You could be forgiven, 10 or even five years ago, for raising an eyebrow at the thought of Philippine cuisine finding a discerning global audience. Beyond its home country it was neither hip nor readily available.
It wasn’t always this way, however. In 1972 a Filipino restaurant called Aux Iles Philippines opened in Paris, quickly winning coveted mentions in the Gault&Millau guide for dishes like crab pancit and gambas à la Pampanga, and attracting regular patronage from personalities such as Simone de Beauvoir and Brigitte Bardot. Another Filipino restaurant, Maharlika, then opened in 1974 on New York’s Fifth Avenue. It seemed the future could be bright for one of Asia’s most under-appreciated culinary stories.
Sadly, those flames were snuffed out by the early ’80s and for decades the country’s dishes were largely lost to global diners. However, the wheel has come full circle and today, just a few blocks from the former Maharlika, sits Pig and Khao. It’s where Filipino-American chef Leah Cohen’s street food has won her rave reviews from the likes of The New York Times and The Huffington Post. Bad Saint in Washington DC was ranked Bon Appétit’s number two restaurant in the US in 2016, while Lasa in LA was named one of the restaurants of the year by Food & Wine. And that’s just some of the US metros. Diners across Europe and beyond are also belatedly discovering the joys of the tamarind soup sinigang, the spicy taro-leaves-in-coconut-milk dish laing or the simple porcine perfection of lechon.
All of which makes a gastronomic trip to Manila timelier than ever, to see, hear and taste why the time for Filipino chefs and food is now.
Jordy Navarra at Toyo Eatery was named “One to Watch” in the prestigious but often-contentious Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Navarra’s impeccable résumé includes stints at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck and Alvin Leung’s Bo Innovation, both three-Michelin-star establishments. In 2016 he opened Toyo, named after the Tagalog for soy sauce. It’s a seemingly humble and simple ingredient, but one that’s actually complex, making it the perfect metaphor for the exceptional plates he delivers.
The interior is contemporary and industrial-cool, with beautiful dining furniture and soft lighting, but the feel is relaxed and the food is the star. Served on gorgeous tableware made by local potters, an 11-course tasting menu is a revelation.
Garden Vegetables is a standout, a brilliant creation inspired by “Bahay Kubo”, a folk song learned by every Filipino child. It looks like a seedling embedded in a mound of soil but is, in fact, a mix of all 18 vegetables mentioned in the song, but painstakingly disguised as earth. It’s delicious, showing the quality and finesse of local produce, as well as gently nostalgic – but it’s also proudly Pinoy (Filipino), as Navarra explains.
“As much as it serves its intent of teaching kids about their greens,” he says, “‘Bahay Kubo’ also came to serve as the revelation regarding our purpose as a restaurant. It became clear then that
reassessing, rediscovering and finding a deeper understanding of Filipino culture through food was what we aspired to.”
More seemingly humble dishes include pork barbecue skewers, sticky and deep in flavour, served with ridiculously moreish and beautifully executed garlic rice, another homage to the country. Some of my favourite dishes come at the end in the form of a dulce de leche caramel infused with fish sauce (seriously), and dainty desserts of burnt cassava cake and haleyang ube latik – purple yam with caramelised coconut curd.
The softly spoken Navarra explains the changes he’s seen: “The culinary scene has become a lot more diverse and developed. It’s great, because I find that we have more access to better ingredients and knowledge, while the people have been more open to different approaches to food. So, comparing where it is now to where it was before? It’s totally night and day.”
At Manila’s Gallery Vask, only the second-ever establishment in the Philippines to break into Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, Spanish chef-owner Chele Gonzalez agrees. He’s watched the rise of Navarra and isn’t surprised by his success: “Jordy is really cooking Filipino food and changing the way it’s understood. He definitely has a very clear style. He’s arguably the leader and the one who takes most risks, but he’s created a very sustainable environment in the restaurant, which allows him to be free and do whatever he feels. He’s both a purist in cooking Filipino food, but at the same time the most experimental as well.”
Next we head to Test Kitchen, where Anglo-Filipino chef Josh Boutwood serves beautifully composed plates. He studied in Spain, apprenticed at Raymond Blanc’s Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and then spent time at the legendary Noma, before returning to Manila as both head chef of Test Kitchen and corporate chef of The Bistro Group.
The compact, welcoming venue seats just 22, meaning that everyone has a front-row seat to the action as Boutwood’s team creates six- or eight-course menus. We start with lamb ham. It’s odd how lamb is so rarely seen cured, but Boutwood is a charcuterie master and allows fennel seed, juniper, rosemary and hints of chilli to work their magic. It’s served alongside local potatoes cooked confit-style and aged brie dotted with aged balsamic vinegar and olive oil. The balance of nuance and textures is perfect.
Another dish stops this diner in his tracks: a tartare made from ox heart served on a brioche made with Jamaican all-spice, pink peppercorns and black tea. The final flourish, as with any good tartare, is golden egg that dots the tasty meat.
When it comes to championing the incredible variety and quality of Filipino produce Boutwood is an evangelist – as seen with his take on roast chicken, where local heirloom carrots are in many ways the hero of the dish. That’s because they’re both lacto-fermented and puréed, reminding you of the oomph that a humble vegetable can deliver.
The seriously accomplished menu crescendos with a dish of spelt berries that have been simmered in a dashi made from kelp, making for an umami tsunami of mouthfeel. It comes dotted around thin slices of radish with micro greens and popcorn made from the spelt crowning it. It’s the sort of cooking that makes you wonder why Manila isn’t on every Asian gastronome’s radar. But also, more to the point, why Filipino produce, cuisine and chefs don’t have the profile overseas that they clearly merit.
We then head to Hey Handsome, helmed by another young Filipino chef, Nicco Santos. His vibrant, flavour-packed plates meld the best of Southeast Asia, following his immersion into the cuisines of Malaysia and Singapore. Through his experience working with chefs and home cooks, as well as at hawker stands, he learned the techniques and balance that have contributed to his unique menu in Manila.
Following a spell in New York, Santos returned to open the pan-Asian spot Your Local, inspired by the casual neighbourhood eateries of Brooklyn. Public and critical acclaim followed before he launched Hey Handsome in Fort Bonifacio – “The Fort” – in 2016. Its simple interior is bright, thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows and tile-covered walls, while an open kitchen lets diners see the chefs at work.
Standouts on the frequently changing menu include stir-fried Manila clams, and two takes on the classic Malay fragrant-rice dish, nasi lemak: barbecued seabass and fried chicken, both of which frequently sell out. All the disparate elements that make the dish such a delight are executed perfectly, from the dried anchovies – ikan bilis – to a brilliant sambal that you’d happily buy by the jar. Also unmissable are the beef ribs, which are grilled, cut up and given a world of flavour thanks to fragrant herbs, chilli, tamarind and the waft of barbecue smoke.
While the cuisine at Hey Handsome may not be strictly Filipino, the application and execution of a chef to master another culinary discipline speaks volumes about a commitment to authenticity and a burning desire to learn. All traits shared by Navarra, Boutwood and Santos, just three of the countless Filipino young guns changing perceptions of their country’s cuisine, one bite at a time.