In his previous cooking shows, Sandy Daza became so associated with wielding a wooden spoon that it’s the name he bestowed on his new restaurant. Barely six months old, its entrance is so unassuming that driving by, you might miss it lest you look up and see the towering tarp of Sandy holding – what else – but a wooden spoon.
Once inside the restaurant however, not a single implement of the sort is to be found. It’s too small a space really, and even with a second floor, it fills up fast. Active in the local culinary scene in the 90s as a cooking expert, food columnist, and owner of several fast food outlets, Sandy took a sabbatical and moved to Canada. He only returned to Manila a few years ago, and I view Wooden Spoon as his grand homecoming. It’s a restaurant that focuses on familiar Filipino food but invariably given tweaks and twists.
With such an illustrious family name, it’s no wonder that Sandy is in this business. His mother is none other than the venerable Nora Daza; his sister, Nina Daza-Puyat, his co-host on several of his former cooking shows, is the current editor-in-chief of Appetite magazine. I’ve known Sandy for several years: my Bin is a Daza and he and Sandy are first cousins. It was through Sandy that I first discovered Joseph & Jaemark’s, and what that secret ingredient is exactly that makes their fish sauce taste too good. It was also through him that I learned about and finally met the (now late) great Tita Cely, the inventor of the Bicol Express.
Wooden Spoon is straightforward with no-frills. The portions are almost too small to share, but at such affordable prices, it wouldn’t be right to quibble. A restaurant finding its footing, the menu is printed on several sheets of short bond paper; an omnibus of sorts of Sandy’s favorite foods, flavors he favors and those that fuel him. It’s admittedly overwhelming, so much to choose from! But it’s one of those happy challenges to face on return visits.
Wansoy Shrimp Balls (P145) start us off nicely. It comes with two sauces, one is a coriander-citrus sauce, the other is a Thai-style sweet chili. Mix and match at will, I find the combination plays off the nubby textures of the patty very well.
The Shrimp Pampango (P225) can be eaten as a main but I think of it as a starter. Crispy shrimp, medium sized and lightly battered are dipped into a sauce made with crab fat, taba ng talangka. Take a deep breath, dip it, and eat the entire shrimp head and all. Though such liberal intakes of a conspicuously cholesterol-laden dish can be frightening, the sauce itself is light, definitely not as cloying as other talangka I’ve tried; in fact, I wish it was heavier, chunkier even, to stand up to the shrimp.
Wooden Spoon pays tribute to Tita Cely Kalaw with its own spin on Bicol Express (P185). If you click the link mentioned earlier in this post, it’s starkly different to what’s seen here. The traditional has played musical chairs with the new: there is more pork in Sandy’s version, a thicker sauce, and the color is a healthy ochre hue. I’m all for re-invention and this is interesting, but I miss the myriad sili that was the star in the original Bicol Express.
Sandy makes much to-do about his Dinakdakan (P185), but I’m afraid I miss the point. An Ilocano dish, broiled pork slices are tossed in a sauce that’s a simultaneous exclamation of savory and spicy and sweet with ellipses of onion thrown in. That’s the intended effect but to me, it’s a whole lot of chewy with some porky here and there. As it states on the menu, “… something totally new and different to the non-Ilocano.” I’ll say.
Boo likes the Kaldereta (P235) very much, so much so that I have to plead for scant spoonfuls. Beef strips slow-cooked in tomato sauce makes for an appealing proposition with plenty of flavors announcing themselves in the light sauce. I say “light” because this sauce is just that – in flavor and color. It may be because my exposure to kaldereta are of those laden with mashed liver. However, if your tastes tend to a cleaner, perhaps more elegant kaldereta, you’ll like this version with its plethora of peppers and olives. And the grated cheese garnish, such a small touch, gives big taste impact here.
The undeniable star of our meal at Wooden Spoon, the dish that makes our eyes roll to the back of our heads is the Stuffed Pechay (P145). Smoke and spice, from the tinapa (smoked fish) and gata (coconut sauce) respectively, prance and play with ground pork, rolled in and hidden in a pechay leaf. Oh, what good things lie hidden beneath! A fearsomely good combination, it’s so good that my Bin and I play a mock sword fight with our forks in an effort to nab the last roll. This is lovely, just lovely with too much hot white rice.
When it comes to Lechon Kawali (P195), my view is that anything pork and fried can never be bad. Sandy takes the leanest pork belly (does such a thing exist?) and simmers it for extra tenderness. It’s then deep-fried ‘til its skin bubbles up and crackles. Since it’s sliced thinly, it’s very crispy. The sauce accompaniments give new life to this traditional dish. The ginger-oil is mellow-mild as the coriander-chili excites.
There are only three desserts on the menu, all very light and assuming you’d be too full for anything more. We have a complimentary Sago Cake (P65), a sufficient little mold of sago dressed in palm sugar and gilded with gata (coconut sauce).
#329 Katipunan Ave., (beside Ilocos Empanada and Bo’s Coffee).
Open daily 10am-10pm except Mondays.
More info on Sandy’s blog.