2011 in review (part 2): pray, eat, gain weight

if my 2011 was lean on travel and adventure, it was rather fat on food. i could not remember any other year when i ate so much, and so well. i've always loved to eat, having been raised by a mother who is as adept in the kitchen as i am with words, i've enjoyed a lifetime of eating well, but my self-imposed limitations prevented me from exploring the world of food and satisfy my personal cravings just because i used to have this weird idea that i shouldn't spend more than P200 on a meal, which i've kept even well after i started to work. i remember when i landed a job in makati, i would schedule restaurant visits with friends twice a month -- each time we received our paychecks. i would tighten my belt on most days and "splurge" on our scheduled dinner dates. much later, i've realized that eating well had nothing to do with how expensive my plate was. rather, as with most things, good food was driven by knowledge: knowing where to eat, when and what to order.

and so began my usual haunts in binondo, visits to weekend markets, finding holes-in-many-walls, going out of my way to find new and exciting places, and reading blogs of foodies who were passionate about food rather than fad. but 2011 was a gastronomic year largely because i met new friends who were always hungry, not in the literal sense, but in the figurative: people who wanted new food experiences, whose palettes needed to be tickled by different flavors. old friends also developed this new kind of hunger, which wasn't driven solely by what we could afford, but what we had not yet eaten.

in this review, i list 11 epicurean discoveries that have shaped my year (not to mention my belly), also in random order:

  1. bistecca

  2. i first ate at bistecca with my friends ava and brian before they left for japan. at the time, i couldn't think of anyone else to invite, and i knew just how much of a carnivore brian is, so we trooped on over to rockwell and ate until we were dizzy from the meat, and blushing from the red wine. we ordered 2 1kg slabs of premium cut USDA certified beef and nearly finished all of it, that if i had eaten one more slice, i would have started to moo. not only did bistecca change my view on barely cooked meat (i first had medium rare here, which is supposedly how beef should be appreciated, so brian says), its truffle fries ruined regular french fries for me. i used to have little or no standards when it comes to regular food, but when you have a taste of good beef, you'd rather have bad pancit canton anytime, since i can't compare it to anything heavenly.

    bistecca is also the same reason why i suddenly find the idea of eating at batangus grill (which i described as poor man's steak since you can have a meal for about P250) disappointing. since late last year, i've only visited this restaurant in joya building three times. and deservingly so: the entry level bistecca 122 is priced at P295 per 100 grams.

  3. IMC kavino

  4. one time i had a craving for char kway teow, so i walked from my house to malacca in jupiter street, only to find out that the restaurant had closed. weeks later, my friend CY invited me to eat at the restaurant that replaced it: IMC kavino. the acronym stands for international master chef. the second word is the name of the decorated chef, who came here all the way from hong kong. since that first time, i've visited IMC kavino at least 5 times, and have recommended its delicious chinese fusion food to so many friends, the owner sits down on my table for a chat and gives me free dessert (even when i'm not with CY). and because i'm a creature of habit, i normally have the same things: i haven't strayed too far away from the takoyaki balls and delicious pot of chicken stew. CY, who is a journeyman of great food, lists IMC kavino among his favorite restaurants serving chinese cuisine, along with li li and tao yuan (see below).

  5. tao yuan

  6. this malate staple had mixed reviews from different broadsheet contributors: one said they served the best hainanese chicken rice, the other said her maid could do better. i've only been to tao yuan once, and i'm reserving my hainanese chicken rice review for a separate blog entry, but needless to say, i did enjoy my visit to tao yuan and immensely enjoyed the food. sometimes, knowing how much i paid for my plate affects the experience that unless the food is so supremely bad, i would completely enjoy the experience even though i could get something as good but at a cheaper price. what surprises me about tao yuan is the kind of crowd it draws and how you can never get a table unless you have an advance reservation, when it's so roughshod, it can't be considered fine dining, not even in this third world economy.

  7. hong kong roasts

  8. if you've eaten in places that serve good chinese food, including dimsum (IMC kavino above, li li restaurant below), you might not have too high an opinion of hong kong roasts along bagtikan, which i discovered on one of my taxi rides from the supermarket. but i do go back here often because the ducks and the chicken hanging on a glass window do remind me of hong kong, and the prices aren't too prohibitive that i can have my dose of chicken feet or dumpling if i am keen on making that 10 minute walk from the house.

  9. li li restaurant

  10. bar none, the best dimsum in town. and it's a buffet, so all others are just trumped. if i can't sleep, or on my way home from a last full show or a late-night gimik with friends, i have this craving for some steamed goodies, and normally, either north park or hap chan would do. but after my li li restaurant experience, everything else is just an alternative because i can't always spare P900+ for a fantastic dimsum experience. when CY, ian and i went to li li in the hyatt regency hotel in malate, we stayed from 11am till 3pm, getting plate after plate of freshly-steamed dimsum goodness from the kitchen. that's the best part, you make your choice of dimsum based on a checklist, and they're prepared only after the order is placed, instead of having stacks of them dry out when the steam dies down. i'm really looking forward to visiting li li again, and drown myself in dimsum heaven.

  11. heat

  12. i've long been fantasizing about shangri-la EDSA's heat, having sampled the one in circles event café a few times and wondering if its equivalent over in ortigas is just as good. the twain belong to my short list of hotel buffets musts which also includes sofitel's spiral (still undergoing renovation, as i understand), and after nearly two years of wanting and imagining, i finally experienced it when a former colleague invited me for a post-christmas lunch. the spread wasn't quite as impressive as the one at circles, only in the sense that there were more choices in shangri-la makati, but heat had other things going for it, outside of the open theater kitchens (which made ate dory ask whether they had hired stage actors instead of chefs). to begin with, they had crabs, curacha, and white clams (which, honestly, was the least edible thing on display). but one wise man told me that buffets are not all about selection, but stellar choices, since you can't stuff too much of anything, or even just a little of everything. truth be told, i would have been happy on just the roast duck, the adobo beef belly, and the sushi!

  13. japanese izakayas and ramen houses

  14. in one of our after-work jaunts in uptown tokyo, brian pushed me a small plate of japanese dumplings. "i'm not such a big fan of gyoza," i said, knowing my encounters with it back home have always been sub-par: they're rubbery, stale, and oddly half-cooked, having been dumped into hot oil straight from the freezer. "just try it," he replied, and after a bite, i exclaimed, "wow, this is the best gyoza ever." brian's response was terse but true: "dude, this is japan." i'm a huge fan of japanese food, and while i used to be happy with tokyo tokyo, teriyaki boy, or even karate kid, i now know what the real sushi, sashimi, and ramen should feel like. brian and ava took me to different izakayas and ramen houses in their roponggi neighborhood and i had everything from chicken bottoms to horse sashimi. it was my first time to sample ramen priced at over P600 a bowl, and it was worth every strand of noodle -- previous to this, i actually thought a bowl of nissin's was acceptable.

    how either brian or ava knew about any of these places is a mystery: they're found on the upstairs floors of non-descript buildings, or through a hallway beside a 7-11, with no prominent sign outside -- at least one that i'm familiar with. we somehow ended up in these very nice places because i was about to say that the curry at the vending machine restaurant was pretty darn good, when brian expressed extreme disappointment and said: i'm going to take you to a place where the food is more than half decent.

    japan slaked an unknown craving for all flavors japanese: i've always loved their food, but i never realized they could be any better, or that i've settled for less. i even visited a traditional kaitenzushi where a very respectful chef pushed sticky rice into the hollow of his other hand, finished it off with a sliver of seafood on top and placed it on color-coded plates, of which i had more than 9 (my hosts, combined, only had 5). too bad we came after lunch, so the conveyor belt wasn't running, but at least everything was prepared right before my eyes.

  15. ukokei / nemoto

  16. as i mentioned above, my standard for locally-available japanese food isn't so high, the main reason being that japanese restaurants in manila either think they're in tokyo or serve mainly to japanese nationals who do not mind paying japanese prices for a genuine taste of home. so i haven't been to many good japanese restaurants. but my trip to japan has altered my palette in such a way that the thought of having lunch at tokyo tokyo makes me roll my eyes. even some of the restaurants at little tokyo couldn't live up to the standard i developed returning from my trip. i had tried a few ramens, and gone home disappointed despite spending good money on them (P300 a bowl is still less than half the price of the good ones in tokyo, and are understandably less than half good). so i'm thankful that CY introduced me to ukokei along pasay road in makati. i first saw ukokei when i decided to abort my trip to kuala lumpur. my taxi was stalled by flooding just before the ramp up the skyway, and looked outside the window. i thought about trying it, but never got to. less than two weeks later, i got to have dinner there, and no other local ramen place reminded me more about the flavors of japan than this one. a bowl is about P400, but it's money i'm willing to spend for good japanese noodles.

    nemoto, on the other hand, is so detached from the usual japanese joints in makati. it's in the corner of taft and buendia, and it's easy to miss, but a recommendation from the owner of IMC kavino convinced me that it might be worth a visit. while its ramen was sub-par compared to ukokei, all the others i've tried have been very satisfying, and at a price that's more manila than tokyo. it's owned by an old japanese matron with an almost comical filipino, and has a very back-alley feel which makes it authentic, except for the filipino staff -- the ladies wear really short skirts that may actually suggest it doesn't just serve good japanese food.

  17. nomnomnom

  18. this restaurant at the corner of e. rodriguez and tomas morato isn't a 2011 discovery for me, but it certainly is for my parents. i took them there 3 times last year, each time after a visit to kamuning market to have new threads sewn. my mom asked how i even found out there were such places, when it was hidden from plain sight, and because it wasn't popular, like max's or kenny roger's (my mom really did say those places, because that's where my brothers usually take them). in contrast, i take my parents to places they've never heard of. i heard from QC-based friends that nomnomnom has just rolled out a new menu, which i'm eager to try, and not just with my parents.

  19. donken restobar

  20. so this might sound like a promotion since the restaurant in BGC is owned by my friends, but i don't think i've been happier with a revision of bagnet, than what chef kenneth came up with. their approach to the classic ilocano dish was original and fresh, better than the one i tried at pino (its flavor so distinct i would not mistake it for lechon kawali) and a little less cardiac-inducing than the one at stoops (plus you will likely not risk cracking a crown). i've been having bagnet dreams since we had our post-climb meeting there (where i ordered a kilo of bagnet) that i've always wanted to go back and try it again. unfortunately, the bagnet's so popular that when i returned at 8pm just before new year, they had run out. donna says they might actually make the bagnet the centerpiece of the restaurant. i'm serious about having dreams about it and salivating. really craving to go back!

  21. wingman

  22. the word wingman may mean different things for different people (1. a guy you bring along with you to a singles bar to help you pick up girls; 2. a pilot who supports the lead pilot in a potentially dangerous flying environment). for me, it means really good chicken wings in so many flavors, it's crazy. the menu at wingman, which you find at the collective along malugay, is pretty interesting, but i haven't tried many of them yet. there will be time for that, hopefully with friends with whom i can enjoy the P150 imported beers!