There's just something about food cooked with traditional methods that takes them a step beyond what we usually can do in a home kitchen. Did I have the space at home, I'd like to have a tandoor oven built into one corner of my kitchen (and if I had the budget, one big enough to accommodate a whole sheep!) At Chi's Brick Oven Kitchen, they have the local counterpart, a wood-fired brick oven or pugon. And boy, do they know how to use it!
Chi's is a cozy little restaurant along Aguirre, near the corner of De La Rama, which is literally built around its brick oven. Practically the only items on the menu not made in the oven are the drinks. The oven is the very first thing you see when yo enter Chi's, as it's right opposite the door. The next thing you'll notice is the homey European style of the place -- heavy, rustic wooden furniture and tables, framed prints on the walls, wine bottles and china on little shelves, giving you a feel of an old Southern French farmhouse but with some Filipino touches. Their menu is similarly eclectic, blending Mediterranean and Pinoy; according to manager and partner Joey Torres, the concept was to build everything around the experience of brick oven cooking.
Cat and I first came here during our anniversary a year and a half ago. We absolutely loved the pizza and the baked clams, but at the time they were having a problem with the air conditioning and we didn't enjoy the experience as much as we could have. This time around, they seem to have the ventilation problem tamed, and the restaurant is much cooler now. If you're a polar bear like me, though, the best place to sit is in the room that doubles as their smoking area, as it's totally insulated from the common room and the oven behind. Having an idea already what to expect in terms of flavor, Cat and I were looking forward to visiting the restaurant again. This time, we tried out the Puchon, one of Chi's most popular entrees, the Roasted Veggie Pizza, the mouth-watering Brick Oven Chocolate Cake a la Mode, and the Chocoholic's Pizza.
The Puchon, short for 'lechon sa pugon', was a hefty slab of pork liempo baked to crisp golden perfection and served with rice in a clay dish and a sharp-salty vinaigrette sauce. I, of course, was very happy that the garnishing thoughtfully included several chilies, as I like my vinegar dip hot. What can I say? The skin was crunchy, the tender flesh cooked through and flavored with a delicate touch of wood smoke. I wanted to take pic of Cat enjoying the Puchon, taking great big bites, but was stopped with a loaded glare. (Would've made a great Facebook post, dang) This order is good for two, even three people. As I normally count as two persons when dining, it was just right for us.
Roasted Veggie Pizza
The Roasted Veggie Pizza not only made for a nice shot, it was very good eating as well. Fresh tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers and onion, roasted in foil in the oven then layered on their own freshly-rolled pizza crust with mozzarella cheese and baked. Salad on a pizza! Healthiness plus flavor, that's a winning combo for me. (One sure sign that this pizza was really good was that the leftovers still tasted just as good two days after!)
We finished our meal with two of Chi's signature desserts. The Chocoholic's Pizza is exactly that--layers of white chocolate shavings and dark chocolate chips on a freshly baked pizza crust, crunchy, smoky, and as chocolatey as anyone could wish. If there was anything I would've added to this to make it perfect, it would be a layer of slivered almonds.
Brick Oven Chocolate Cake
The Brick Oven Chocolate Cake is a heavenly confection of rich, dark, gooey chocolate batter topped with cherry preserve straight from the oven and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. As we shot everything first before digging in, by the time we got to sample this cake, the ice cream had totally melted into the cake. Did it make any difference? Not at all, I said. But if you really want to have empirical evidence, we can order another... and at this point Cat whacked me. Too bad. I really wanted another...
(l to r) Tea Latte (Caramel Nut flavor), Hokkaido Milk tea with black bricks, Cranberry, Green Symphony, Glass Jelly Milk Tea with sinker
Tea. Way before the Brits became addicted to their cuppas, tea was a deeply-rooted Asian tradition, its relaxing fragrance and mind-clearing properties making it a favorite of wise teachers and holy men alike. Even in this modern age, tea's gift of serenity is something we could all use; thus Serenitea.
Serenitea in BF Homes, along Aguirre, is a modern tea shop inspired by tea-consuming trends in Taiwan. Younger Taiwanese have made their influence felt in a profusion of flavors and combinations that the Herrera sisters thought would take off in Manila, especially as a healthier alternative to the coffee, milkshakes and smoothies offered in cafes. We got to sample several of Serenitea's drinks when we met Serenitea BF owner Jennifer Herrera.
One secret of their success, says Jennifer, is their tea espresso machine. A modified espresso machine, it allows them to make tea much faster than cafes using traditional steeping methods can, with no loss in flavor. With their machine Serenitea can turn out any number of hot brewed teas -- Oolong, Jasmine, you name it -- or concoct hot or cold tea-based drinks. As a sampler Jennifer brought out some of her most popular drinks: the Tea Latte, Milk Tea with Grass Jelly, Hokkaido Milk Tea with Black Bricks (coffee jelly), Cranberry Tea, and the citrusy Green Symphony. To accompany them, Jennifer also let us try the Pepper Tofu and crispy Chicken Chop.
I have to confess I was a bit ambivalent regarding some of the drinks. I like my tea the traditional way, steaming hot and pure -- without even sugar. Now here were, to my mind, tea-based versions of Starbucks' lattes. I was afraid I'd find them too sweet and milky. Sip. Hmm. Sip. Hmm. Hey! This is really refreshing! The Tea Latte has hints of toffee and caramel, but is far from being too sweet. The Milk Tea with Grass Jelly has hints of honey, and as I've always been a fan of Chinese grass jelly, I liked it. The milk tea I liked best was the Hokkaido Milk Tea, as I'm addicted to coffee jelly.
Cat and I liked the fruit-flavored teas the best. I'm most likely to visit Serenitea either after a heavy dinner out, or when I want to write elsewhere than at home, and for situations like those I prefer palate-cleansing fruit flavors. The Cranberry Tea has just the right balance of tart and sweet, and the Green Symphony, green tea with calamansi and lime jelly, has a surprise touch in the form of a cinnamony kiamoy floating in it.
Pepper Tofu and Taiwanese Chicken Chop
The sharp, very refreshing flavor of the Green Symphony also went excellently with the food, which Jennifer says is Taiwanese street fare. The Pepper Tofu is fried tofu sprinkled with Chinese spices, and topped with fried basil leaves; I liked the flavor contrast between the tofu and the basil. The Taiwanese Chicken Chop was very crunchy, and dangerously addictive; I can see myself ordering plate after plate if I were to stay here for any length of time. Which I very probably will the next time I have writer's block and need a dose of serenity.
Cat often teases me that my palate seems to have converted to Islam. Certainly, my favorite cuisines geographically coincide with what is considered the Dar al-Islam -- from Moroccan in the west to Indonesian in the east, and just about everything in between. At the golden center of this region, and one of its most influential cultures, is Persia. I am of course bananas about Persian food, so I'm really glad Miraj is here.
Cat and I have eaten several times already at Miraj, and our barkadas have also come to like it. Aside from the ubiquitous shawarma (which by the way is good here), there's kebabs, ox brain, curries, and staple side dishes like hummus and moutabal. Last Wednesday we visited Miraj again to shoot (and of course eat!) some of their signature dishes. Another marathon session at the trenchers -- and as the following day was Maundy Thursday, a good prep for abstinence and fasting during the Holy Week! We had Hummus, Kheema, Ox Brains, the Double Beef Kebab with rice, and the newly introduced Masala Burrito.
I requested to have the Ox Brains served first, as I was thinking it would be the most challenging dish to shoot. How do you make a dish of chopped braaaains look as good as it tastes? With hardly any effort at all, it turned out. Fried in turmeric and cumin, and served with a calamansi to bring out their buttery flavor, the brains had a beautiful golden color that stood out beautifully with the green accent of the calamansi. It was Cat's first time to try brains, so I let her have the first forkful. I already had a very good idea what to expect, having ordered this before, so I wasn't surprised at all when her eyes lit up and she grabbed her own fork to get some more.
Next came the Hummus, a paste of ground chickpeas (garbanzos) sprinkled with spices and drizzled with olive oil, made to be scooped up with pieces of flat pita bread. Now Cat usually doesn't like chickpeas, but hummus is the one exception on her list. As soon as I finished shooting it, the hummus plate magically migrated to her side of the table and stayed there! We rounded off our appetizers with the Kheema, a ground beef sauce with mild spices, also made to be scooped up with pita. It's quite a hearty dish, for an appetizer, and Cat really liked the fact that its spicing doesn't overwhelm the beefy taste but just complements it. Me, I usually mix a good dose of the chili sauce into my portion; goes better with San Mig Lite.
Double Beef Kabab
Speaking of sauces, Miraj serves its own fresh sauces -- a yogurt-and-garlic white sauce, and a fiery chili-yogurt sauce. As I usually go straight for the hot one, I actually got to taste the garlic-yogurt sauce for the first time that night with the Double Beef Kabab. Miraj's ground beef kebabs are made the traditional Persian way, very simple and formed onto a spatula-like metal skewer (it's said they cook more evenly that way), and served with buttered rice and a grilled tomato. You moosh up the butter and tomato into the rice, bathe the meat in the yogurt sauce to add flavor and juiciness, and -- fight with the wifey for portions!
Our last dish was the Masala Burrito, a reinvention of the Tex-Mex burrito with Persian fillings. This one came with Persian saffron rice, fresh tomatoes and onion, and their Masala Beef. This is one nice hearty dish, something I'd consider ordering if I only had time to eat one item and needed to fill up fast. With a good-sized group, though, I think the best way to enjoy Miraj is to order up a lot of different appetizers and kebabs, and if no one else in my barkada will eat the brains, that's just more for me and Cat! Our gang is going to invade Miraj again -- soon.
One of the great things about being a food blogger is that I get to write about something I really love. On the other hand, the bad thing about being a food blogger is that writing each and every blog post brings back a full-sensory recollection of the subject, making me really hungry. Which is exactly what's happening right now, as I review the pics I'm going to use for this entry on Kenji Tei.
Kenji Tei is a new ramen house along President Avenue that's been drawing raves, and with good reason. The food here, according to owner Kenneth Kho, is a blend of traditional Japanese ramen recipes and new Japanese-inspired fusion dishes. Why Japanese? Simple, says Kenneth, it's the food he likes best. Kho shared some of the house specialties with us in a marathon sampling session that started at one p.m. and ended at well past three. We got to try the Spicy Negi Ramen, a traditional Gomoku Shio Ramen, Crispy Chicken Teriyaki, fried Cheese Gyoza, traditional steamed Gyoza, and Chahan.
Spicy Negi Ramen
The Spicy Negi Ramen was ramen noodles and succulent slices of roast pork floating in a bowl of rich, savory broth with a kick. This is exactly the kind of comfort food I'd look for after a really tiring day and something to pick up my spirits. The spicy soup also went very well with the Cheese Gyoza, pork dumplings in a thick dough wrapper, but fried crispy golden brown instead of steamed, with a nugget of creamily melted mozzarella cheese in the middle. The cheese gyozas are served with a dip of mayo and chili oil, which perfectly set off the mildness of the cheese. I can see why this is a crowd favorite! The Gomoku Shio Ramen will certainly please lovers of traditional style ramen--noodles in a very umami Japanese soup stock, topped with shrimp, beef, roast pork, cuttlefish, vegetables, and half a boiled egg, and it comes in a really big bowl. Were I dining alone, a bowl of this would be a match even for my rather wolfish appetite.
Gomoku Shio Ramen
Next came two dishes usually eaten with rice, though they also make great sides for ramen; the Crispy Chicken Teriyaki and steamed Gyoza. The teriyaki consisted of boneless pieces of chicken, skin on and fried to a nice crunch, glazed in Kenji Tei's special teriyaki sauce and rolled in fresh toasted sesame seeds. It's sweet-salty-peppery, crackling crisp outside and really tender inside. Cat of course was delighted with her favorite, the gyoza; it's something she invariably orders in every Japanese restaurant we go to. Which means I've tasted a lot of gyoza. Some are too salty, some soggy, some have a funny taste that's reminiscent of chorizo. Kenji Tei's gyoza was none of the above -- it was simply excellent. We had the teriyaki and gyoza with chahan fried rice, and I have to say Kenji Tei's cooks have a nice light hand with oil. I often find fried rice too oily, but this tasted like it had none at all.
Crispy Chicken Teriyaki
Gyoza with Chahan
And now I've done it. I just had a nice, heavy dinner -- but my stomach is growling. Again. And it wants Japanese.
I'm looking forward to Armageddon. No, I'm not wishing for the world to end; I'm hankering for Buffalo's Wings N' Things' newest offering, the Armageddon sauce for their famous Buffalo Wings.
As a spice addict, I'm always looking for that next delightful blast of heat on the palate. I got it at Buffalo's Wings N' Things, a new restaurant along Aguirre that specializes in -- what else, spicy buffalo wings. Said to have been developed at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York -- hence the name -- buffalo wings have become an icon of American casual dining. Buffalo's Wings N' Things has gotten its spicy wings recipe down to a T, so it was a surprise to me that this is a homegrown concept, not a franchise of an American chain.
Half-pound Buffalo wings with New York's finest sauce
Cat and I shared a Half Pound of Buffalo Wings tossed in their New York's Finest Sauce, a fiery orange Cajun-style sauce made with cayenne and butter. One sniff, and I almost forgot to photograph it! The chicken tasted exactly as good as it looked and smelled; I suspect even without the sauce it would've been good, but with the sauce I think I finished my share in less than two minutes. And, oh yeah, this is one place where you won't get far with knife and fork; if you want to eat spicy wings properly, you really should use fingers.
Buffalo's Mini Cheeseburnger
We also tried the Buffalo Cheeseburger Minis, a set of three small cheeseburgers meant for kiddie appetites. One bite and I knew the patties had been made with American beef -- there's a subtle but still definitely detectable difference in taste. Definitely something for the avowed carnivore. The minis were nice to photograph, but my stomach was growling, 'Why didn't you order the big one?'
So what's Armageddon got to do with all this? In addition to their already hot New York's Finest sauce, Buffalo's Wings N' Things has introduced two even hotter sauces; with some customers demanding even more heat, owner Sonny Ong concocted the Armageddon, supposedly the ultimate in Cajun witchcraft. Just thinking about it has got me bewitched already. I wants some!
Grub is a simple little resto-bar in BF Homes Phase III that rocks. Literally. Not only is proprietor Marlon de la Cruz a music aficionado, he's also one good cook, with a fine sly sense of humor to boot. Marlon and his wife Angelica are to be found here almost every evening, with Marlon alternately manning the stove and chatting with the customers. It makes for a very homey ambiance -- being here feels just like making tambay with the old college gang on someone's patio.
The impression was reinforced even more by Marlon's choice of music for the evening -- classic Eighties rock and new wave. As Marlon owns a music store in Makati, specializing in vintage vinyl records, he's got quite a collection. And he was playing my kind of noise. Eighties, yeah! Then Cat, as always, had to remind me of my age when I commented on the music.
Oh Talaga, Talaba
Studying the menu also gave us our first taste of Marlon's quirky humor. His perennially popular sizzling bulalo (marrow) is branded That's Bul; the spicy sausage is the John Holmes; and the spicy chicken wings are the Tony Falcon, another porn in-joke. As Cat's cheeks turned a delightful rosy pink, we settled on sampling the Oh Talaga, Talaba -- Marlon's version of baked Oysters Rockefeller; The Fresh Prince, a rare tuna steak served with wasabi; and the bestselling Nacho Vidal. At only about P150-250 per dish, each good for two or three, and beers at only P32 a bottle, the prices are very friendly and ideal for a gathering.
The Fresh Prince
First impression, as the dishes came out: this food is damn photogenic! Second impression: these servings are big! Even by my standards, and I'm quite the trencherman. Third impression: dangit this is so good, I need a beer! The oysters were very fresh, perfectly baked with a thick layer of cheese and herbs preserving the juiciness of the insides. The tuna steak, seared as a slab then sliced thin to reveal the still-pink flesh within and served on a bed of fried spinach and garlic, made Cat close her eyes in sheer pleasure. I, of course, used the opportunity to nab more tuna slices! And the nachos, topped with beef sauce, cheese and fresh salsa, would make a perfect dish to share with the barkada -- it was good, just the right level of spicyness, and there was a LOT of it.
This is definitely one place I'd like to take the gang, especially when those now abroad come back. Great food, big portions, great music and a homey ambiance -- and if I have to walk home waddling, at least it won't be far!
There's a nice new breakfast and merienda spot on the corner of Aguirre and Banzon called Lugawan Republic, a great place to stop when you're in need of comfort food. Cat and I stopped by for a snack and got to chat with Attorney Jojo Salomon, one of the owners, who told us the interesting stories behind each dish.
We had the Pilugaw, the aptly named Goto Hell, a very crunchy version of Tokwa't Baboy, and Crispy Tofu. As we learned from Salomon, the whole concept of Lugawan Republic is to offer the classic Pinoy favorite in a new way; yep, it's lugaw with class. The Pilugaw, their flagship product, is truly a deluxe congee, tinted and flavored with either annatto or kasubha, and topped with tender goto (tripe), wood mushrooms, quail eggs, crunchy fried garlic bits and green onion shoots. Very flavorful and filling! The wood mushrooms (tengang daga) add a touch of the exotic, raising the humble lugaw to a whole new level.
On Atty. Salomon's urging I also tried the Goto Hell, a product with a humorous story behind it. It seems that when Lugawan Republic was first started in Timog, partner Gladys Reyes mentioned it on a TV show and her co-hosts jokingly told her she should make a porridge named Goto Hell. The next day, the restaurant was deluged with requests for the fictitious product. Reyes took up the challenge and concocted the chili tripe with chili congee recipe over the next few days. Was it as infernally good as advertised? One spoonful and ... woohoo! This stuff would be a hit in Singapore! As a confirmed spice addict, I have to say I'll definitely order this again.
To go with our congees we had the Tokwa't Baboy, and as with everything here, there's a little twist added to make the dish unique. Traditional tokwa't baboy usually consists of boiled pork, with the crunch, if any, coming solely from the tofu; Lugawan Republic's version adds quite a bit more pork, and fried crisp lechon-kawali style. It's double, no, triple, the crunch of mom's tokwa't baboy, and I'm loving it. But as Cat and I are too crunch-happy, we also had to try the Crispy Tofu. This was fresh tofu fried with panko breading, so it's really crunchy on the outside, silky soft inside; it's served with a sweet and sour sauce. Good stuff, and if your kids don't like tofu I'm sure this is going to convince them otherwise.
Lugawan Republic shares premises and in fact has the same management as Iago's Grill so it was no surprise that the water served was again pandan water. It's also possible to sit in Lugawan Republic's quiet, air conditioned space and order from Iago's, or vice versa. I like that. Cat and I will definitely be coming back, and one of these days we're bringing the family.
Thick and juicy peppered porkchop served with cranberry sauce
Iago's Grill is a restaurant only two months old, but is already gaining a following. This is one establishment that seems to have all the right factors going for it: great food, a summery outdoor ambiance, and parking space.
Cat and I got to sample three of Iago's bestsellers: the Grilled Porkchop, Inihaw na Pusit Lumot, and Crispy Chicken Salad. Four thumbs up! Many dishes here have a little twist that makes eating here filled with delightful surprises. The porkchop was tender and juicy, peppery on the outside and with a Pinoy-style vinegar marinade; but instead of serving it with a traditional vinegar and garlic dip, it's served with cranberry sauce. Yum!
Inihaw na Pusit Lumot
The crispy chicken salad consists of crunchy breaded chicken breast strips on a bed of lettuce, carrots, and bell peppers, with extra flavor and crunch added by wedges of mandarin orange and slivers of almonds. It's served with Iago's own secret dressing, sweet and nutty with sesame seeds. Again, yum! The grilled squid was equally delectable; tender, smoky, and sweet-salty with the soy marinade brushed on. Very Pinoy, simple but good, and best washed down with San Mig.
As Cat and I sat back, replete and convinced we could never move again, I found one last surprise: Iago's water isn't just water, it's pandan water. The fragrance and light flavor of the pandan really cleansed my palate, leaving me ready for more. But just as I was reaching for the menu again, Cat grabbed my ear and dragged me away. I'll definitely come back to Iago's Grill one of these days.