snagging the Miele One to Watch award in 2018.
Another feather in Manila's cap was when it hosted Madrid Fusión Manila from 2015 to 2017. Acknowledged as one of the world's most important gastronomy events, ''it put so much attention on Filipino cuisine and ingredients because it brought the greats of the world to Manila,'' says Chef Forés. ''Chefs like Elena Arzak, Joan Roca, Andoni Luis Aduriz, Enrique Olvera, Virgilio Martinez, Yoshihiro Narisawa, they were all here.''
CHALLENGES FOR LOCAL CHEFS
While the level of cooking talent is undisputed, ''finding a variety of sources for ingredients is always a challenge,'' says the 34-year-old Chef Navarra who uses almost 100 per cent locally grown produce, except for beef.
''In Manila, we are lucky that our labour costs are not high, but the price of local ingredients is constantly going up,'' says Helm's British-born Chef Boutwood, 32.
''We want the farmers to get the money themselves (without the middleman). But even if we buy directly from them, we don't want to pay the lowest price. You want to do good for their community. It helps them start the next yield, the next cycle of crops.''
Even so, getting the quality of local vegetables, fish and herbs that the chefs want on a day-to-day has been a strain on farmers. Says the 30-year-old Chef Ricketts, ''I was really cooking a lot of local flavors that I liked but, but the produce isn't always up to par.'' It's especially pertinent to returning Filipino chefs who are used to cooking at world-class dining destinations such as the US for Chef Ricketts; and Sweden and Spain for Chef Boutwood.
Going local, then, requires patience, time and a good deal of cash. But where there's a will, Chef Boutwood shows the way. He buys a whole week's worth of greens and ages them via curing and fermentation, ''or else we're battling with inconsistencies the whole week''. But such unpredictability ''keeps us on our toes,'' says Chef Navarra. ''We're reacting to the product that's provided, which in a sense is what's great about it. The product dictates how we cook and there's something very Filipino in that also. If you go through rural Filipino cuisine, it's about gathering what's around you and cooking it.''
Chef Forés hopes that the current wave of chefs such as Jordy Navarra and Bruce Ricketts will inspire young upcoming talents.
Says Chef Boutwood, ''I would love to see homegrown chefs really push the boundaries.
I want my team to leave one day and do what they want to do on their own. I hope they create their own legacies in the process. They've learnt enough here to be confident and say, 'I can pull something off, I can achieve this'
'' Chef Navarra agrees. ''Our restaurant surviving gives other people the idea that they can push whatever style they want to do.'' ''When I see local restaurants become recognized around the world, I feel like I've won something too,'' adds Chef Ricketts. ''It awakens something inside of me as a Filipino.''
TOP 10 PLACES TO DINE IN MANILA
01. GRACE PARK
The 75-seater farm-to-table restaurant is a labour of love for F&B doyenne Margarita Forés who brings produce from her hometown, Negros, to the big city. The twostorey eatery in the swanky Rockwell neighbourhood was renovated sustainably with salvaged furniture and building materials. Dine on heavily armored river prawns cooked in crab fat and anchovy butter; slippery razor clams; and fried pitao or tiny 'sugarcane' birds caught in Negros Occidental. There's also gamey lamb adobo and a weekly Sunday roast of organic lechon (roast pig) from Bacolod. End off with creamy local avocados in a graham cracker pie crust.
Rockwell Dr, Makati, 1200 Metro Manila, Philippines, +63 2 843 7275
02. TOYO EATERY
Jordy Navarra serves an elevated locavore menu in his 40-seater restaurant priced from just PHP1,600 (S$43). The chef uses a traditional charcoal-and-wood open fire to cook his signature dishes including bangus (milkfish), garden vegetables and barbeque. Just two doors away is Panaderya Toyo which opened last year, which bakes sourdough from scratch (no processed yeast). Look out for their very own farm in the next one to two years which will grow staples such as onions and raise organic chickens.
The Alley at Karrivin, 2316 Chino Roces Ave, Makati, 1231 Metro Manila, Philippines, +63 917 720 8630
One of the hottest chefs in town, British born and halfFilipino Josh Boutwood relocated to the Philippines in 2010 from Sweden. The once-nomadic chef is the captain of this 10-seater intimate dining 'ship' that completely changes its thematic degustation menu every four months. Priced at PHP 4,500 (S$120) per head, Chef Boutwood borrows from his stints at Noma and Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons to create themes based on nursery rhymes, locavorism, and his latest - a 'reverse' multi-course meal which starts with 'dessert'.
Arya Residences, G/F, McKinley Pkwy, Taguig, Metro Manila, Philippines, +63 906 234 1900
04. MECHA UMA
Nicknamed Chef 'Broosy', Bruce Ricketts showcases his unique style of Japanese-inspired cooking at his 26-seater eatery. Mecha Uma means 'absurdly delicious' in Japanese, but don't expect anything resembling Edomae sushi here. Using mainly imported Japanese produce from Osaka Central Fish Market, the Filipino chef (self-taught through cookbooks and Youtube videos) serves up freestyle ryori that will dazzle for its sheer creativity.
G/F RCBC Savings Bank Corporate Center 1634, 25th St, Taguig, Metro Manila, Philippines, +63 2 964 9605
05. BALAY DAKO
A 1.5 hour drive to Tagaytay is a bit of an expedition, but the breakfast at Balay Dako or 'Big House' is worth the trek. No reservations are allowed so guests start taking numbers from an early as 6am. Owned by Antonio Escalante aka Chef Tonyboy, this Filipino mansion serves a heaving buffet showcasing its famous corned beef, make-your-own omelette and fried rice. There are 10 kinds of bread and even more types of jam and cheeses, sweet meats, champorado (chocolate porridge), and eight desserts, priced at PHP700 (S$19). If you're not rolling out the door yet, grab some freshlymade piaya (flatbread filled with muscovado) downstairs at the Comedor which starts flipping them at 10am.
Tagaytay - Nasugbu Hwy, Tagaytay, 4120 Cavite, Philippines, +63 46 413 4866
06. MILKY WAY CAFÉ
At this nostalgia-fuelled 17-year-old eatery, an international spread is available but it's the Filipino offerings originating from Pampanga which are the real standouts. You can't go wrong with baby crispy pata, Milky Way kare-kare, US bistek tagalog, and signature halo-halo done like it's 1962, topped with homemade ube ice-cream. It's very rare to find operators still churning original ice-cream flavors, but that's what you get here. After all, Milky Way began as a humble dairy bar, and continues the tradition till today.
2nd floor, MilkyWay Building, 900 Arnaiz Avenue (Pasay Road), Corner Paseo de Roxas, Makati City, 1200 Philippines, +63 2 843 4124
07. FARMERS MARKET
Located in Cubao, Quezon City, this is the go-to market for top international chefs, and where the late Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of No Reservations. Walk through aisles of meat, local fish, organic salted eggs, live seafood, different grains side by side, local handicraft and heaving piles of tropical fruit including mangoes, giant avocados and exotic durio graveolens from Mindanao that are mini durians with sunset-colored flesh. Eat like a local and have your produce prepared at the market's food court.
General Araneta Avenue, Araneta Center, Cubao, Quezon City, Philippines
Also owned by Chef Tonyboy Escalante's group, this fine dining jewel sits in a black and white house in a massive compound. Traditional French cuisine is served by liveried staff who deftly fetch and carry. Such topnotch service and a three course meal sets you back a mere PHP1,700 (S$46).
Purok 138, Barangay Neogan, Tagaytay City, Philippines, +63 917 899 2866
09. RURAL KITCHEN OF LILIW LAGUNA
Homestyle Ilocos cuisine is served in a modern setting, and it's a gem for the heirloom recipes that are rarely served at restaurants. Share plates of original Laguna hits such as ukoy - crunchy deep-fried baby shrimps, and fork-tender lamb kalderetang and liver. Relish the complimentary bell-shaped pan de bonete that's sourced from Liliw and comes with homemade dips (look out for inalamangan santol). The signage is notoriously difficult to see, so look out for the 7-Eleven on Rada Street instead, and it's just next door.
104 Rada St. HRC Centre Legaspi Village, Makati, Philippines, +63 2 779 8073
The brainchild of prominent restaurateur Larry J Cruz, Abé has been around since 2006, serving mostly Kapampangan cuisine that's heavily infused with Spanish, Malay and Mexican touches. Perennial favorites are crispy pata or deep fried local pork knuckles with a side dip of soy sauce and vinegar; klassik kare-kare (oxtail stew), lamb adobo, biringhe (a version of paella) and halo-halo made from scratch.
2nd floor North Veranda, Entertainment Mall,SM Mall of Asia, Bay Boulevard, Pasay City, +63 2 556 0608