Friday, April 11, 2014

A Long, Leisurely Luxe Lunch at Antonio's Tagaytay

If a budding chef wants to know how to get diners to drive to a rather out of the way destination just to eat his food -- he should take lessons from Chef Tonyboy Escalante who with his namesake restaurant Antonio's, has been one of the pioneers in what I like to call "destination dining".  
In the early 2000s, before food became such a serious trend, Chef Tonyboy opened up his own fine dining restaurant hidden in (at that time) far away Tagaytay.  
Nowadays, "foodies" (shudder) think nothing of driving for 2 or 3 hours just to eat in a trendy or popular place but at the time that Antonio's opened -- it was quite a novelty and also a risk.

For one thing -- it wasn't even along the main road of Tagaytay, you had to drive  through a narrow country road just to get to it.  For another thing, and this to my mind was the biggest risk -- you couldn't just drop in and dine.  
Antonio's was one of the first exclusive places where you had to call for a reservation.  
This caused quite a stir in the business -- there were talks of well known people being turned away from the gate because their names were not listed in the reservation book -- stories of fights and tantrums.  It all made for such good press and heightened the curiosity even more.

I first dined at Antonio's right in the middle of the buzz about it.  I had to wait for a couple of months before I could get a reservation.  Was it worth it?  It was certainly a lovely little place -- it looked elegant and refined and seemed very much like the chef's own home.  
But ambience aside, the food that Antonio's served me was quite stellar.  
It was far from "fancy" even if the prices could be called that.  
The food was surprisingly hearty and not at all pretentious.  Dishes were of very high quality and certainly without any airs.

After that first experience at Antonio's, I came back a few more times -- with friends, with family, with visiting balikbayans who I wanted to offer a different dining experience from the usual "kamayan" at the mall.  
I stopped going many years ago although I did note that the restaurant still rated very highly and consistently among various reviews.  The Miele Guide for Asia ranks it as the country's best restaurant.

A few days ago, my friends and I decided to have a mid week lunch at Antonio's.  
I didn't realise how much the place has grown -- from a simple country home setting, it has now evolved as a major wedding and event venue.  
This beautiful outdoor garden that they call the "Lounge" has a bar that serves cocktails  -- there are small tables scattered about and a really charming love seat with a candelabra hanging right over it.  
I can just imagine how enchanting this must look at dusk.

There are white wooden lawn furniture made comfortable with green cushions -- perfect for lounging around and having a glass or two of wine (or in my case, a bottle of ice cold beer)

Near the "Lounge" is another pavilion for events and weddings.  A bit smaller than the main dining area, it nestles amidst trees and shrubbery -- perfect for a small and intimate wedding party.

Inside the pavilion, the floor is laid with classic black and white patterned tiles and wide open doors lead to a veranda where more guests can be accommodated.

I loved this huge "wood art" piece -- I can imagine the gorgeous photos you can take, posed within its frames -- an elegant and unique "photo booth"  if there ever was one.

There are cocktail tables in the veranda -- an ideal way to while away the minutes before dinner.

The veranda is festooned with all kinds of climbing vines and delightful flowers -- their subtle fragrance wafts through the air.

We were interrupted in our exploration of the new delights of Antonio's by our waitstaff telling us our table was ready.  On the way up, we passed by this delightful al fresco spot -- where you can sit and dine while a giant blooming bougainvillea bush looms over you.  
But it's summer and too hot so we escape to cooler interiors.

Service at Antonio's is efficient but unobtrusive and moves along with the pace that you set.  
We were four ladies who were there for a lot of conversation and laughter and we were definitely not going to rush through our meal.  
Specially since we took so much time enjoying the warm fresh baked rolls given out as soon as we sat down at our table.

Aside from the main entree (which comes with salad, soup and dessert) we ordered appetisers to start up our lunch.  This golden crusty raclette with pickled onions and cornichons was just classic -- a delicious way to prepare our taste buds for what was yet to come.

Not content with one appetiser, we had to order the portobello mushrooms in balsamic vinegar.  The balance of tart and sweet was perfect.

I have always enjoyed the house salad, a tower of mixed greens -- I suppose sourced from the restaurant's own farms -- with caramelised walnuts, crumbly goat cheese and an appetising raspberry vinaigrette.

The soup for the day was a simple tomato and basil broth with a seafood puree but for vegetarians, the kitchen served it sans seafood.

Chef Tonyboy came out to chat with us mid meal and sent out his famous ginger sorbet -- so divinely delicious.  Could I have a bigger scoop?  Preferably on top of a sugar cone?

While there are no vegetarian entrees on the menu, all you have to do is ask.  Our server Anthony gave me the choice of a mushroom or tomato risotto.  I opted for the mushroom dish which was quite filling -- perhaps I shouldn't have had that extra roll?

My betsubara (second stomach, as the Japanese call it) was crying out for dessert -- never mind that I wasn't able to finish my risotto.  But dessert comes with the meal so I chose a chocolate terrine that came in a puddle of cream sauce with toasted pistachios for garnish.

We each had a different dessert so we could taste from each other's choice.  While the chocolate terrine was good I still found the soufflĂ© more to my liking.

We were not at all surprised when we ended the meal at 3 p.m.
 It was a lovely long lunch among good friends -- made even more special by the remarkably distinctive experience that only Antonio's in Tagaytay can deliver.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Long Ago and Far Away -- Revisiting Malabon

On my way to Malabon last week, somewhere between Monumento and Sangandaan, I found myself discomfited and dismayed.
By the time I was passing through what I knew to be Letre, where hectares and hectares of fish ponds once existed -- I was utterly depressed.  
What happened the the Malabon that I knew -- where I was born, grew up and lived in for over 20 years?  
It had transformed itself into the poster child for urban blight.  
It made me unbearably sad as Malabon used to be such a clean and picturesquely pretty town.  With its old Spanish era houses, sprawling fish ponds lined with mangroves and rather elegant and genteel ways -- it seemed to belong to another time.
Even during Spanish times,  Malabon was quite a prominent place -- it merited a mention in Rizal's Noli Me Tangere -- it was the birthplace of Capitan Tiago, the "father" of Maria Clara.

I was in Malabon to visit friends from high school.  I had invited myself for dinner since we had not seen each other for so many years.  My friend's house is almost at the end of Hulong Duhat, one of Malabon's many barangays.  After we passed through the gate and walked behind his house -- this is the scene that greeted me.  
This was the Malabon that I knew --  preserved, guarded and kept hidden like a precious jewel.

My friend had built a small terrace right at the side of his fishpond -- tables and chairs were set up so that guests could relax, eat, talk -- and yes even try to catch a bangus or two.

I arrived just before sunset -- a perfect time to enjoy the mild breeze on this hot summer day.  I took the opportunity to walk around the entire pond -- balancing carefully on the pilapil to make sure I wouldn't fall in.  I'm sure the bangus would not have liked that.

This is a nipa tree or sasa which grows along the sides of the fishpond.  See the fruit?  The sap from that is made into vinegar, specifically sukang Paombong.

There are various types of trees all around the perimeter -- they form mangrove pockets that are very useful in reducing erosion.

After that walk -- it was time for old style typical Malabon hospitality.  
This is my friend Chiki in the foreground and his mother who along with another high school classmate of mine had a feast ready for us!  
Freshly caught bangus, grilled to perfection, my favourite pancit Malabon and sapin sapin from Dolor's -- plus a side of great conversation and a lot of nostalgia.  I couldn't have asked for more.

Except for one thing -- bottles of our favourite beer.
Cheers to Chiki and Boyet -- friends I have known and loved for more than forty years.
Cheers to Malabon -- I was so happy to find her, unchanged and untouched in this hidden corner of the past.

I took this lovely memory with me on my way back home -- shutting my eyes tight against what Malabon is today.  In my mind and in my heart, this is what it will look like always.
Thank you Chiki for keeping this lovely place alive.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Vegetarian at the Burger Bar

Can a vegetarian find love in a burger joint?

I found out that I could when I finally got to eat at the much talked about Burger Bar in Greenbelt 2.
I was initially resigned to have fries and a beer but surprise, surprise -- there was a falafel burger on the menu.
The falafel, formed into a square patty instead of the traditional balls, was moist and well seasoned -- I love the nutty taste of ground chickpeas!   A generous slather of a yoghurt based spread and chopped fresh tomatoes added to the familiar falafel taste.
I only wish they had harissa sauce to complete the deal.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Vegetarian in 30 minutes -- Farfalle with broccoli and sun dried tomatoes

After a year of swinging between being a pescetarian and a lacto-ovo vegetarian, I am trying to go back to the latter once again.  It's actually easy since I can whip up a quick vegetarian meal in just 30 minutes (do I sound like I'm auditioning to take over Rachel Ray?).

This Sunday dinner, I had a craving for pasta -- thankfully there was broccoli in the fridge and a box on farfalle in the pantry.  Next to penne, farfalle or bow tie pasta is my favourite kind.

For this dish, I checked what else was available in the vegetable bin and came up with pine nuts, sun dried tomatoes and left over grated parmigiano reggiano.  I chopped up lots of garlic and found a small tub of an award winning herb salt that a friend had brought back from her travels.

Here's how to make this very simple pasta dish.
Cook the broccoli with the farfalle, a few minutes before you remove the pasta from the stove.

Drain the pasta and the broccoli well and reserve a cup of the pasta liquid for later.

To keep the broccoli fresh and crisp and green, plunge pasta and broccoli together in a bowl with water and plenty of ice.

As you're cooling the pasta down, sauté garlic in olive oil and butter then add the pine nuts.

When garlic is slightly browned, add the sun dried tomatoes.  Then sprinkle with the herb salt.

After draining the pasta and broccoli from its ice cold bath,  mix in the pan and stir till pasta and vegetables are evenly coated.  Add a bit of the reserved pasta liquid to keep the farfalle from sticking. Use half of the grated cheese and keep the rest for table use.

It's a delicious, light and easy vegetarian meal.  All in just under 30 minutes!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Inutak and Vanilla Ice Cream -- perfect summer merienda!

You'd think that they would have given such a  delectable dessert a better name.  
Inutak (in english, utak means brains hence the addition of the prefix in- translated literally means brained)  has its origins from Pateros and Taguig.  It is a native kakanin made of finely textured ground malagkit (sticky glutinous rice) liberally cooked with generous amounts of gata or fresh coconut cream.

My Pateros friend Adel  introduced me to this ambrosial dessert many years ago, when I visited her at home.  She told me it is called inutak because that's what it looks like.  Since it is baked until a golden brown crust forms on top, it does somehow look like brains ... this is what your brain would look like after you ate a lot of inutak!
 It used to be harder to source this delicacy  (I'd always have to drop broad hints to get Adel to bring me some)  but now, thanks to a few entrepreneurial ladies, it has come into the mainstream and can be found in most malls and markets.  

People say that it is best eaten hot but Adel taught me that eating inutak with vanilla ice cream is the classic and traditional way -- and that is how I have enjoyed it ever since.

 I found a vendor from Pateros at my AANI week-end market who had inutak over the week-end.
Vanilla ice cream with soft, melt in your mouth inutak creaminess, so decadently good!
Just the perfect thing to have on a  warm Sunday afternoon.
Thank you Adel for introducing me to this (along with abnoy and penoy) ... this post is for you!

AANI -- the grand daddy of the week-end markets

Before Salcedo Market, before Legaspi,  the Lung Center and the Centris markets, there was AANI -- or the Agri Aqua Network Inc Week-end Market.  This market has seen quite a number of venue changes from Magallanes in the 1990s to FTI (Food Terminal Inc) to the TESDA compound and back to FTI again.  I've been going to this market for many many years,  and now, it's a lot closer to home.

The market opens bright and early on Saturdays and Sundays.  By 7:00 a.m. the parking lot is full.  Since the market is open till 1:00 p.m,  regulars like us know that the best and freshest buys are to be had early in the morning.  And yes, around closing time on Sunday, when vendors are packing up and looking to get rid of the last pieces at very good prices.

There's something for everyone at AANI -- from cute bunnies and poor ghastly multi colored, dyed chicks ...

To puppy dogs in cages...

There is quite an expansive  dry goods section at the front of the market.  

Where everything is sold from clothing to bags to shoes to DVDs...

And yes, quite a number of used household items.  There are a number of stalls selling Japan surplus goods too.

I enjoy checking out the wide variety of plants.   There are both fruit bearing trees, gumamelas, bouganvilleas, roses, sampaguitas, jasmine and rosal ... you name it, you can find it here.
There are also herbs and even cut flowers.

Many of the vendors at AANI come from places like Batangas, Laguna, Pampanga, and even Baguio to sell their fresh produce.

You can find many kinds of fruits in season at AANI.  This is where I get my annual pajo fix from a suki who comes all the way from Batangas.

Sea food is fresh and varieties are extensive.  While the Seafood Market in Baclaran has better quality, AANI will do, in a pinch.

 There are even live fish for sale.

Not to mention whatever cut of pork, beef or chicken you may want.

If you have a hankering for longganisang Lucban or Vigan, or from Alaminos, Pangasinan for that matter, this lady sells different kinds of longganisa from all over.

My particular favourites are the kakanin and kalamay vendors.  I can never go without buying suman, puto, biko, kutsinta ... you name it, they have it here in AANI.

Another suki, who hails from Bulacan, always sets aside kesong puti and putong pulo for me every week.

Here's another of my favourite vendors -- Tita Norma or Tita Norms as the sign says, hails from Sorsogon and sells authentic Bicolano home cooking.

I love her laing which has the right spicy kick plus her pinangat and all her other gata infused dishes.

 Tita Norms always makes sure to add a little bit more when I buy -- that is what a good suki is for!

 One of the best bibingka I have tried can be found at the AANI Market.  Glenn's Bibingka is light, fluffy,  moist and  good value for money.  The puto bungbong is another best seller and so is their batchoy.  Here's a tip, if you're planning to take some bibingka home  -- when you get to the market, go straight to Glenn's to place your order and pick it up when you're done shopping.
The queues can get to be quite long particularly on Saturday mornings.

Aside from Tita Norms, there are quite a number of other vendors who sell cooked food -- to take home or eat right there.   

 Fancy some lechon?  You can get it chopped and ready to eat or packed in a plastic  container to go.

There are outdoor grilling stations where the ubiquitous BBQ, chicken inasal, inihaw na panga ng tuna, inihaw na bangus, etc. are cooked -- everything is fresh, hot and delicious.

Since moving to its more permanent and bigger space last year, AANI has added a tented area where tables and chairs have been set up.  Buy your cooked food or order from the ihawan and they'll bring it to your table.  It's always a lively, loud, friendly scene with families and friends coming together for     lechon kawali, pork barbecue, sisig and other frighteningly high-cholesterol food so early in the morning.

There are quite a number of cyclists who reward themselves after a week-end ride with 
a pig out at AANI.

In between bingeing, how about some fresh buko juice to somehow cleanse the system?

The  crowds are heaviest at mid morning -- literally and figuratively.  Not a vacant chair or table to be had -- everyone's chowing down and enjoying the AANI week-end experience.  
See you next Saturday!