Fine Filipino Food in a Fine Filipino Home

Restaurants like Chef Tatung’s require commitment: one, they’re usually off the beaten track, thus extra effort must be made to fit them into one’s schedule; and two, the food they serve requires a bit of mental tweaking on the part of the eater. More on this later.

Of course I’ve read all the press about Chef Tatung (aka Myke Sarthou) and his restaurant has always been on my radar. My Bin and I are nowhere near the area and were it not for frantic texts to a friend who’s been here frequently, we might never have found the place. So when we finally arrive, we order 10 dishes to make it worth the trip.

It’s 2pm and what a welcome surprise to learn that they’re open all the way through from lunch til dinner. Lucky us and even more fortunate is that Chef Tatung is around. He’s so jovial, delightfully talkative. “I really thought you’d be a snob,” I muse. “You seem so reserved in all your photos.” He immediately adopts a snooty air. “Oh, I’m really a snob talaga,” he says affectedly. Then he winks and we erupt in gales of laughter.

The restaurant is an ancestral home that Chef Tatung still lives in today. The interiors are a throwback to a romantic, albeit more retro time of sturdy wooden tables, capiz windows, and distinctive art work lining the walls. How wonderful that we have the place to ourselves, free to roam and gaze. “This place is more beautiful at night,” Chef Tatung says, gesturing to the garden. “We light everything up.” Perhaps, but I say that the place is breathtaking now bathed in the mid-afternoon light. The garden is evidently well-maintained, verdant plants whose leaves sway in the gentle breeze.

When the chef-owner is present, I like to leave my meal in his hands. The menu bewilders and bewitches in its expansive variety. The former because there’s just so much to choose from, and the latter because everything just seems so good. We excitedly discuss some of his suggestions but I express disappointment that the Honey Glazed Slow-Roasted Pork Belly (P400) was devoured last night. It’s not like they can just whip one up either, since it roasts for six hours. For that alone, a return trip is necessary.

The Chicken Sisig In Lettuce Wraps (P200) reminds me – though I know not why – of Chef Laudico’s Sisig in Crispy Cups. Chef Tatung’s version however, is made of minced chicken kicked up with chilies and onions, and somewhere in there, taro chips. The mango sauce is an inspired touch, but oh, how messy this appetizer is to eat! I attempt to use my hands but the lettuce wilts and everything falls. It’s very tasty though and the accompanying vinegar sauce, sharp and bitey, really makes this a star of a starter.

We’re eager for the Seafood Gising-Gising (P240) but as enthusiastically as this dish is recommended, I feel like the interpretation is lost on us. The coconut milk is too thick, almost paste-like, coating the ingredients in glop. The whole thing feels like chop suey, and not a palatable one at that, at least not for me.

The Gising-Gising does taste better when paired with something else, like the Butterflied Tilapia (P320). I’ve always marveled at how cooks manage this edible miracle, slicing the fish so that it splays open when fried, appearing like it wants to dive (or fly!) back into the sea. For me, fried anything is delicious and I’m intrigued with its tamarind glaze, a sweet-sour accent. But my Bin isn’t too hot about the fish’s “muddy”, overly “fishy” flavor which he says is emphasized by the tamarind’s sourness. Ah, differing opinions.

We further differ in our impressions of the Lengua Adobo (P340), one of the dishes that Chef Tatung is famous for, apparently even non-Filipinos love this. It’s a classic adobo cooked with paombong (palm) vinegar to which green olives and roasted garlic heads are added. This dish is an example of food that requires an open mind. I like the sauce very much – dark and glossy, it coats the tongue and its sourness kicks the throat as it slides down. But I feel that it’s too assertive, acidic even, for the lengua with its smooth texture and excessive tenderness. On the other hand, my Bin likes the lengua but doesn’t care for the sauce. “This is not what I consider adobo,” he reasons. But when it comes to Filipinos and their adobo, there will never be a consensus; there may be more versions of adobo than there are Filipinos.

Every plate is decorated with these vivid, deep blue flowers that I learn are called ternate flowers. They’re only about 2 inches long and have light yellow markings. Edible, they’re used in Asian cuisines for flavor and coloring.

Because it’s available today (it isn’t always), Chef Tatung serves us a refresher, a drink between courses. It’s coconut sap, or fresh tuba. A coconut wine that looks and tastes almost like buko but upon swallowing, there’s a mild alcoholic kick that spreads then ceases almost as quickly as it starts. Just a touch sweet, it does its job of wiping our palate clean and ready for the food to follow.

We are tasting and thinking and eating some more. Chef Tatung knows his strengths, playing up local ingredients with a global attitude. Though he defines his food as home cooking, his execution of each dish is exceptional and very well thought out, truly a very talented chef.

My Bin likes the Shrimp Okoy (P140) very much. The meld of tiny shrimp and vegetables crunch loudly. It’s a stark symphony to the vinegar sauce, which kills the cloy, making us want the next bite and the next.

The Chicken Leg Relyeno (P340) is clever. And cheeky. Chicken legs or drumsticks look unusually plump until they’re cut into and all is revealed. The leg has been deboned, its meat minced and mixed with spices and then stuffed right back into the leg casing to assume its rightful shape. It tastes like a delicious chicken sausage with grace notes of lemongrass. This is lovely with the accompanying atchara or the more traditional dips of ketchup and an Asian sweet chili sauce.

Oh dessert – er, desserts, how I’m ready for you! “You want camote cheesecake? It’s not on the menu but it’s available,” Chef Tatung offers. I love all root crops – “tubers”, we were made to call them back in culinary school. The orange type of camote, the sweetest of our native varieties, is mixed in with some cream cheese, its muted orange glow looking and tasting like caramel, believe it or not. It’s so fine that the tuber’s characteristic bits are almost indiscernible, but not quite. They provide a nubby counterpoint to the silkiness of the white cheesecake below. Mmm, who would’ve thought that a cheesecake (P140), much less a camote one would work? But work, it does.

Who wouldn’t want a Warm Tsoknut Chocolate Cake (P80)? Whichever way you string those words, it’s a winner, guaranteed. Chef Tatung says it’s a no-brainer dessert and I agree. Molten, melting middle with a Tsoknut cascade? I wish the cake were a bit more moist, perhaps plop the little cake in a pool of tsoknut sabayon, but that’s just me thinking aloud.

My Bin and I almost get into a little argument over the Fresh Fruit Halo-Halo (P140). This summer cooler is a convincing argument for fresh fruit in halo-halo – it doesn’t leave me feeling bloated after inhaling (almost!) the entire portion and my Bin loves the large sago. So: fresh pineapple, bananas, mangoes, cornflakes (I believe those are so), and a smattering of toasted, grated coconut. Familiar ingredients all, but newly reinterpreted. And oh, what a genius it is to top the lot off with gata ice cream, made by a friend of Chef Tatung. Gotta love that friend, and gotta love this halo-halo.

Chef Tatung’s
17 Matipid St.
Sikatuna Village, Q.C.
02 352 6121 / 0915 846 3234

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