“Pork Skin Chicharron? Shrimp Cracker?” I asked, picking up the white, puffy Kropek-lookalike perched atop the thick cut tartare. “No. Beef Tendons.” Chef Paolo said matter-of-factly from behind the chef’s counter. “Braised till tender, pressed till set, cut, dehydrated overnight, then fried till puffy”.
Surprised, I bit into it, the chip gave a satisfying crunch which contrasted against the buttery meat made even richer by a light enveloping of just-punctured quail egg yolk. Had he not told me, I would definitely have guessed that the crisps perched on the Yukhoe were Shrimp Crackers. Why go through all that trouble for something liable to be misidentified (especially by diners like me who opt for the house’s recommendations and are wont to forget every component written on the menu)? Hardly had I finished the thought when the onslaught of dishes began.
Two plain, hefty, skewers of Heritage Pork Belly slathered in House-made Banana Ketchup came out alongside a rather monochromatic cream-orange curry akin to the ho-hum takeout curries from New York’s countless IndoChinoMalayThaiDoItAlls. “Filipino Street BBQ, Blue Crab Red Curry,” Chef Paolo described the dishes in as simple a manner as they looked. Most of Kaliwa’s (“Left” in Tagalog) shareable dishes were, in many respects, unassuming. Unsurprising garnishes and toned-down flair out-of-place in a space decked in dramatic shadows, striking Baybayin artwork, and curves against angles. A place that could have been the kind where would-be-celebrities go to Instagram each other and the tasteless but beautiful food was washed down with copious amounts of flat Rosé. But this was not that kind of place.
The BBQ tasted exactly like the ones from the streets of the Philippines sans tricycle smoke and far meatier: sweet, deep, lip-smackingly silky with just a touch of acidic brightness. The Blue Crab’s light garnish of greens the only thing breaking through the shades of orange and pale crab poking through it. It’s plain appearance made the unplain flavor all the more surprising with the brininess of the crab, tender threads against white rice and smooth sauce; a taste of yesteryears I spent eating luxuriously fresh seafood amid non-luxurious rural beaches in Antique, Philippines.
Neither Chefs Paolo, JR, nor Chef/Owner Cathal were much for showmanship, flamboyance, or words as we sampled the bites across their Filipino-Korean-Thai menu. The most we got was a simple warning from Cathal, the taller Irishman, when we asked for more rice: “Don’t eat too much of it, you’ll get too full”. A strange warning to a pair of Filipinos stated matter-of-factly. Friends of Paolo and JR’s further confirmed their economy of words: “They don’t really like talking and being all out there even during our private dinners. They just want to cook”.
“Bistek,” Chef Paolo presented, a handful of shimmering onion slices atop meat. The Bistek that was far thicker – enough to show gloriously medium rare meat in the middle – than any I’ve ever seen. “Kaldereta,” Chef JR slid across, shortly after, shreds of soft Edam Cheese layered on cuts of local Shenandoah Lamb Shoulder stewed with Potatoes. Bold Flavors kept slicing through Plain Looks with flavors of home combining with contemporary presentations: Sweet Soy-Garlic punches from the Bistek, cheesy game-y kicks from the Kaldereta. And the food kept coming.
Not once did the team break rhythm for a performance, no tableside flambeéing, no waving of fancy Japanese knives, no boisterous kitchen ass-slapping. And yet, this economical and unassuming approach to service required an almost unnecessary amount of effort behind the scenes. Kaliwa didn’t have to source such high quality meat for its dishes when the common denominator of many a Filipino rendition were the cheaper off cuts. The Halo-Halo, a dessert often topped with a scoop of synthetically deep purple Ube Ice Cream elsewhere, instead had a lighter, paler one. “Oh the Ube?” Chef Paolo mused when I inquired where he was sourcing them. “We buy those from the local market, peel them, grate them…and that’s all before we even get to making the custard base”.
Paolo describes all these extraordinary steps with such ordinariness as if these things are just par for the course in a world of Sinigang mixes, dressed up Spam Fries, and Sisig/Ube Everything. JR to the side rattles off orders into his headset with a quiet ease easily mistaken as boredom, not quite like the flamboyant chefs we’ve grown accustomed to through the media. They don’t blink or apologize for the food, treating it as if taking the extra miles is the only way they know how to do it. And yet, they are not without critics. A cursory glance at online reviews shows the usual complaints of serving sizes, price, and authenticity. Reviews that Paolo bemoaned during a late night stop at Ben’s Chili Bowl with this author, “I was born IN the Philippines! We look for the best ingredients and take no shortcuts when we come up with something new to try. I mean…how do you deal with all the negativity?” Perhaps in turning to the left side, Kaliwa garnered more than its fair share of criticism; the unexpected necessities of exploration facing unnecessary expectations.
In a way, Kaliwa came drifting through the food scene defying first impressions. It showcased cuisines using an approach that for others has led to mediocrity, was helmed by a non-Asian whose thoughtful take on the food was unlike many of the more tone-deaf “discoverers of ethnic cuisine”, used ingredients whose ordinary appearance was betrayed by its provenance, and put in enormous amounts of effort that would have gone unnoticed had we not sat and pulled a few sentences from the chefs. Finally, as our bellies began to groan in protest while bills were settled and takeout boxes were filled with customary baon, Paolo quipped: “You should come back for the Tinola. We just made the Consommé today”. “All that work for the Filipino cure-all soup?” I thought, imagining all the steps it takes to clarify stock. Well that came out of left field.