The frenzy following the release of my book has eased somewhat. Like fluffs of flour finding a surface to fall on or a sprinkling of sugar dust settling, I too, am regaining my tempo. I am contemplating, considering, and of course, consuming. Because with me, it’s always about food. Always.
Here’s what I’ve been eating so far.
Zao Vietnamese Bistro
In Manila, Vietnamese places come and go. I’ve eaten in them all but I prefer Zao. Since I last wrote about this place in 2007, I’ve acquired many more favorites here. Many people I’ve spoken to agree that Zao has a masterful way with barbeque: charred and lick-sticky with a linger of lemongrass. An outstanding representative of their grilled repertoire is the Grilled Chicken (below). I’m unsure what it’s called on the menu but I always just call it as such.
I assume the cooks must use only the [chicken] thigh because the meat is light-colored and finely textured. Immersed in an aromatic marinade, it’s singed on the heat just ‘til it’s opaque and moist. There’s also an obscene amount of white fat clinging to the underside of the skin. I beg you to not diss and discard this. Instead, douse your doubts, dip (into nuoc cham sauce) and devour.
My Zao Bowls today are on the burned side. I hope that when you order yours, they will be fairer in complexion.
Because I adore variety and also because I’m unabashedly greedy, my ultimate, order-it-in-a-heartbeat dish of choice is the Zao Bowl (P275). An almost cloudlike swell of rice noodles is the seat on which sits a cluster of leafy greens and basil, pickled vegetables, and bean sprouts. Alongside and standing ram-rod straight are spears of cucumbers, cool and communing with their deep-fried counterparts: spring rolls (meat and seafood) and a medley of barbequed meats. A scatter of roasted peanuts provides a soundtrack of crunch. By god, how I love this dish and never share it!
A word: there are two kinds of sauces offered at Zao but they won’t bring them out unless you ask. There’s the so-called plain sauce that to me, tastes like a sweet and fluid sauce with just a tang of acid. Then there’s the aforementioned nuoc cham which is the more involved of the two because it has more ingredients such as fish sauce, lime, sugar, water, chili, etc.; the servers are tight-lipped about it and so I can only surmise. I like both sauces and they serve their purposes depending on what I’m ordering. And don’t forget to order a bowl of fresh, chopped chilies on the side!
Zao Vietnamese Bistro
Once in a long while, a dish comes to table that decimates all conversation and full-on ogling commences. At Brasserie Ciçou, the Duck Three-Ways is just that dish. The menu indicates the possibility – no, the very likelihood – that that will be just the reaction. First, it costs P3,388 with the “Good for 3-4” addendum. Fair enough but my oh my, how it proffers such staggering sumptuousness!
Served on a black granite plate, I almost fail to see at first the fowl behind the field of greens.The duck leg confit sticks straight up, its bone seemingly propped up by a (hay)stack of curly shoestring potatoes. Across the “field” is a fan of pan-fried duck breast and just ‘round the bend are a duo of duck pies. I’ve met French people who tell me that duck confit is meant to be eye-squintingly salty, and while this particular one isn’t, its texture is on-point. Painfully crispy skin protects a cache of moist meat – a pierce of my knife sends wisps of steam skyward.
When we order this dish, the waiter asks us how we want our duck. (This gesture [requesting the doneness of duck] is unusual in Manila and demonstrates good training). We request it “medium to medium well” since duck (breast) should be eaten whilst retaining a flush of pink in the center. The duck breast is cooked perfectly, its characteristically feral flavor blooming in the mouth, its imminent cloy cut by the caramelized orange peels it’s littered with; it points up the acid in the orange sauce that comes alongside.
The duck pies are succulence incarnate. Stabbed or sliced, a stream of duck fat/oil oozes out like an unbidden temptation. A vulgar vision but it lubricates my deepest food desires, and fulfilled they are with but a forkful of minced duck encased in flaky pastry. I almost forget my name but remember to gaze at the cleverly-formed lattice crust before sinking into oblivion again.
After duck, dessert: Brasserie Ciçou’s Kouign-Aman. The photo should suffice but here’s my description of it.
57 Annapolis St Greenhills, San Juan
02 661 9200
Terraz Meetings & Bistro
“Let’s meet at Terraz,” Kaie, my good friend (and editor of my book) tells me. “You could use the quiet.”
Terraz is one of those corporate dining spaces ensconced in the environs of a plushy high-rise, and the delusion of being one of the select few who know of its existence thrills me to no end. The luxe skyscraper in question here is none other than the revered and only LEED-certified building in Manila, the Zuellig Building. Once ushered into its highly-secured depths, I feel that I must take a deep breath. It feels expansive – and expensive – here; I want to live in this building.
Run by the Raintree Group of Chelsea and Stella fame, its bistro-like set-up is simultaneously casual and elegant, and the service is similarly efficient and snail-paced.
The menu runs with the theme of “Z”, as evidenced in the last letter of its name; thus: Western Flavorz, Asian Inspirationz, and DesZert – not sure how I feel about that one. Syntax aside, I sure could use a cocktail from the rather detailed libations menu but I keep it real with a “ladies’ lunch.” Kaie doesn’t eat much so I’ve got to not look like the pig that I am.
It’s the inclusion of a sunny side-up egg that gets us so we split a Spinach & Double Smoked Bacon Salad (P295). To my dismay, the egg has been fried to a fare-thee-well but some semblance of runny yolk is its salvation. The bacon is in an equally sad state but I quite like the addition of the Pecorino cheese and sunflower seeds. The Ranch dressing is overdone with mayonnaise but ah, such is life. Today, I’m just happy to be away from it all.
A happier proposition is the A Big Bowl of Noodle Soup, and yes that’s its name (P475). Rather paltry compared to the cavernous ramen bowls found in this city, this one’s tasty (the broth, not the bowl). Robustly porky with excess oil strained off, I find in this merry medley of inclusions chicken, shiitake and shimeji mushrooms, fried tofu, bok choy, and sprigs of cilantro. Twin notables in this potable are first, the tea egg. It’s copper-colored and I’m mesmerized by its marbling. Secondly, the dumplings are some of the best I’ve had in Manila just because they’re snugly formed with a most pleasing pork flavor punctuated by ginger.
When communicating, I believe in being direct but when it comes to dessert, I admit that I’m attracted to fanciful names. The Impossible Cake (P195) takes the cake for being perhaps the most fanciful and indirect name, ever; called such because it’s a mashup (the foodie ‘in vogue’ term of choice) of get this – leche flan and chocolate cake.
Eaten separately, each layer might suffice. The leche flan is dense and properly “eggy,” certainly something I look for in this type of ‘spoonable’ sweet; and I can imagine immersing myself in the fudgy embrace of this chocolate cake. But when topped and eaten in tandem, the tastes tussle and tumble. I’ll be direct with you: the Impossible Cake really is impossible. So I get the chocolate cake and Kaie, the leche flan.
It’s best to stick with the Jackfruit Sans Rival (P195). A chewy as opposed to crispy meringue, layers of it are licked with a langka buttercream of sorts, rich and tinged with the fruit’s distinctive flavor amidst the crush of cashews.
Terraz Meetings & Bistro
3/F Zuellig Building
Makati Avenue corner Paseo de Roxas, Makati
02 625 4831 / 625 4832
Open Monday – Friday, 11am-11pm