By the time my bum meets the seat, three different drinks have already been placed before me: iced water; a Bellini, its fizziness tempered by the ambrosial apricot nectar, and an elegant glass half-filled with a Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut from Napa Valley. Tawny in color, it’s mildly sweet and full-bodied. Perfect for novice wine drinkers like myself. Incidentally, I happen to be seated beside Kathy Yao whose company, Happy Living Fine Wines, is providing the wines for tonight’s dinner.
Tonight’s dinner is the opening of “21”, a by-reservations-only formal dining room owned by Katrina Ponce Enrile. Named “21” because it seats 21 persons (or 24 max) it’s surreptitiously situated inside Petra & Pilar just off to the left.
My table setting glitters with an astounding array of silverware. Briefly, I forget whether I start from the inside out or is it the other way around? Then I remember and breathe deeply.
The amuse gueule, two-bite tummy ticklers, parade in with much ceremony. Chef Ed Quimson and his sous chef, Jason Stacy, along with several servers, line up strategically at various corners of the (very!) large table and on Chef Ed’s signal, serve us our plates almost simultaneously. This trio consists of A Ceviche of Lapu-Lapu on Banana Chips (very gingery, pleasantly startling [oxymoronic, I know]); a Tartare of Wagyu Beef en Bouche (painfully smooth with only a subtle beef note); and a large Grilled Scallop with Ripe Mango Pearls and Pecan Pesto (soft and sensual punctuated with bursts of mango). Chef Ed exhorts us to eat the courses in the order that they are on the plate ”“ i.e. work outwards in. Ah, the synergy of flavor and order!
The Duck Kaldereta Ravioli is one of my favorites. It reminds me of a hearty dish that I’d fancy eating on a rainy evening. Its Balsamic Reduction drizzle rounds out the flavors which don’t taste at all “ducky.” I consider myself a lucky duck when Chef Ed says that he’ll set aside a portion for me to take home.
The second wine we’re served is a Chateau St. Jean, a 2006 Fume Blanc from Sonoma. Done in a Chardonnay style, it possesses a tropical citrus scent. I admire the way Kathy sniffs, swirls, and slurps her wine. Quite the wine professional without the snooty attitude.
“How did you even begin to pair tonight’s menu with your vast array of wines?” I ask, my eyes round with wonder.
“My taste memory bank,” she replies kindly. “Every wine lover has a general idea of which foods go well with what.”
We talk about wines and my hesitation towards them ”“ “It seems to bring out the snob in everyone,” I mention ”“ just as the soup course is served. The broth of the Double Chicken Consommé is exquisite, bringing to mind how good stocks begin with good bones. And speaking of bones, the accompanying Galantina is made with chicken necks perfumed with black truffles. It contributes such a robust flavor that for just a minute, I think I’m eating beef.
Portions for multi-course dinners such as this one are expectedly very small. But the salad sets a new standard ”“ it’s a “mini” actually. Mesclun tossed in a not-so-garlicky Vinaigrette Dressing is garnished with Flaked Asiago Cheese and Crispy Air Dried Beef. The cheese is so sharp that it slaps the tongue, quickly followed by the sharpness of the greens, and then the resounding crunch of the beef. “I want a bag of this beef to chew on while I’m watching TV,” I tell Teddy Montelibano, a fellow food writer seated near me. “Not if I beat you to it!” he grins.
The next course demonstrates that it’s not just hair and cloth that can be braided; apparently, so can fish. I stare at the Lapu-Lapu fillets that — yes, unbelievably — have been braided (!) and quite adeptly at that. Who knew chefs could braid! The fish is napped with a Tomato Cream Risotto and a creamy mustard-yellow sauce so delicate and fleeting on the tongue that I can’t determine the ingredients it’s made of. My fish is cooked perfectly (probably poached), flaking at the slightest pull of my fork, the Basil Chiffonade that’s sprinkled over it adding another dimension to what could be a bland dish. I like it.
In the midst of my tasting reverie, I overhear Teddy talking to Nancy Lumen, food writer extraordinaire and Editor-in-Chief of Cook magazine: “This fish dish shouldn’t have followed the salad,” Teddy is saying. “[The salad] had such a strong flavor [with] the bitter greens and the sharp cheese, and to be followed by a fish that doesn’t have too much of a distinctive flavor…” he shakes his head slightly. I mull over what he’s said but I keep quiet. While food writers love to eat just as much as everyone else, we’re trained to eat critically, to be conscious of the relationship between ingredients and their result, as well as to be analytical of tastes. But taste is subjective and everyone’s entitled to their opinion.
The next and last wine, a 2003 St. Francis Syrah also from Sonoma, is so full-bodied and peppery that my eyes roll back involuntarily on first sip. My throat is burning.Â Seeing this, Kathy laughs. “Too strong for you, yes?” “Ack, you’re telling me,” I reply, frantically reaching for my water glass. Thank god I have something sweet to clean my “affected” palate: an intermezzo of Assorted Berries Marinated in Sake and Grand Marnier. “Wow! This is really a palate cleanser,” Teddy crows. “Chef Ed loves big flavors,” someone else adds. I love it. The berries are fresh as can be, mingling with one another to produce a striking color in an equally striking martini glass.
Though we’re on the second to last course, those around me are in agreement that we don’t feel overly full or bloated. The chefs have done a good job of balancing portion size and variety to keep things interesting. Chef Ed announces beforehand that he’s cooking all of our steaks to “medium verging on medium-rare.” The Fillet Mignon Wrapped in Bacon sits on a Batangas Coffee Roux decorated with Mushroom Duxelles and Cilantro Mash. My steak is cooked just right, the knife cuts right through. The coffee roux is almost too sweet, though its toffee undertones seem to enhance the meat’s sweetness. Hey, it’s steak. Steak never goes wrong by me. And so it is with Teddy. He’s become quiet, fully focused on the meat dish.
As our dishes are cleared and replaced with dessert forks, I feel myself getting giddy. Dessert! “O Lori, your favorite course!” Teddy winks. Just like the first course that began the meal, the meal-ender is designed to be eaten in order as well. Dalandan Kisses, a Spring Roll filled with Valrhona Chocolate and Chili Oil, and a Hazelnut Bavarian Cream Short Cake. Swoon! I adore the kisses, which are made of meringue painstakingly filled with a dalandan curd center. Sour enough to curl my toes but sweet enough to make me smile. The chocolate spring roll is everyone’s favorite. One bite sends a gush of warm chocolate coursing onto the tongue immediately followed by a spicy kick that tickles the back of the throat. Genius. The hazelnut cake has a chiffon-like texture, it’s the little miss of the trio ”“ refined and subtle.
2111 JAKA Center, Chino Roces Ave, Makati
A special function room that can seat from 2-24 (max), lunch and dinner.
P12,000 minimum consumable on food.
Room is equipped with a screen for presentations or meetings.
Special menus can be tailored by Chefs Ed Quimson and Jason Stacy for events.
For inquiries and reservations, contact Paolo Santiago at 887.5168
For excellent wines with a focus on those from California, contact Kathy Yao
Happy Living Fine Wine
G/F JMS Bldg., 1375 P. Ocampo Sr. Avenue, Makati
895.6507-08 / 896.0336