A Gastro-Tour of Manila

On a food-driven tour of Manila, Vincent Vichit-Vadakan uncovers a few new takes on Filipino food, cooked up by the city’s most innovative restaurants.

Mar 5, 2020

Filipino food has everything going for it: a dazzling array of produce, endlessly creative chefs and lip-smacking flavor profiles. With more than 7,000 islands, the Philippines enjoys an endless bounty from land and sea, while centuries of Chinese, Malay, Spanish and American influences create a vibrant cuisine that uses the best of indigenous ingredients heightened by the most delicious global accents.

Unfortunately it also has, as some locals would say, a bit of a chip on its culinary shoulder. They point to the vestiges of colonialism that have resulted in the collective psyche valuing imported over homegrown. “Many middle- to upper-class Filipino households still serve steak and mashed potatoes or ‘continental’ food to guests as opposed to adobo, sinigang or tinola,” says chef Stephan Roxas Duhesme of newcomer Metiz (fb.com/metizresto; prixe-fixe menu from P1,500). A ubiquitous fast-food culture reinforces the false impression, especially for outsiders, that there isn’t much else on offer.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Chefs across Manila are proving that Filipino food is most definitely fit for company. At Metiz, which is a play on the word métis (French for a person of mixed heritage) and a bow to the chef’s Gallic and Filipino bloodlines, Duhesme showcases common provisions like hito (catfish) and jackfruit seeds. “I find humble ingredients more interesting,” he says. “Wait until we get ant eggs or mangrove worms,” he adds, possibly in jest. The menu changes with the whims of the chef, but look out for the restaurant’s gin-and-ampalaya (bitter gourd) cocktail and its fresh pepper leaf topped with pig cheek or trotter. While neither of these things is strictly traditional, the dishes stay true to the mouthwatering notes of sourness and bitterness that characterize Filipino cooking.

Inside Toyo Eatery. Courtesy of Toyo Eatery.

Metiz’s neighbor Toyo Eatery (fb.com/toyoeatery; set menu from P3,500) is one of the standard-bearers of modern Filipino cuisine. It earned chef Jordy Navarra one-to-watch talk. Navarra calls his Filipino food a personal interpretation. “It’s important to always remember who you are and where you come from,” he says, “but it’s nice to explore the possibilities of what it can be and where it can go.” One of the restaurant’s most famous dishes is Bahay Kubo, which is the title of a popular nursery rhyme that enumerates the plants farmed around a nipa palm hut. The dish brings all those ingredients together in an original composition, and arrives at your table with a model of the house that gives the song its name. Another memorable creation is their homemade banana catsup, a local invention that was a response to wartime shortages, served with tortang talong, an eggplant omelet, elevating an ordinary dish to unexpected heights.

Food for the soul at Hapag. Courtesy of Hapag.

At Hapag Private Dining (fb.com/hapag.mnl; set menu from P2,700), often touted as the next big thing in Filipino cooking and frequently compared to Toyo, three twenty-something chefs, Thirdy Dolatre, Kevin Navoa and Kevin Villarica, have turned their shared culinary experiences into a destination restaurant. “Filipino cuisine can be boundless and fun if you just push more,” Dolatre says. The best illustration of their progressive approach is perhaps their Laing Stones, a dramatic dish of taro-leaf balls fried in squid-ink batter nestled in sprigs of herbs and pickles. The visuals are more reminiscent of an ikebana flower arrangement than a vegetable stew.

Chele Gonzáles and Carlos Villaflor of Gallery by Chele. Courtesy of of Gallery by Chele.

Meanwhile, Gallery by Chele (gallerybychele.com; set menu from P2,600), formerly Gallery Vask, takes a more studied approach. Spanish- born Chele González champions rare varieties of rice, grows hard-to- source herbs on his roof-terrace urban garden and documents his findings in a purpose-built kitchen lab. In 2013, when González opened Gallery Vask, he says he had to first learn local cuisine “from ancestral communities,” before he could apply any haute cuisine treatments. “What we did at the time was very innovative,” he says, but today notes with satisfaction that “the landscape has changed completely.” His signature Wagyu beef ribs slow- cooked with calamansi juice and soy sauce take inspiration from braised adobo, the unofficial national dish.

Another local figurehead changing the perception of Filipino food is Josh Boutwood, who heads three restaurants including Savage, centered around an open-fire grill, and the newly re-opened Test Kitchen, known for its sophisticated menus and outstanding cured meats. But perhaps it is at Helm (fb.com/helmmnl; set menu from P4,090) that the Pinoy roots of this British-Filipino, Spanish-bred chef shine brightest. Ingredients like bangus (milkfish) and coconut sap are handled with precision and rigor. The intimate restaurant seats 10 to 12 people around an open kitchen in a space of just 37 square meters. His aim is to spread “the understanding that we have something great” and increase “the appreciation of our food.” He admits it’s a challenge. “What is traditional Filipino food? Our identity and our bloodlines are very mixed,” he says. Not one to rest on his laurels, Boutwood is working on another restaurant that will see the light of day before the end of the year.

Fried duck leg with empanada at Lampara. Courtesy of Lampara.

Perhaps the humblest of movers and shakers on the Manila food scene are RJ Ramos and Alphonse Sotero of “neo-Filipino” restaurant Lampara (fb.com/lampara.pob; à la carte dinner from P1,200). The name is Tagalog for “lamp” as its menu intends to illuminate local cuisine. The owners bristle at being called chefs, feeling they still have much to learn; they see themselves more as heirs to famous culinary identities like Margarita Forés and Fernando Aracama. “The goal was always to continue pushing the envelope further, like the chefs who have gone before us,” Ramos says. He points to their sous-vide duck adobo as an example of optimizing an already iconic dish. They are proud of using local cacao in their desserts. Their restaurant in buzzy Poblacion serves locally inspired snacks alongside a late-night cocktail menu. “We hope to inspire people to embrace our roots and ask, ‘What’s next?’”

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