Individual dishes are more memorable to me than any one restaurant experience. Here, some of my favorites.
My restaurant experiences have been lackluster lately. It may be the torrid heat of course that seems to sour everything, especially my mood. And when I’m grumpy, I’m even more critical than some people already accuse me of being. The heat, however, has no effect on my appetite ”“ which is indestructible – by the way. So.
In no particular order, here are foods that have made an impression on me. Yes, they’re not all new, you might even have been enjoying them for years now, but isn’t it nice that I’m reminding you of them again?
Sebastian’s Dive Bar
I’m officially making this my dessert for summer 2010. The Dive Bar is a supersized ode to Magnolia’s Pinipig Crunch of yore. I don’t quite remember if I was introduced to this at last year’s taste-testing or elsewhere, but it’s stupendous. From the guys at Sebastian’s Ice Cream Studio spearheaded by the irrepressible genius of Ian Carandang (where the hell do you get these ideas, dude!) is ice cream on a stick that one can “design” according to whim. From various sauces and roll-ins, I choose a peanut butter dip to embrace my chosen vanilla ice cream. After a one minute chill, the beast tumbles onto chopped up Reeses’s peanut butter cups. The requisite “down time” in the chiller has hardened the peanut butter coating enough so there’s a soft crrack! as I bite down. Ice cream gushes onto my tongue and the salty peanut butter chunks follow suit. Sweet, salty, peanut buttery … I’m making so many mmm’s and loud exclamations of pleasure that my friend begs me to pipe down.
Sebastian’s Dive Bar
Exclusively at Sebastian’s Trinoma and Sebastian’s Cold Comfort at Mall of Asia.
Erika’s Favorite aka spinach tofu with shimeji mushrooms
I call this Erika’s Favorite in honor of my good friend who introduces me to this dish; she likes it so much that she has it at least twice a month. A ridiculously popular dish at the Mandarin Hotel’s Tin Hau, it’s a large block of firm tofu (that I’m told is made in-house). Unfamiliar as I am with the intricacies of Chinese cuisine, all I can say is that the tofu is wrapped in what I think is nori (Japanese seaweed) cosseted in an abundance of ingredients, chief among them are asparagus, two kinds of mushrooms ”“ shimeji is one of them ”“ abalone (maybe!), and a crispy topping of unknown origin. I wince at my dubious description of a clearly exceptional dish so forgive me. So taken am I by the confluence of soft on soft and chewy mushroom bound together by the umami overtones of this dish that I don’t even think of asking the server exactly what’s in it.
Tin Hau’s Sesame Desserts
I’m not fond of almond jelly, mango sago or buchi, de rigueur desserts at Chinese restaurants. Thankfully, Tin Hau has a selection of sesame seed sweets that suit my dessert-loving heart splendidly. There’s the deep-fried banana fritter (above) with black sesame ice cream, really a ramped-up turon made sophisticated by pairing it with a scoop of black sesame ice cream and that fanciful tuile.
But my favorite is the rather long-winded “chilled coconut cream sago with red bean and sweetened coconut crust topped with black sesame ice cream.” (both P150) Decidedly dressed up in a stem glass, it reminds me of a guinumis dessert in flavor. The coconut cream, tapioca balls, and red beans ”“ disparate elements that they are ”“ work harmoniously in this multi-dimensional, beguiling cooler. Subtle they are in tandem, but when taken with a spoonful of the black sesame ice cream it’s pushed over the top for an explosive last-minute burst of flavor. It’s an unforgivably sweet, flaunt-it-if-you’ve-got-it dessert. I order an extra scoop of the black sesame ice cream to plop on the top. Only the macho eat like this.
2/f Mandarin Oriental Hotel
Makati Avenue, Makati.
Casa Armas’ Garlic Crab
I don’t understand people who repeatedly mutter, “Oh, this is so sinful!” as they plow their way through heaps of food. They’re just as confusing to me as people who classify dessert as “evil!” but go ahead and have two servings anyway. My belief is that if you’re going to eat it, shut up already and enjoy it. I admit however, that when I eat the garlic crab at Casa Armas, which is as hefty as it is pricey, I feel like a sinner, and an evil one at that. For one thing, I can polish off the entire crustacean without any help, thanks very much. I also end up dipping the bread basket’s entire contents into the garlicky butter and consuming it like I’m blissfully mindless of my cholesterol levels.
Growing up, my dad hated it whenever I’d use “I can’t help it” as an excuse; he said it was pathetic. But when it comes to Casa Armas’ Garlic Crab, I truly can’t help my leave-no-crab-behind attitude. The garlic intoxicates as the butter lubricates my palate (and my arteries, as well) coupled with the lusciousness of the crab steamed just til its meat turns opaque. Groan. I’m an evil sinner committing an evil sin. I pray for another chance to sin again.
Casa Armas Tapas Bar y Restaurante, Malate
573 J. Nakpil St. cor. J. Bocobo St.
Manila, Metro Manila