A taste of Manila’s gastronomic explosion

Sep 10,2015

Earlier this year, CNN named the Philippines the second-best culinary destination in the world. Marisse Gabrielle Reyes finds out if Filipino food is experiencing a renaissance in her homeland, where foreign has always seemed better.

Manila's grit and unpredictability, to me, was initially jarring – offensive, even. My career as a food and travel writer has allowed me to experience other cultures through their food. But with my own, I wasn't so sure if there was much to find.

Manila's blood runs through my veins, but the heart that pumps it has always been unsure. What is there to be proud of in a city – a country – riddled with poverty, inefficiency and imbalance? I was born in California and raised in one of the most orderly nations in the world, Singapore. But on a recent trip to Manila, with 4-star hotel The Heritage Hotel Manila as my base, I was determined to get to the bottom of the food scene.

Chef Chele Gonzalez. Credit: Gallery VASK

Much of the buzz in recent years has come from outside the country – perhaps a fascination with an exotic cuisine not known to many people. Manhattan's Maharlika and Jeepney became quick spokespeople for the cuisine, Filipino food trucks demanded long lines all over North America, and the cuisine topped food-trend round-ups.

From the farms

Apart from some mangoes, pineapples, coconuts and bananas, the Philippines hasn't seemed to realise its potential to export its produce. So as somewhat of a foreigner to the land, I was surprised to find such artisanal locally grown fruits and vegetables.

Legaspi Sunday Market. Credit: Marisse Gabrielle Reyes

A friend told me to check out Good Food Community, a grassroots organisation that was set up to stimulate and support the business of small organic farms. I headed up north to their Sunday market, Good Food Sundays in Quezon City, to take a look at the small businesses that covert the fantastic local produce into artisanal eats. The vendors, who were charmingly rustic and enthusiastic, told me they were in the business partly for the love of country and party to make a living. Farm to Table proffered delicious cheeses and butters made from 100 per cent grass-fed cows, Chili Asylum offered spicy salsas, chilli and chutneys, and Kalsada Coffee championed locally grown and roasted brews.

Reinventing local

Squash blossom and mushroom toast. Credit: Green Pastures

The following day, I made a beeline for Green Pastures, a chain helmed by local chef Robby Goco, who serves organic food. Unlike many local eateries, I found this one to be brightly aware of global food trends. Goco, however, takes it up a notch by interpreting them in a punchy and authentic way. Think squash blossom toast with homemade burrata, ricotta, grape tomatoes and basil, as well as mushroom and kale paella made from Ifugao heirloom tinawon red rice, fried enoki mushrooms and saffron aioli.

Tiradito. Credit: Gallery VASK

One of Manila's media darlings, Gallery VASK, was on my checklist for dinner. Located in the modern bubble of Bonifacio Global City, it is helmed by Spanish chef Chele Gonzalez, who honed his skills in some of Spain's finest kitchens like El Bulli, Arzak and Mugaritz. Housed inside a modern Filipino art gallery, the fine-dining restaurant has raised the bar for Filipino cuisine and paved a new path for little-known local produce.

One of the most enjoyable dishes was Tiradito, the chef's take on kinilaw, a local version of ceviche. Slivers of yellow fin tuna loin were covered in coconut milk, calamansi and tabon-tabon, served with pickled arosep seaweed and finished with sampaloc wood smoke. I was blown away by not only Gonzalez's deft hand, but also the variety, quality and potential of Filipino produce. Gonzalez also introduced me to local ingredients such as fermented cacao beans from Dauin, kalibangbang leaves from Pampanga and kaong fruit from Negros. Why these products are so underused, and even undervalued, was almost overwhelming.

East meets West

Mackerel with coconut, sriracha, coriander and radish. Credit: 12/10

Prioritising comfort and consistency over new experiences seems to be king when dining out in often-chaotic developing countries like the Philippines. But on this trip, I discovered a few brazen souls who are upping Manila's culinary ante.

Gab Bustos and Thea de Rivera of The Girl + The Bull down south are one such young, self-taught couple. Their one-page menu lists comfort eats like buttermilk fried chicken and baked brie. However, the local scallops with foie gras, squid ink brioche roll, salsa verde, slaw and ebiko was a revelation. I was told that the owners had recently opened a second eatery, 12/10, in Makati's San Antonio Village, which focuses on Japanese-inspired small plates. After a post-lunch breather, I headed over to this new spot for dinner. Like its sister restaurant, the menu is focused and the dishes come out artfully plated. The most memorable dishes included the mackerel with coconut, sriracha, coriander and radish, as well as the wagyu with leek ash, vanilla, carrots and sprouts.

Also on my bucket list was Your Local back in Legazpi Village, where I headed for my last meal in Manila. The joint seemed to have taken cues from Momofuku's eateries in New York – from the open kitchen to the stark but buzzy atmosphere to the Asian-inspired menu. The food was delicious, simple and substantial, and must-orders include the chilli crab served in deep-fried mantou buns, as well as the chorizo sandwich on a squid ink bun.

I headed back to my hotel room at The Heritage Hotel Manila filled with a sense of pride, even obligation, towards Manila. Farms are beginning to harvest artisanal foods, ancient Filipino produce is re-emerging and creative local and foreign food artisans are transforming the culinary climate.

I sensed so deeply that Manila is undergoing a culinary awakening many haven’t experienced. I'm excited to see what I'll find on my next trip.

For more foodie adventures in Millennium Hotels and Resorts destinations, check out these articles.


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