High concept modernity and the homey familiarity of Filipino comfort food rarely feel they belong together. At Big Plate restaurant, however, they've made it work. From the tasty fusion approach they've taken with old Pinoy favorites to their chic but comfy interiors and the way they're recycling energy from their aircon to heat water, this is one restaurant that's serious about bringing the Filipino dining experience into the 21st century. They’ve even invested in their own organic farm and commissary, on top of state-of-the art technology for their kitchen. All of these serves as a foundation for a restaurant the owners hope will become part of the Filipino tradition.
So how successful are they? Only time will tell but they certainly are off to a good start. Just in the midst of their soft opening, phase, they have already attracted a steady crowd. Why?
Let's start with the ambiance. Yeah, I know you never order it, but you pay for it anyway -- and it really does affect the pleasure of eating. There's a clean, casual, modern-but-organic feel to Big Plate's interior with its mostly green and white scheme, accented by colorful Maranaw vinta themes on its quirky furniture , runners, and its walls. There's a very family-friendly vibe to the place. The tables are also big -- as CEO Rainier David says, they designed the place so that a table normally used for six people at other restaurants is made to seat four here. Which turned out to be very good, as when the food arrived the restaurant's name was proven to be no lie!
Yes, Big Plate really serves BIG plates. With servings to match -- big connotes a feast , hence the name Big Plate, David explains. The typical order here is good for two, easily three if you're light eaters. We got to sample some of their best sellers: For starters we had the Creamy Pumpkin Soup, Bangus Sisig Balls, Lumpiang Dagupan, and Big Plate's House Salad with beef tapa. For our main course David had us try the Crispy Binagoongan, Grilled Prawns with Bagoong Rice, and the Slow-Cooked Beef Ribs with Sweet Potato. And for dessert, it was their two most popular meal-toppers, the killer Coco Mango Panna Cotta and Carrot Cake. Visually, these dishes were a breeze to shoot - they all looked good, and they smelled so good it was easy to get inspired! Amount-wise, we were totally overwhelmed. Immobilized afterward was more like it.
For starters, we had the Creamy Pumpkin Soup. Squash soup is one of my favourite soups, something I always ask Cat to make at home. Although we have it every now and then, I have never tasted it with eggplant so Big Plate’s version comes as a refreshing change, the smokey flavour of the roasted eggplant adding lushness to the pureed soup.
Bangus Sisig Balls
We've had the Bangus Sisig Balls twice already, and we'll probably have it every time we visit Big Plate. These are fried croquettes filled with tinapang bangus flakes, served with aioli and sweet and sour sauce on the side; I prefer it with the aioli. The Lumpiang Dagupan, as you might expect, are also filled with bangus, very light and crispy.
Big Plate House Salad
Cat and I also loved the Big Plate House Salad, a green salad jazzed up in a uniquely Filipino way by the inclusion of homemade beef tapa bits and mango cubes. The sour-salty-meaty taste of the tapa made a great counterpoint to the sweetness of the mango and really set off the greens well, and for this diehard carnivore, it's a great way to make me eat and enjoy my veggies.
Grilled Prawns with Bagoong Rice
Next up were the Grilled Prawns; fresh, fleshy, and full of flavor, and as David explained to us, there was no need for a sauce because the sauce was already inside. To a true Filipino there's no pleasure like sucking out the juicy insides of a prawn head, and the heads of these prawns were especially flavorful. Unfortunately this Pinoy is asthmatic and allergic to crustaceans, so I only had the courage to try one head. It was so good!
Another sinfully delicious treat was the Crispy Binagoongan, crisp-fried slices of pork liempo on a bed of bagoong sauce and eggplant. Unlike many a binagoongan dish we have eaten, this had a light hand with salt -- in fact, this can be said for all the dishes we tried -- so I didn’t mind chewing and crunching the meat even though it was unfortunately fried a little too long. Still, Cat said she liked this version a lot and thinks it’s a better alternative to the salt-drenched, sweat-inducing binagoongan dishes we usually encounter.
Slow-Cooked Beef Ribs with Sweet Potato
The entree I got to enjoy the most was the Slow-Cooked Beef Ribs with Sweet Potato; a very rich take on kaldereta, with a thick sauce made even richer by the scoops of buttery mashed sweet potato floating in it. This dish was a must-have in my mind as soon as I saw it on the menu, as I like the full flavour and tenderness of slow-cooked meat; Big Plate did not disappoint, as I got the beef falling off the bone and so tasty I would've gnawed the ribs afterward if my wife hadn't stopped me! It was no surprise to learn that this is one of their bestsellers.
Coco Mango Panna Cotta
For dessert, we tried the Coco Mango Panna Cotta and Carrot Cake. The panna cotta -- another bestseller -- is again one of Big Plate's very successful Filipinizations of an international dish, as they substitute coconut milk for dairy cream in it. The fragrant nuttiness of the coconut milk perfectly complemented the sweetness of the mango topping. This is one dessert that manages to be rich and refreshing at the same time, a difficult combination to achieve.
Finally, after almost having our fill of all of the above, we ended with the Carrot Cake. Finished it. ‘Nuf said.
There's also something for the kids, David points out: Spaglug, which as the name suggests, is a mix of spaghetti and pancit luglug. Hmmm, Filipino fusion, indeed. Then there's the Big Plate Burger; Big Plate's Tasty Fried Chicken, and the Creamy Adobo Pasta.
Big Plate enjoys a strategic location along President's Avenue at the corner of Elizalde, by the old Caltex station. It's one of the most conspicuous dining places you'll see on your way in if you're coming from Sucat Road, and thanks to its being right beside the station, it has ample parking. Big Plate is seriously targeting the events market, so it’s made its facilities to match. The second floor can comfortably seat one hundred plus another forty on the verandah, and there’s a small function room that can seat thirty with a seminar-type layout.
Best of all, I may be able to eat at Big Plate even in Makati or the Ortigas area soon, as this restaurant is branching out in 2011. CEO David says he and his partners plan to grow this concept into a chain by next year, with the BF Homes branch serving as headquarters and training ground for future staff. Currently they have a preferential hiring policy, giving back to the community by giving priority to hiring BF residents. In other words, eating at Big Plate helps give your fellow BF Homers jobs!
Del's Kitchen is one place that could easily slip beneath your radar if you're not on the lookout for it. Tucked away along Elizalde (on the segment between Aguirre and President's Ave), there's only a small and simple black and white sign to tell you the house with the tasteful Mactan stone facing and patio behind the wrought iron fence is now a restaurant (a tarp has now been added). Chances are though that within a few months this restaurant will be lining its side of Elizalde with the parked cars of its happy diners. I'd even lay a bet on it.
Del's Kitchen is the brainchild of Julius Bernard Lopez and his high school friend, long-time BF Homes resident Deb Gutierrez, and is named for her late mother. The partners explored several concepts for the place before settling on the heart-warming idea of comfort food with a gourmet twist. "You'll see that all the foods we offer are quite familiar, we got from this and that cuisine but they're all familiar, but with an extra something added by the chef who developed our menu for us," Julius says. We got to try out some of Del's bestsellers, starting with the Potato-Bacon Chowder, then the Nobu Prawn Tempura, followed by Mussels Puttanesca, Chicken a la Mexicana, their most popular entree the Crispy Bagnet Kare Kare, and finally the opulent Triple Decker Chocolate Cheesecake, which has been voted a Top Food Choice of the Ayala Malls by online voting.
Potato Bacon Chowder
True to the concept of comfort food, all the dishes we tried were indeed very hearty and likely to be ordered again on your next visit. First, though, a word about the serving sizes: they're big. All the entrees come in servings good for 2 or more persons, and for some dishes like the Barbecued Beef Short Ribs you can order a plate good for four. Our first dish, the Potato Bacon Chowder, was a thick creamy soup full of tender cubes of potato and bits of real bacon. This is one soup I'd definitely ask for should I get a cold! Because it's so heavy, though -- think of an arroz caldo with potato instead of rice, and you'll get a good picture of this soup's consistency and filling power -- I suggest sharing.
Nobu Prawn Tempura
The next dish was the Nobu Prawn Tempura, named after Japanese chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa who developed this style of tempura. Instead of being dredged in heavy batter, these prawns are only lightly crusted, allowed to curl elegantly over their tails and served on a bed of potato crisps and a ginger-soy sauce dip instead of the usual tempura dip. They're good even without the dip, as the coating seems to contain some spices, and all our prawns were cooked just right, retaining their full succulence. Cat and I found that it was best to dip our prawns just lightly, as soaking them in the dip made them a bit too salty.
Chicken a la Mexicana
This was followed by the Chicken a la Mexicana, which I could eat as either viand or as an appetizer shared between a small party. It's grilled chicken breast, served sliced on a bed of tortilla bread and topped with a salsa of mango, corn, and coriander, lightly spiced with cumin. The salsa really came together for me, with the zestiness of the coriander and the sweetness of the mango really going well with the slightly smoky chicken, and then you get that nice little crunch of corn. I can imagine this going really well with a bottle of icy San Mig.
We next had Mussels Puttanesca, one of their best-selling pastas. I just had to whisper to Cat, "This is puttanesca the way it should be!" The puttanesca was named for its spicy hotness, from the spicy hotness of Italian -- er, anyway, it's supposed to be hot. All too often, however, I order it and find that it's not. Del's Puttanesca gets that heat right, which sets off very well the sweet succulence of the fresh mussels in it. Those were really fresh mussels! If you're sensitive to hot food, though, remember to order this one mild. But do order it. Cat and I were already looking at each other with goggly eyes by now, but we had one more entree to sample.
Crispy Bagnet Kare Kare
And sample it we did, in fact we kinda scarfed it up, for who can resist crispy deep-fried Bagnet, that wonderful Ilocano take on lechon kawali, served on a bed of Kare Kare sauce and vegetables with heavenly dollops of bagoong and aligue on the side? "You can eat it with a clean conscience, because it comes with vegetables," Julius jokes, adding this is something he often overhears from customers when confronted with the sheer richness of this dish. The pork skin was very crispy, the kare kare sauce richly peanutty, and the vegetables done just right. I didn't sample the bagoong or the aligue -- though I would've wanted to -- because I was afraid of having an allergic reaction; Cat did, however, and had to say the bagoong was done just the way she liked it, flavorful without being too salty, and the aligue rich and delicately flavored. I just have to come back for this when my asthma isn't acting up. I also have to say the artful way this dish is presented -- not sunk in sauce like your usual kare-kare -- might be one way to get a Westerner interested in Filipino food.
Triple Decker Chocolate Cheesecake
To cap our decadently huge meal, we were presented with a slice of Triple Decker Chocolate Cheesecake, the creation of Mel Torre, who supplies Del's Kitchen with all its desserts as well as supplying the Parvati shop in Trinoma. It was through Parvati that this cheesecake received its Ayala Malls Top Food Choice vote, and Cat and I have to agree it deserves it. Despite being convinced, after the Bagnet, that we couldn't take another bite, we demolished the cheesecake in about five minutes. It's rich without being too sweet, the dark chocolate setting off very well the mild flavor of the cream cheese. I normally want coffee with my dessert, just to cut through the sheer sugaryness of most pastries, but this one can be taken without having to order coffee at all.
Del's Kitchen opened only last July 31, and as an introductory promo is offering a free order of pasta and chicken for kids; parties that come in with a child under four feet tall qualify for the promo. If we had kids we'd definitely bring them to Del's Kitchen; since we don't, we'll just go back there anyway and eat for them!
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...
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!