Beef Kababs, Chicken Biryani, Prawn Curry
When I was fifteen and living in New Delhi with my parents, I'd often get off the schoolbus a few blocks before our street and walk home from there so I could pass by the local bakery. I'd pick up half a dozen piping-hot vegetable samosas, make half of them disappear, and arrive home with a cheery 'Hey Mom, Dad, look! I got us samosas -- one each!'
My first bite of Raaz Mahal's vegetable samosas inevitably brought back this memory, as fresh and sharp as it was yesterday (Hey, it's not been that long ago! Uh, yeah riiiight.). I guess another reason this memory got triggered was because our first visit to Raaz Mahal was at my dad's invitation, his treat for me on my birthday. The two of us have had a real weakness for Indian cuisine ever since that stint in Delhi, and as Raaz Mahal serves Punjabi food, the same North Indian food we got used to, we're really happy we've now got a restaurant like this in BF. A few days later, Cat and I visited again to interview the Arshad family, Raaz Mahal's owners, and of course to eat more samosas.
Vegetable Samosas and Potato Pakoras
Ordering for the family, I went for the tried and true appetizers: Vegetable Samosas, Onion and Potato Pakoras, and cheese-filled Aloo (Potato) Balls. We followed this up with the Chicken Dal, Chapatti bread to scoop up the dal with, Beef Kababs, Prawn Curry, and Chicken Biryani, and on our return visit, we tried the Goat Korma and Naan.
The great delight of Indian food, for me, is the way the complex blend of spices, the masalas, create a cascading explosion of flavors on the palate and the nose. This is exactly what we got with Raaz Mahal's food. The Samosas were crisp on the outside, soft and delicately spiced inside, and served with a sweet and tangy chutney sauce. The Pakoras were also crisp, really nicely done -- flavorful, not oily at all despite their being deep-fried -- and went great with the provided chili dip. The kids went bananas over the Aloo Balls, which were like potato croquettes filled with an herbed cottage cheese, and also served with chili dip.
Aloo Balls and Chicken Dal with Chapatti
I would've liked more lentils in the Chicken Dal, which was a lentil-and-chicken stew with curry spices. You scoop it up with torn pieces of Chapatti bread or Naan. The Beef Kababs and Prawn Curry came next, and disappeared very quickly! The kababs were delicately spiced, still moist inside (ground meat kababs dry easily, so this tells me the cook has a light hand on the grill), and served with a yogurt-mint-and-coriander-leaf sauce that surprisingly turned out to be the spiciest thing on the table, heat-wise. The Prawn Curry was buttery and had just the right amount of heat for the family -- strong enough that you could tell this was real Indian food, yet toned to the level that my sister and nieces could still taste everything. And the prawns were very fresh -- they had that sweet fresh taste. Because of the strong sauce of the kabab and the prawn curry, I'm afraid I wasn't able to really isolate the flavor of the biryani very well; it was very fragrant though, and yes, it was made with real basmati rice.
Goat Korma with Naan
I wish though that I'd thought to order the Korma while my whole family was there. That was a knockout! The yogurt-based sauce was very rich and creamy, nicely aromatic with the distinct yet far from overpowering mutton scent that tells you this isn't beef or pork. (Raaz Mahal is owned by a Pakistani family and serves Halal food). If I had to recommend a dish with which to break the common Pinoy aversion to goat or mutton, this korma would be high on the list, if not first. We chose to have this curry with Naan bread instead of rice, and I'm happy to report that Raaz Mahal's naan is the kind made with sesame seeds, giving them a nice added crunch.
I just wish the portions were bigger, a concern that manager Shala Arshad assures me will be dealt with when they come out with their new menu. Now that they know their market and are more confident that their food sells, Shala says, they're ready to upgrade the 'sampler' portions to something larger. Raaz Mahal is not a cheap place to eat, but given the complexity of their dishes, and the fact that all the spices they use must be imported from Pakistan, you know what you're buying.
Shala, her brother Ismail (Ish), the chef, and their father Muhammad sat with us as we were wolfing down the korma to tell us Raaz Mahal's story. The name Raaz Mahal means 'Secret Palace' or 'Mysterious Palace,' and fits right in with the tasteful, very Indian theme of the interiors. The Arshads own the Orientique furniture and antiques stores, and it shows. Raaz Mahal's interiors are painted in the gay hues of a bazaar in Rajasthan, and studded with plaques and statuettes done in traditional Indo-Persian motifs.
Nor are the Arshads newbies at the restaurant business, having opened one in Jakarta sixteen years ago, and another in Lahore. In fact, Shala says, the very reason for Raaz Mahal's existence is the love she and Ish have for their dad's cooking, which is based on traditional Muslim Punjabi recipes. But when he finally caved in to their insistent clamor for a restaurant here in Manila, it was Muhammad Arshad who chose Aguirre Avenue as their first location; a tribute to the burgeoning BF Homes food culture.
We finished our meal the same way we did on the previous visit, with a Strawberry Lassi. This sweet iced drink, with just the right amount of fresh strawberry and yogurt tartness, clears the palate beautifully after a meal rich in heady masalas and ghee; not surprisingly it's one of their bestsellers. They also offer Mango and Banana Lassi, and we also tried their Kulfi; an ice-cream like dessert made with milk steeped with intoxicatingly fragrant cardamom and topped with crushed pistachios. Dairy-based desserts are very important when you eat hot food like Indian or Malay, as the milk clears the burning sensation from the tongue. (Alcohol intensifies it though; which is why, spice freak that I am, I had my appetizers and main course with San Mig Lite!).
Ish Arshad says, though, that we've yet to try their real signature dish, the Beef Nihari. It's a rich beef curry that takes all of seven hours to cook, and I can just imagine how richly developed its flavors should be from that treatment. Looks like Cat and I have something to look forward to!
The Arshad Family
Pia de la Fuente-Kasilag and Paolo de la Fuente
BF Homes seems to have become an incubating ground for restaurant concepts of almost every type, with new restos mush- rooming along the length of Aguirre seemingly overnight. It's great for us residents to be sure, but I can only imagine the anxiety of current restaurant owners as the competition heats up. Who will last? Who will break out of BF and make it in Makati, or Malate, or Timog? One of the homegrown concepts I'd take a bet on is Mediterranean-inspired restaurant Pito & Mita, which opened doors around nine months ago.
We'd been hearing good things about this restaurant for some time, so it was with great anticipation that Cat and I went to try it out. Everyone recommends the Spinach Artichoke Dip with Melba Toast, so we tried that, while I got the Eggplant Lasagna and Cat the Parmesan-Crusted Baked Fish. All three are among Pito & Mita's bestsellers, co-owner Paolo de la Fuente tells me, and I soon see why.
Spanish Artichoke Dip
The Spinach Artichoke Dip is light and creamy, with a subtle and somewhat smokey flavor; I suspect they roast the garlic they put in it, and they put in just the right amount, enough to give it a kick but not so much as to overwhelm the delicate spinach and artichoke. I want chef Pia (de la Fuente-Kasilag, Paolo's sister) to start bottling this so I can have it on crackers when reading late at night! Add their sauces and dressings, too, that they make from scratch.
The Eggplant Lasagna is also a must-try, whether you're a vegetarian or a dyed-in-the-wool carnivore like myself. I love meat; I want the taste of meat with practically every meal; but as with Indian cuisine, I can go vegan on this dish and not miss the meat at all. The serving is quite generous, and though this is indeed a meatless dish, the hearty eggplant-tomato sauce and baked cheese crust together with the pasta make this a real belly-filler. Order this to share if you're a light eater.
Parmesan-Crusted Baked Fish
And if I thought the lasagna was good, the Parmesan-Crusted Baked Fish was even better (although Cat couldn't rave enough about the lasagna). This cream dory fillet was baked just right, so the flesh was firm yet melt-in-your-mouth tender, the whole thing crusted in a crisp thin shell of Parmesan cheese. Better yet, while this dish can be served with a side of rice, we had it with the Potato Gratin. Double the cheese is double the fun in my book, and when half of that is on baked potato I can get really mellow!
We may have gotten the crowd favorites but Pia isn't resting on her laurels but is constantly adding new dishes like their newest appetizers, Mushroom Alajillo, Shrimp Gambas & Assorted Grilled Sausages, and a third soup, Cream of Pumpkin. They have started to branch out to catering, just needing a two-week's notice from interested customers.
The secret behind Pito & Mita is chef Pia Kasilag's touch with her old family recipes. "A lot of what we serve in Pito & Mita is the food we grew up with at home," Paolo reveals. The de la Fuentes, it turns out, are a family of foodies with a special love for Spanish and Italian cuisine. After serving a stint as flight attendant in Northwest Airlines, Pia returned to set up the restaurant with Paolo, bringing in family favorites such as the Sopa de Pamplina, a Spanish-inspired soup that's the family's traditional Christmas soup; the Eggplant Lasagna; the Steak Salpicao; the Sicilian Chicken Salad; and the lemon-flavored Moringa juice that they serve as one of the house's recommended drinks. Cat and I washed down our meal with the Moringa juice, and found it very refreshing indeed -- fragrant, lemony, and not at all bitter as you might fear something made from malunggay might be.
And this I think is the reason Pito & Mita will be around for a while. Simple, hearty, delicious food, familiar enough for anyone to get into yet with that unique touch from recipes incubated in family tradition, and all that served _healthy_.
When we asked what has been their best experience so far, Pia said it was hearing rave reviews. "We never know what to expect from business so it's nice to hear good reviews especially from walk-in customers," she smiles. She can deservedly add this review to their growing list good feedbacks.
There's a place in BF that serves lamb satay! Whee! That was my first reaction on reading the menu at Food de Sentosa, a Singaporean restaurant in Phase 3 that's been garnering quite a bit of attention lately. Business has been good so they are expanding the restaurant and adding five to six more tables next month.
Food de Sentosa is owned by Mr. Ronnie Teo, a Singaporean who's immigrated and married here. His son, David, turned out to be a co-teacher of mine at the College of Saint Benilde, but had to take a leave to help out at the restaurant due to the unexpected boom of demand there. He is now its full-time manager but you can also find him inside the kitchen helping his dad cook.
The elder Teo is a retiree who started the restaurant simply because he got bored after retirement. He had always loved cooking as a hobby and being the cook of the family, he brought in his family recipes as well as his own style of cooking and drew from Singapore's mixed Malay-Chinese heritage to build up Food de Sentosa's menu.
The eventual success of Food de Sentosa is one of life's quirks that just happens: With no business plan, no formal culinary training, no background in the food business, but armed only with a love of food and cooking, he launched his restaurant in November 2009. He never expected it would take off the way it has--they were even featured in the Philippine Daily Inquirer without their knowing a reviewer had visited--because he wasn't serious about it when he started, recalls David.
Today, they have regulars in and out of BF, like a fellow Singpaporean who travels all the way from Batangas just to eat there three to five times a week. Can you say Food de Sentosa addict?
One other reason for his success may be that Mr. Teo simply can't say no to any customer requests--he once cooked tempura for a customer. "Sometimes, he will cook something new on the spot and sometimes the dish would find its way to the menu the next day," David grins. He will also create new dishes with in-season ingredients like tom yao, kay lan, bok choy, and tang-o either from the local market or flown in from Singapore. (They also have kid-friendly dishes like Fried Fish Fillet with Chili Crab Sauce that's not spicy and custom-made prawn-flavored fried chicken).
Cathy and I decided to try out the Lamb Satay -- hey, I never say no to lamb satay! -- the Black Pepper Beef, and the Nasi Goreng.
We loved the Lamb Satay, grilled to tender perfection and served with Mr. Teo's own traditional peanut sauce. Food de Sentosa's version of satay sauce is not as sweet as the Madurese version served in Pawon Ageng; I think it has more tamarind, and has a more herby aroma. Which do I like better? Give me both! Nobody ever died of a satay overdose, and one of these days when wifey is not watching I'm going to prove it! The sauce went very well with the unique aroma of lamb.
The Black Pepper Beef had a nice savory flavor, though not as hot as I would've expected from a Singaporean restaurant; unfortunately there were some tough bits.
I enjoyed the Nasi Goreng, Malay-style spiced fried rice with bits of meat, vegetables and egg, made savory with belachan, Malay dried shrimp. I rather wish the portion was a bit larger because we finished it before we could consume all the beef. The Nasi Goreng was really a meal in itself--a scrumptious one at that--so we could've gotten two and skipped the Black Pepper Beef.
I also wish I wasn't allergic to crab. A serving of chili crab went to the other table just as Cat and I finished eating, and the aroma simply grabbed me and almost made me forget I'd already eaten.
I've always said BF Homes needs more restaurants like these, and I'll say it again. Singaporean food is a great way for Pinoys to start sampling the wider galaxy of Asian cuisines, blending as it does the influences of Malaysian and Indian cuisine with the familiarity of Chinese, and Food de Sentosa is just the place for it.
One last detail: Why the color purple as the restaurant's theme color, we asked David. Because his dad didn't want the all-too familiar red, David laughs. Food de Sentosa's striking color was a great way to announce itself to the community a year-and-a-half ago, being the first restaurant here to use it in a big way. Today, his cooking and can-do attitude has endeared himself to his customers and has established his former hobby into a full-blown business.
When the first returning OFWs from the Middle East brought back shawarma, they knew they had a hit on their hands. Such a hit, in fact, that we Pinoys very soon had our own versions. One of the best-done versions I have to say is from Food Channel, a shawarma and snack chain that originated in a kiosk by an escalator at the ground floor of Virra Mall in Greenhills in the early 90s, spreading all over the metropolis and finally coming to BF Homes, their first branch at the south. Cat and I got to know Food Channel BF Homes franchisers JP and Joyce when we went to try them out.
Beef Shawarma & Beef Shawarma with Rice
At first I didn't recall that I'd eaten at Food Channel's Greenhills stall before, but the signage and the menu were somehow familiar. Then JP told us its origins, and I had it -- I'd been noshing on Food Channel's shawarma since the 1990s. They now offer a wider variety of very affordable, below Php100 food choices. Aside from their signature Beef Shawarma with Cheese, we also tried the Shawarma Rice, the Korean Beef Rice, and the Barbecue Rice.
Food Channel's All Beef Shawarma is a real Pinoy shawarma, made to satisfy the bottomless hunger of students and late-night snackers. It's literally bursting with crunchy beef, made heftier with the addition of cheese and a side of french fries (yes, shawarma and fries!). For the size, amount and quality of beef you're getting, this shawarma is well worth its price of PhP 95. It's not filled with as much onion and tomato like Lebanese shawarma, but the Lebanese-style garlic sauce - thick, smooth, and creamy -- is still there, and the spicy sauce is very good. For those with a really big appetite -- note that the Beef Shawarma is already a meal in itself -- the Shawarma Rice is the same shawarma served with a cup of Java rice.
Korean Beef Rice
The Korean Beef Rice is another meal for those days when you're desperately in need of something good to fill you up, fast. Flash-cooked strips of tender beef, marinated in sweet Korean-style marinade and served on a bed of caramelized onion, this is a treat I can definitely go for after a long night of gaming or writing when the body inevitably demands some munchies.
Same goes for the Barbecue, which to our surprise was cut really thick. I've gotten used to barbecue from the neighborhood stall, which as typical for barbecue is cut thin for fast cooking; Food Channel's is thick yet very tender, the sweet-savory flavor of the marinade soaking through and through. You can literally sink your teeth into this one!
Other goodies you may like are their Tapsilog, Sisig, Korean Beef, Gourmet Tuna Wrap, and Fried Siomai to list a few. This branch even serves breakfast comfort foods all day - the bestsellers are their Tuna Shitake Mushroom Melt Omelette, Blueberry Pancakes, and Chocolate Chip Pancakes.
Food Channel BF Homes has targeted the early morning risers to the late sleepers and everyone in between by opening its doors from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. Adding enjoyment to your dining experience is an entertainment set and free WiFi. They’ve just opened their catering services in time for the Christmas season and will soon offer free deliveries as well.
Seeking a coffee spot for me is usually a case of 'let's find a joint that isn't Starbucks.' Not that I don't like Starbucks' coffee, but a) there are usually too many people and too much noise for me in the Starbucks branch here, and b) why should I patronize an American chain when I can have coffee exactly as I like it in a real homegrown Filipino cafe? Which is precisely why I like Figaro at the Pergola Mall. Not only is the coffee good, it has exactly the kind of quiet, classy but laid-back ambiance I find most relaxing.
What I'd never done before, though, was eat lunch at Figaro. Like most cafe-goers, this is a place I usually find myself at in between traditional mealtimes. This time, Cat and I tried their new entrees, the Chicken a la Kiev and the Cream Dory Provencal. The Chicken a laKiev is a chunky, hefty roll of chicken breast enfolding a pretty thick slice of ham and creamily melted cheese, served with Carbonara pasta and fries (also cut thick, as I like 'em). I must confess I was deceived by the size of this serving, thinking it was rather smaller than it really was; that chicken roll is not only sizeable, it's stuffed to bursting. Coupled with the fries, this dish moves comfortably to Medium-Heavy on my Meal Heftiness scale. Did I mention I liked the taste? My portion disappeared in less than ten minutes,which I guess should tell you all you need to know :-)
Cat also enjoyed the Dory Provencal, which came with Arrabiata pasta and green salad. Arrabiata's supposed to be a hot sauce, but Figaro's version is quite mild; however, we loved the flavor, very rich and not too oily. Cat thinks it was made with sun-dried tomatoes, as there was a sort of smoky intensity to the flavor of the tomato. I'm not sure about that, but I am definitely sure that I like this pasta, especially with more chili flakes poured on. The dory was fresh and tender, cooked just right, and its mild flavor with the mustardy, herby Provencal sauce made a nicely balanced contrast to the pasta. Next time anyone tells me healthy eating means eating like a rabbit, I'll confront them with this dish. (By the way, I used quite a bit of the Provencal sauce to dip my fries in; if you order the Chicken a la Kiev, by all means use the Force to influence your companion to order the Dory Provencal!)
Both dishes come with your choice of iced coffee or iced tea. I went for the coffee, Cat for the tea. Figaro's coffee is quite strong, the way I like it, but if you like your iced coffee sweeter you should ask
for sugar or syrup to go with yours. Both drinks were of course very welcome in the oppressive heat.
We had our meal, by the way, in Figaro's mini-function room. This enclosed rectangular space at the side of the cafe looks like it can seat 24 or so people, more if they re-laid out the tables. The back
wall is a bookshelf filled with Readers' Digest compilations. It feels like a library in here, and when it's not otherwise booked it'd be a perfect place to read or use the cafe's Wi-Fi in isolated peace. It would also serve very well for a meeting, seminar for small groups or a small party. Wonder if they'd be open to me taking my gaming group here?