“I’m unloading four months’ worth of absence on your table once you get here,” Nomama’s chef-owner tells me.
Chef Him Uy de Baron has repeatedly asked me to come back to Nomama ever since I wrote about it prior to its opening last September. It’s been four months since then and two hours on a busy weekday evening to get to the restaurant but here I am again. Joining me tonight are my Bin and Chef Ed Bugia of Pino, one of my favorite chefs and a good friend.
It’s always fascinating to me to see how a restaurant has grown and come into its own since my initial visit. Tweaks to the interiors, the menu, and innate rhythm of the restaurant are earmarks of a place becoming comfortable in its own skin. It’s a lively service tonight with every table occupied. Chef Him looks up as I come in. He’s busy plating a dish that’s about to be sent out and his nod to my spirited wave signals that the fressing will begin.
Almost immediately, a plate of Pork Gyoza (P125) slides smoothly onto the table. “Look, it’s even made with the classic seven folds,” Ed whispers. Half moon constructs of dough encase pork chunks and cabbage strands. The tangy sauce alongside perks up the palate and primes it quite nicely for the meal ahead. Traffic – especially two hours worth – will make anyone ravenous and right now, I’m so starved I could gnaw on the table.
The next dish is one of those exceptional ones that leave a mark on memory. Plate-perfect and picture-pretty, Fresh Tuna Spring Rolls (P290) are the stars of this centerfold. The tuna’s pink succulence peeks through the translucent rice wrapper as do tufts of alfalfa sprouts. Viewed from above, the entire plate portrays a plate of Pollock-esque proportions, an imaginatively but thoughtfully composed canvas dotted with wild baby arugula, avocado, edamame, and mango. Every bite is firm but yielding, each mouthful a proposal: dab the spring roll in the chili ponzu dressing, the avocado puree, or both? A work of art, this dish.
I expect the Tempura of Squash Blossoms (P275) to be straightforward but wow, they’re big and no wonder: every fritter is filled with a pork mixture similar to that in the gyoza but with something else added. Another taste, and mmm, there it is. Set against a crackly backdrop, every squash blossom is gilded with a prawn mousse and a hit of lime salt. Dabbed with a little chili sauce, one more nibble needs another.
As we ponder the preceding dishes, Ed and my Bin, being the businessmen that they are, are talking shop. It’s a world entirely different from my own and I listen intently, since the conversation is about possible restaurant concepts and the food derived from it.
Back to the meal, a brilliant chef culls inspiration from a global repertoire, never sticking to the straight and narrow. Here, it’s made edible in the Spicy Ox Tongue Dry Noodle (P345). It reminds me of Mien San’s Spicy Cha Chang, though that’s decidedly more Taiwanese; Nomama’s version goes through Korea. A skein of noodles is awash in gochujang, Korea’s indispensable chili sauce. Squares of black tofu tumble through, their own slipperiness providing textural pleasure as do torn strips of bok choy. On top of the dish is a crown, almost literally of a blanched and skinned tomato. It boasts a wealth of chili threads and green onion mince. I gingerly slice the tomato open and more ox tongue dice and black tofu spill out, sexy confetti to ignite appetites. The totality of this dish is the sum of its parts: toothsome from the tofu and noodles, the irresistible slickness of the ox tongue, and the zippiness of chili. Ed has this dish weekly and as we slurp our way through it, he mutters almost in wonderment, “This is crazy good.”
Nomama was built on ramen but I suspect that Chef Him and I might have differing views of it. This evening, the house’s eponymous Ramen (P295) is what we try. The noodles are still deliciously bitey, and those eggs, god, those eggs! – still gleam as lasciviously as they did before, granting glorious yolk-y goodness to my waiting mouth. But tonight the chashu (sliced roast pork) is undeniably tough and the miso-sesame broth leaves me wanting. I yearn for a broth more deeply concentrated that it’s akin to the purest meaty essence being distilled and stirred into the soup.
As we move from dish to dish and back to the ones we love, the wooden box of cutlery positioned on each table proves so convenient. Our motley assortment of food requires various utensils and it’s gratifying to just reach over for a soup spoon, a fork and knife, etc.
Bearing tenderness that makes me weak in the knees is the Kitayama Flank Steak (P740). From cows bred and reared in Bukidnon, the flank is a beef cut from below the shortloin. Pocked with peppercorns, its inherent moistness is upped with dabs of miso butter that I taste but can’t see. Somehow, its invisibility adds to its mystique. And those tofu fries – crispy-coated and full of health benefits, they’re my redemption from the deliciously obscene taste sensations and amount of steak I’m ingesting. It pains me to have to share this plate with Ed and my Bin.
I am on a carnivorous tear and the Twice Cooked Pork Belly Teriyaki (P485) further revs up the monstrous meat eater in me. Sensing a dish with an intellectual edge, we pay bent-head homage to its plastic-wrapped presence. Peculiar countenance notwithstanding, it makes for an impressive show when the server whips off the plastic releasing plumes of aromatic smoke. Smoked in apple wood chips, the free-range pork belly yields slices of melting fat suffused with dark meat. The lot is imbued with a fruity spice and the smoke and smolder of Chef Him’s homemade teriyaki sauce.
We’re on the eighth dish of the evening and we’re not slowing down. I’ve always believed that my rightly robust appetite is backed up by eating only with those who are equally greedy. As service winds down, Him joins us as we ravage the Roast Chicken (P375). Ed makes expert work of “carving” the bird, every slice is thin and identical. The skin boasts a burnished hue, the chili garlic glaze and white meat is an arresting contrast to the soy caramel pooling beneath. It’s a brooding type of sauce, dark and salty and then the unexpected stir of sweet at the end. I like this dish for its color and flavor contrasts and the silky smoothness of the kabocha squash mash.
“This is my ode to McDonald’s apple pie, Apple Gyoza,” (P275) Chef Him says by way of introduction to dessert. Eating it out of hand, the combination of apples and rum-soaked raisins invites only one reaction: “Oh god, it tastes exactly like McDonald’s!” is the blurted-out chorus round the table. The caramel is supple and sweet with an addictive saltiness from the miso – who knew it could work in a dessert? The yoghurt foam is spritzed from what Chef Him calls a siphon, the resultant pressure producing a texture so light and clean that it could float off the table into waiting mouths.
Amusedly watching us dip chopsticks, fingers, and forks into the caramel and foam, Chef Him says suddenly, “The foam’s really good too with the flourless chocolate cake.” Quick look at me. “Want one?” I look at him. Him chuckles. That Flourless Chocolate Cake (P175) doesn’t have a chance, really. Its midnight richness flits and flirts with the miso-salted caramel, its saltiness perking up and pulling forth the flavor. The yoghurt foam cleanses the palate and makes me wish I had another stomach to eat everything again. This cake doesn’t even last five minutes on the table.
G/F FSS Bldg 2, Scout Tuason cor Scout Castor Streets, Quezon City
(02) 921 4913 / 0917 5228272