(Side Note: maybe I should Instagram my pictures first before posting them here…or get a better camera :P)
I once read that you shouldn’t buy pizza in Italy. That unless you’re in Naples, pizza in Italy is a far cry quality-wise from the deep dish varieties in Chicago or their $1 foldable cousins in Manhattan. I wonder if that holds true for other cultures when eating out.
In the Philippines, it’s quite true (most of the time). Sinigang (a staple of every Filipino household, a light broth soured with tamarind and usually accompanied by pork spare ribs or fish depending on your region) sprinkled with a scant few pieces of wilted lettuce and a few lonely radish slices. Adobo (vinegar/soy sauce-braised chicken) that’s more gristle than meat. Lumpia (incorrectly translated as “Spring Roll”) where there was more wrapper than filling. I guess these are more a symptom of our economic circumstance than culinary prowess…but I digress.
However, we were pleasantly surprised by a visit to the Kanin Club at the Ayala Triangle Gardens, an atmospheric green zone in the middle of bustling Manila where wait lists for the simplest cafes rivaled those of Michelin-starred powerhouses in Midtown New York. A friend I had met at the embassy the other day recommended the place based on their focus on quality ingredients and not being skimpy on the food though the place has been open for some time now.
We came around dinnertime and were told that we were 41st on a rapidly growing list with a wait time of an hour. We were seated two hours later after figuring out that their illogical “reservation system” consisted of the maitre’d shouting all names out in rapid succession until someone raised their hand to take the spot. Not to mention, the hostess told us that had we pre-ordered our meal, we would have been placed in the #2 spot instead of the #41. Imagine that! The ability to jump the entire line just by pre-ordering. America take note…or not.
Photo cred: Tawanan at Kainan te!
The place was loud; a mixture of families and throngs of coworkers not unlike the masses milling about outside. The menu was distinctly Filipino, without the bastardized combo meals you find wandering the streets of Pasay. What really stood out were the descriptions, written to entice real gourmands and the discerning foodies without taking for granted the diner’s ability to understand Tagalog; a modern eatery feeding the global hungry so to speak.
We started with the “Kinilaw na Blue Marlin”, a Filipino-style ceviche that’s slightly sweeter and more citrusy than the Spanish version. The first sign that this was going to be a good meal: gigantic chunks, fresh vegetables, and rose-colored flesh (white means it’s been sitting in the acid for too long).
To test the more distinct dishes, we forewent the usual adobos and stir-frys for the “Sinanlay na Tilapia”, a Visayan dish of Tilapia wrapped in leaves and simmered in gata (coconut milk). Surprisingly light and devoid of the usual oil spill found on other coconut milk-based dishes, the only criticism I had was that the leaves didn’t so much as “wrap” the fish than it did cover the top (what?….I’m a hungry kid!).
For the vegetables, we got the “Kanin Club’s Vegetarian Delight”: banana blossoms, shiitake/enoki/and cloud ear mushrooms with tofu in oyster sauce. It seemed more Chinese than Filipino to me though that may be because my mom used to make a similar dish growing up. Imagine the hot-and-sour soup from your local Chinese takeout…but not so much hot and with waaay more veggies.
But the real deal was in the “Crispy Dinuguan” (Pork entrails braised in its own blood. The subject of many a Fear Factor episode and fondly known as “Chocolate Sauce” to the unenlightened). The Kanin Club version featured deep fried pork. Imagine dipping straight up chicharon in dinuguan sauce. Why didn’t I think of this before?!
To end, we ordered the obligatory “Halo-Halo” (as some places should be tested by their bread baskets, one should always test a Filipino restaurant’s Halo-Halo, a hodgepodge of shaved ice, candied fruits, jellies, and ice cream…coz we don’t want just one of them, we want ALL of them) and the “Turon KC a la mode” (think banana-stuffed spring roll) with a side of “Kapeng Barako” (the local coffee from Batangas).
The Halo-Halo was well-made if not uninspiring. Think of that one loyal friend you had in HS who wasn’t good for much more than rides to the mall (not that I had one). The coffee was a much lighter, silkier version that the Dark Roasts we’re used to from Starbucks. A much better foundation for the cream and sugar the Pinoys spill into their coffees.
The Turon on the other hand…there are those dishes that really get you saying: “So THIS is what it’s supposed to taste like”. The first time you taste native chicken, or wagyu beef, or pure honey. This Turon wasn’t a thin, limp, overripe banana filled shell. This was plump, filled with monggo beans, coconut strips, and ube (purple yam) jam. Paired with cold ice cream, this alone made the visit worthwhile.
I am still of the opinion that Filipino food should only be eaten in Filipino households when in the Philippines. But if you’re willing to fight the crowd, head to the Kanin Club. A real rarity in the native cuisine scene (at least for a tourist like me).