Tom Yum Goong
There's a certain level of expectation you build when a restaurant's owner tells you they delayed opening until they had all the necessary herbs growing in their garden. That electric feeling of anticipation was just what I got when we first talked to Thai Fusion Cafe's genial owner, Don Reyes. Thai cuisine's unique flavor is built on a selection of fresh, aromatic herbs, so when a restaurateur tells you they grow their own, you know they're honestly passionate about their food.
Cat and I finally got to try Thai Fusion Cafe, and I'm glad to report that my expectations were met. No, more than that -- they were totally bowled over! Put it this way: If ever a typhoon catches you in here and Aguirre floods, you can just imagine that you're in Bangkok eating at this secret locals' place beside a klong. That's how I felt after sampling four of Thai Fusion Cafe's dishes -- Tom Yum Goong, Red Chicken Curry, Pad Thai, and Bagoong Rice with Sweet Pork. There's an elusive quality that just tells you a real Thai hand is behind a Thai dish--the balance of flavors, the bright freshness of the herbs and ingredients, the respect with which they treat the food. Not surprisingly, Don's secret weapon is his wife Patty, a Thai he met while working abroad.
Bagoong Rice with Sweet Pork
Thai Fusion Cafe, Don says, was five whole years in development: research, recipe testing, business studies; and yes, making sure their backyard herb garden could supply enough for a restaurant. Despite, or perhaps because of all that research, Thai Fusion Cafe has a very down-to-earth approach that lets you know this is a Thai place, while making you feel very much at home.
The interior of their new location, along Aguirre beside Arti's Boutique (the former site of Chi's) and near the Rodeo Spa, is simply yet tastefully done, with an atrium for al fresco dining that should be very inviting on clear December evenings. Subtle clues to the identity of the chef can be found in the decor -- not the mass-produced tapestries or paintings you'll find in Bangkok's tourist bazaars, but modern prints of signature Thai things such as kickboxing, temples, and portraits of the Thai royal family.
Then there's the earnest tagline Don uses to market his food--not 'authentic Thai', but 'home-cooked Thai cuisine.' Don's a great believer in letting the customer discover the quality of Thai Fusion Cafe as a delightful surprise and gratifying experience, a refreshing approach to branding compared to the hard-sell variety. He's even humble enough to warn that they can't always have everything available, or always produce a dish the same way all the time. That's why he's in no hurry to branch out even with offers on hand; to him quality, not quantity, is paramount and comes first.
Thai Milk Tea (Jumbo size)
Don had already revealed his aces -- herb garden, Thai wife -- when he asked how spicy I wanted my food, with a mischievous twinkle. I asked for their normal level of heat, and immediately got insurance by ordering some Thai Milk Tea; I knew I'd need it! Sure enough, Cat and I got the works! Even at mild levels Cat's eyes were going wide as she ate her Bagoong Rice with Sweet Pork. Me, spice addict that I am, I think I was pounding the table with joy over my Penang Curry.
First impression: these fresh, bright flavors are really possible only when you've got fresh Thai herbs to use, and the cook really knows what she's doing! The rich coconut milk sauce was smooth, creamy, shot through with sparks of unique flavor from the Thai basil and other fresh herbs in it. As for the chili level, as expected, their normal is a cut above what you might expect from Malay or Indonesian; which in turn is a cut stronger than North Indian, what I'm most used to. That Thai Milk Tea was indispensable! I had the curry with white rice, as per Don's advice, so I could enjoy the sauce's flavor to its fullest.
Red Chicken Curry (Penang)
Same thing with the Tom Yum Goong, our usual benchmark for the quality of a Thai restaurant. It was a bright, complex interplay of herbs and contrasting flavors -- sweet, sour, salty, hot, savory -- and capped by the sweet light texture of very fresh prawns. Now, I'm allergic to crustaceans; the older the stock, the stronger its effect on me. My allergies remained quiet during and even after our meal, despite the soup having several split prawn heads in it for flavor. Conclusion: those prawns were still swimming a day or two ago. This guess was borne out by Don's assuring us that he's very meticulous about freshness, keeping only three days' worth of stock on hand at any time.
Cat was amazed by the complex balance of the soup, quite unlike the Tom Yums in her memory bank. Don speculates that may be because, left to their own devices, Filipino cooks tend to gravitate to the familiar flavor of sinigang and make their Tom Yum closer to our local soup by using less coconut milk and a much more conservative use of herbs. It was a gamble, he says, to introduce his wife's Tom Yum Goong because the Filipino market might already have been used to a modified, Filipinized version of Tom Yum. Me, I think that's a gamble Thai Fusion Cafe is going to win.
A note to the less adventurous -- Don stressed the importance of enjoying these dishes the Thai way. Many Thai offerings, such as the Bagoong Rice with Sweet Pork, have their flavors balanced in such a way that not eating everything on your plate will totally alter your experience. Under his guidance, Cat tossed the sweet stir-fried pork, scrambled egg, mango strips, chilis, chopped string beans and shallots into her rice, and immediately she tasted the difference. I tried it too, and yes, the flavors now came together like a harmonious gamelan symphony. Then we both grabbed our Milk Teas! I'm not sure if the chef was using Thai birdseye chilies or our siling labuyo, but a mere teaspoonful of the stuff is mighty powerful. One reason why the condiments are grouped apart on your plate, aside from the presentation's appeal, is so you can mix as much or as little of each as you want (although he says another reason for the compartmentalized presentation is that some customers may be allergic to some ingredients).
The Pad Thai arrived last, when we were already starting to feel full. That we left not even a single bean sprout, noodle or speck of ground peanut surviving on that plate should tell you how we found it! Don's recommended way of eating Pad Thai is to pair it with their Papaya Salad or with Satay, either chicken or pork. Pad Thai has become a favorite of some regulars' children, he says; maybe this is a good way to trick kids into eating their vegetables? It's also one totally non-spicy dish, so you've a fallback order if any of your friends or family are averse to chilies.
Thai Fusion Cafe was recommended to us by our friend Sheila Amora, owner of Funky Plum. She was so eager to have Good Living BF feature this restaurant, she even followed up a few days after texting us her recommendation. Now we know why. Had my mom been born Thai, I think this is how she'd have cooked. Honest, unpretentious, yet lovingly dedicated to quality. This is the real stuff!
You may also want to try their other bestsellers: Chicken Pandan, Thai Toast, (Fried) Glass Noodle Spring Rolls, Pork or Chicken Satay, and the Papaya Salad.
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.
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!