Thursday, December 8, 2011

When Kare-Kare Gets Stylized (Manila, Philippines)

Published by AsianTraveler Magazine,  2009

The moment the appetizers – finger foods in shot glasses – were served at the table, I knew this was going to be a different culinary experience. The fist sampling was a tiny rice basket stuffed with a crunchy and tasty filling. I followed the bite with a sliced quail egg resting at the bottom of the shooter. The taste was strangely familiar yet new and exciting to the tongue.  Chef Rolando Laudico saw my smiling eyes and then with a knowing grin revealed: “sisig”.

A shot of chorizo, anyone?

Here, where the black-and-white checkered floor compliments the subdued yellow walls, is where art and cuisine merge. Here, where the gleaming green Swarovski chandelier evokes an Old World charm, is where a new culinary experience unfolds. Here under the light linen canopy anchored by dark kamagong beams is where one can have a taste of global dining through local flavors. Here is Chef Laudico Bistro Filipino, Chefs Rolando and Jacquline Laudico’s fine-dining Filipino restaurant that advocates native dishes presented in an artful and modern way.

The perfect gift under the tree for this Christmas (Photo courtesy of Chef Laudico)

“For a time when I worked and studied abroad, I’ve always had this frustration whenever people would ask where I’m from. They had zero idea on what Filipino food is,” Chef Roland explained as he sets the Prito Trio on the table, an appetizer of crispy fish, shrimps and squid. I dipped the fish in garlic aioli and savored the smooth but strong flavor of the dip as he continued to explain the beginnings of Bistro Filipino. “I decided to make it my goal to make Filipino food more recognizable and more presentable to other cultures,” said the chef who has an impressive resume starting with a degree with honors at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and a long line of experience working with renowned chefs in France and Australia.

It’s all about refinement and creativity, the chef explained as he urged me to try the ubod (heart of coconut palm) spring roll. It wasn’t your typical lumpia as this one was cone shaped and served in a tall and thin shot glass – of course. I hesitated, a bit confused on how to make the first bite. He piled a little mound of crushed ice over the still warm roll and motioned for me to take a bite.  The grated ice turned out to be vinegar. The spicy coolness of the vinegar sorbet competed with the warm richness of the ground meat in my mouth. The distinct smokiness of the chorizo was also a nice surprise. Talk about awakening the palate!

Interiors: definitely Filipino!

Chef Jackie credits her husband’s quirky food presentation to his love affair with street delicacies. He is fascinated with Pinoy street food fare and always wondered if there was a better way to consume lumpia without the sauce dripping all over the place. From this dilemma, Chef Roland improvised his design. “How we approach our food is very visual.  If you could do it with French, Chinese, Japanese, you could also do it with Filipino. You could do it practically with any cuisine. There is no limit to the creativity,” enthuses Chef Roland.

Chef Jackie compliments her husband's creations with sweets. (Photo courtesy of Chef Laudico)

Art plays a definitive role not only in the dishes, but also in the interiors. The thick abaca rug that serves as a wall divider - offering  privacy from the outside, the capiz chandelier that hangs over the foyer, the antique hardwood furnishings, and the oil paintings of tropical fruits, were all carefully chosen to evoke the old Filipino elegance with a modern flair, complementing the menu’s traditional yet contemporary offerings.

The menu is a feast of native cuisine that makes use of only two main ingredients: the best and the freshest and superb and artful execution. Each dish is as surprising as the next from the prawns laing tempura to the chicken tinola salad. The finest wines and signature drinks and cocktails – all Filipinized and modernized, of course – are complementary to the flavors. The perfect conclusion to such an artistic meal is Chef Jackie’s inspired desserts. She is particularly proud of her handmade Belgian chocolate truffles infused with indigenous flavours. Calamansi truffles, anyone?

Art everywhere: on the plate, on the walls, hanging from the ceiling.

Indeed, with the Laudicos’ masterpieces, every mouthful comes with a surprise.  I bit into a smoked milkfish ball and was surprised with the creamy and smoky center. The tinapa balls were stuffed with mozzarella and glazed with pinakurat. Pinakurat vinegar is made of fermented coconut nectar and spices. “Kurat” in Cebuano means “spice,” and the spicy vinegar glaze truly gave a zing to the salty tinapa ball. Each bite, I thought, was perfectly orchestrated, starting with the saltiness of the milkfish, the unexpected punch of the spicy glaze and capped off with the cheesy center, to temper the salty and spicy taste.

To allow our stomachs to settle for a bit, the chefs served a sampler of designer soups. The beauty of dining at Bistro Filipino is that you can sample most of the dishes with options of ordering dishes in tasting portions.

The Trio Soups, for instance, allows the diner to choose any three of the soups in the menu in sampler sizes. Our trio – shitake mushroom cappuccino, paella arroz caldo and beef nilaga consommé – was served in tiny cups. Being a fan of the fungi, the mushroom soup called out to me. The shitake was cooked adobo style to give the smoky earthy taste a more pronounced saltiness. The brothy flavor was further enhanced by the creamy garlic foam. A drizzle of white truffle oil strengthened the soup’s pungent flavor without making it overwhelming.

Assorted handmade chocolates by Chef Jacqueline Laudico.

After a refreshing plate of mesclun salad tossed in Dijon bagoong vinaigrette, Chef Roland brought out his pièce de résistance: kare-kare. Not shying away from Western influences, the chef’s own version of the classic Filipino dish is not made of the usual local meat, but prime U.S. Angus beef. The beef is served on a bed of turmeric rice with a layer of creamed banana heart. On the side is a serving of grilled eggplant chutney and garlic pechay sauté.

Bistro Filipino is elegantly Pinoy

What makes the classic kare-kare dish so special is the bite of the bagoong paste that is usually served with the dish. Unfortunately, many diners that are new to the dish are not too enthusiastic about the shrimp paste’s overwhelmingly pungent smell. More often than not, they pass up on the dish, afraid to try out this seemingly unusual and unappetizing delicacy. This is where Chef Roland’s expertise and ingenuity comes in. “If you’re given a Filipino dish, sometimes you don’t know how to eat it. You don’t know what it is; it doesn’t look as appetizing but definitely the flavors are there; the tradition is there.”

While the shrimp paste is usually served on the side, Chef Roland mixes the bagoong with the sauce.  It’s a little bit sneaky, but the technique works. Foreigners gobble up the dish, enjoying the rich peanut sauce, not knowing exactly what they’re having until they ask.  This is the chef’s idea of refining a dish to make it more appealing to a global market.

Tanglad and salabat are some of Chef's Jackie's unique chocolate flavors.

The sad reality is, the Filipino flavor is still not in the menu of top restaurants all over the globe. For the Laudicos, the challenge is how to make what most Filipinos consider as everyday home-cooked fare into world-class gastronomy. “If you can get the taste of tradition and present it as modern and more applicable to what’s current now, then the Filipino cuisine will have a chance,” said Chef Roland who, in spite of his training abroad, and in spite of his expertise in international cuisine, still prefers to be known for his delectable native dishes. With their goal, the Laudicos are gearing up to open branches abroad starting with Singapore and Hong Kong. They’re also releasing a book titled Bistro Filipino – Tradition, Innovation. The book focuses on contemporary Filipino cuisine based on traditional recipes. It’s an effort to encourage Filipino chefs to take the Filipino dishes to another level.

It may all seem a bit too ambitious, maybe overly patriotic. Whatever the case, there is no stopping this young and innovative couple, and the Laudicos are on their way to taking Filipino flavors  to world-class standards with every U.S. Angus beef kare-kare and beef nilaga consommé served at the table. I raise my glass of wine – made of the local berry, duhat – to the Laudicos.


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