Titles are required to be short and pithy but what I’d really like to name this post is: Manila’s Best Caesar Salad In The Best Little Restaurant You Need To Know About.
As a writer, I quibble about long and short titles, but if there’s one thing I don’t waver on, it’s the value of a long memory. After all, some of my best meals are relived through pure nostalgia enabled by my long and detailed “meal memory.”
There’s a little restaurant that figures heavily in my meal memory since it’s one of the places that my Bin took me to way back when he was wooing me. It’s a restaurant furnished in old wood illuminated only by the soft glow of candles and small lamps. Of course in those heady days of romance and raging hormones, every place is memorable but La Copa proved even more so.
La Copa opened in 1984 and the story told to me is that it was owned by airline pilots who took advantage of their travels (and liberal baggage allowances, I assume!) to bring home steaks. Knowing that, it made sense for the restaurant to open near the airport within the Nayong Pilipino theme park, the site of my first visit in 1995. After several years there, it moved to a location somewhat dubiously described as “near the Domestic Airport.” La Copa is still currently situated near the airport, but it’s moved again to one of the commercial strips that line Ninoy Aquino Avenue. In the multitude of places that my Bin and I have frequented in our 12 years of marriage, La Copa never strayed far from our minds but somehow, we never got around to going back. But today is my Bin’s birthday and where better to celebrate than there?
The darkness engulfs us as we come in from the glaring sunlight outside. Our eyes swiftly adjust to the dim interior and my nose picks up on that long-forgotten but quickly familiar smell of old wood. I realize it’s a scent similar to the air that pervades wood shops in Baguio and Mario’s restaurants. Ah, it’s the smell of the wooden bowls used in their famed Caesar salad, I recall now. Tables are properly set with cloth napkins and candles and the sincerity of what I call the holy trinity of bottled seasonings: Knorr, A-1 Steak Sauce, Lea & Perrins. We wish you a good meal, they seem to be saying. Service is solicitous.
La Copa is known for a number of dishes, first and foremost of which is their Caesar Salad (P175). Simply put, there’s no other salad in Manila even close to it. Made just a few tables away, my Bin and I watch the waiter thrash whole garlic cloves into a paste with anchovies. The stage is a gigantic square wooden bowl gleaming even in the subdued light, its hairline cracks and marred surface evidence of the spectacular salads that emerge from its oily depths. I read that when making Caesar salad, a capacious bowl is required so that there’s plenty of room to thoroughly mix the salad in the dressing; and the advantage of using a wooden bowl specifically, is that the bowl over time, becomes infused with the garlic.
The waiter adds a few drops of Lea & Perrins to the anchovy-garlic paste followed by a scoop of a viscous ivory substance tinged with yellow. This is the dressing itself, an emulsification of egg yolks and virgin olive (or vegetable) oil seasoned with salt and lemon juice. The waiter gamely agrees to my Bin’s request for another scoop of dressing. When the mixture is properly velvety, the leaves of lettuce go in, some of them still beaded with drops of dew. The restaurant must go through an inordinate amount of the greens — while we’re there, a lettuce delivery is made, the heads of green bobbing, glinting through their plastic sacks.
Served in a square wooden receptacle, La Copa’s Caesar salad is a bowl of bounty: large leaves of iceberg lettuce coated in an – and there’s no better word for this – unctuous dressing yellowed by yolks. Toasted crouton squares gambol in this landscape of lightest green showered by a smattering of Parmesan cheese, the paleness riddled only by the red of minced bacon. A fork seems like a mighty miniscule utensil right now but cutting up the leaves makes everything more manageable. Still, the sizable leaf that’s escaped the knife’s sharpness laps at my cheek en route to my mouth, its kiss leaving a sloppy, saucy mark; they’re almost slippery in their creaminess. Crunchcrunch go the leaves against my teeth, the action igniting whips of garlic on my tongue, the anchovies sally forth, their saltiness so stimulating that the insides of my cheeks pucker. I look over and see that my Bin is practically levitating in excitement: cheeks flushed, eyes shining, all due to a remembered meal made real once again. Hail Caesar!
- La Copa serves just-warmed, old-style pandesal that goes perfectly with slabs of margarine. Don’t complain — butter would be out of place here.
Every meal’s debut at La Copa is made outstanding with the Caesar Salad but there are heaps of other good things to eat. Browsing through the menu, I’ve forgotten just how expansive the menu is. I highly recommend the Steak a la Pobre (P325), a sufficiently peppery dish that pays homage to La Copa’s reason for being as well as any of the other steaks, as long as you don’t ask [for it] to be cooked well-done; you’ll get a much-deserved hardwood plank otherwise. The paellas (P445) are popular too as are the other Spanish dishes but tame your expectations – this isn’t Alba’s after all. Other good things to consider are the Baked Oysters in White Wine (P225), Gambas (P255), Chicken Cordon Bleau (P280; spelling theirs), and the Salmon or Blue marlin a la Parilla, a fish fillet doused in lemon-butter sauce.
My Bin and I are torn among all the things we want to order (so many memories!) but finally decide on the Salpicao (P225) and Chicken a la Kiev (P280). There’s also garlic rice, charmingly formed little mounds of moist rice mottled with toasted garlic. The salpicao is an appetizer portion, the meat tender and juicy with a sauce rich in Worcestershire sauce and butter. My Bin expresses preference for the salpicao at Whistlestop but his plate is wiped clean nevertheless. My chicken a la kiev is a joyous little thing, a deboned chicken leg dredged and deep-fried, and squirting a pool of butter in protest upon being pierced. The accompanying lumpy mashed potatoes are charmingly rustic. This chicken a la kiev reminds me of the same dish at the much-lamented Full House along Katipunan Avenue, where plates of it were eaten by me and other hungry students clutching bottles of a nameless liquid seasoning.
My Bin and I are full, both in stomach and memory, but one last reminiscence requests to be relived: Icy Hot Banana (P95). Really just banana fritters under an ice cream cover, it’s supposed to be crowned with nuts but today there is none, so chocolate syrup will have to do. This dessert is a straight sell: hot and cold, sweet and crunchy – what’s not to like?
Blessed am I to have memories as delicious as these.
La Copa Wine Bar and Restaurant
707-7 Columbia Airfreight Complex, Ninoy Aquino Ave., Brgy. Sto Niño
831.1247 / 853.2927
Open Mondays – Sundays, 10am-2pm / 5pm-12mn