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 soufflé 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.