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Monday, August 31, 2009

When in Laguna

This past long weekend led my husband and I to pack a few things and take to the highway for Liliw, Laguna. The trip commemorated many firsts for us - it was the first time for us to go to Liliw with nothing but general directions from a couple of people, it was the first time for us to travel without our daughter, and it was the first time my husband and I were celebrating our wedding anniversary with a roadtrip. In anniversaries past, it was usually celebrated with hotel or resort accommodations and/or dinners in a well-appointed restaurant with reservations in advance. But this had a different yet exhilirating feel about it.

Ahead of us, we were perenially greeted with a smooth highway, arching branches from trees that probably stood by there for ages, which open into vistas of fields of palay cradled between mountains. We passed through Tanay, and onto Pililia which led to Siniloan, Sta. Cruz then later on, Lumban, Paete, which opened into charming Pagsanjan with its old but well-maintained houses, and finally in through Magdalena then Liliw.

We were pleasantly surprised to find out we arrived at a time they were celebrating the feast day of John the Baptist, more specifically, his beheading, to which the town cathedral is dedicated to. However, I have to admit at this point that what led us to Liliw, was first, a cafe called Arabela (which we read about in F & B Magazine), and second, every woman's weakness - fabulous shoes of every design and size. Much to my delight, the shops are on sale due to the religious fiesta.

My husband deftly led me to Arabela first, lest I forge on ahead with my shopping spree without having had any lunch. Arabela Cafe is located in the basement of the family-owned property of Bobby and Tonet Camello. This property is luckily located in the middle of the bayan, and like us, we found it just by asking people around. It is quite popular.
The cafe has low ceilings and charmingly decorated with kitschy pieces. They specialize in Italian fare - more of the pasta, pizza and pannini variety. I was quite happy with my eggplant parmigniana served with pasta al'arrabiata, while my husband found that his porterhouse steak retained its tenderness after careful cooking.

After our shopping bout which was evidenced by bags and bags of shoes, we came back for a shot of our afternoon espresso and their fudgy walnut cake and bread pudding, all excellently moist and chewy.

We left Liliw with a promise of coming back to explore it with more time to spare and more money to burn (for those shoes - what? I'm a woman who can't let go of good bargains, after all).
After Liliw, we wound our way towards San Pablo, in search of another cafe - the Sulyap Gallery Cafe located at Barangay del Remedio, Cocoland Compound. Much kudos should go to the owner Roy Empalmado who has restored the Spanish colonial house to every last detail. Such attention is also transferred to the service rendered by his waitstaff who are very deferential to the cafe's guests, precise in their movements and very helpful. It is quite obvious that the waitstaff are proud of their jobs and are happy doing it, which I may say is so lacking from the usual service crew of the restaurants in Greenbelt and Eastwood in Metro Manila.

For dinner, we had the Crab and Cheese Lumpia as appetizer, followed by the Crispy Tilapia with Oyster Sauce and Kulawong Puso ng Saging (Ceviche of Heart of Banana) with Grilled Pork Belly for our main dishes. The tilapia was fresh, and crispy to the bone, the latter of which you can even crunch on. The Kulawong Puso, on the other hand, was said to be indigenous to San Pablo cuisine. It is rendered more tasty with coconut cream and the grilled pork, which complemented the tilapia very well. Sulyap offers crepes and ice cream for dessert, which sadly, we didn't have room for anymore, but the coffee we noticed, is excellent. It was served to us with the crema still there - again the details.

After a sumptuous meal, the gracious waiters accompanied us to the gallery located in the building fronting the cafe. It was a treasure trove of real gems collected from a rich Filipino past - furniture, dinnerware, crystals and various knick knacks including old Coke and medicine bottles. It was quite charming. There were also a couple of large halls which we were told can be rented for special occasions or parties. Imagine holding get-togethers there made more memorable by Filipino antiques. Every little object was lovingly preserved. Upon further inquiries, we were told that the owner is planniing to set up a hotel or bed & breakfast to accompany his cafe, but he is still in search of just the right house to acquire and match the charm of Sulyap Cafe. The hotel will definitely house the furniture and fixtures on display at the gallery.

My husband and I are looking forward to discovering that when it opens - it'll certainly be a good reason to go back to San Pablo.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

When in Rome

Setting aside Metro Manila, La Citta Eterna (the Eternal City) is one of my favorite places on Earth. I am very lucky to be able to visit it more than once. Not only are the sights to behold - where else can you find museums, churches, fountains and architectural delights so concentrated in one place - but the dining experiences can be in multitudes as well.

Romans do love their ristorantes and caffes and you'll get to see them on every street and every few meters in between. With so many to choose from, one can get confused as to where to go. I'm not a seasoned traveller of Italy (although I wish I were) but I've listed down my favorite places for the sheer rhapsody of my experiences in each.

Ristorante L'Arcano
Via dei Pastini ang. via delle Paste, 102
Tel. No. +39 06 6786929

My husband, daughter and I discovered this lovely place while on our way to the Pantheon feeling quite hungry during a rainy lunch hour. The restaurant is located at the 16th-century Palazzo Gabrielli and serves traditional Roman fare.

The restaurant itself is cozy and intimate.

It is one of those rare places in the city where the wait staff can speak English and can understand you as well. Notice that speaking and understanding are entirely two different things. They're very genial and will delicately tell you that they serve their own freshly made pasta and that they prize their meat which come from the Val di Chiana area of Tuscany. But they are most proud of their seafood dishes because of the freshness of their ingredients and that it is really their chef's specialty. Hmm...fresh seafood in the middle of Rome? That's something.

While you can browse through their regular menu, L'Arcano also offers a lunch special everyday. At Euro30, one can get an appetizer of bruschetta with pesto spread and tomatoes, a light salad of greens with balsamic vinaigrette and your main dish (you choose a first or second plate offering). We chose their spaghetti marinara with grilled lobsters, and boy, were we happy with our choice. Not just happy, but SUBLIMELY happy. The freshness of the ingredients hits you to the core at the first tear of the bread, at the crunch of the vegetables, and at the forkful of pasta that meets your taste buds.

In fact, we were misled by the Euro30 price tag. Their servings are generous so that we followed the waiters' suggestion to just split the meal. My husband and I shared this lunch special so that actually, it cost us Euro15/pax. Not bad. My daughter, on the other hand, is a stickler to what is tried and true, so she had her ubiquitous Pizza Margherita, which was equally savory.

The people at L'Arcano were also kind enough to accommodate us with our request to have our coffee at their bookstore next door. This bookstore actually looks like you stepped in the living room of your Roman friend's apartment. It has a couch in the middle with an LCD TV, and books stationed in tableaus with other curios all over the place. It also has a bar for aperitivo hour.

If you're a tourist looking for something homey and elegant at the same time, this is a good place to start.

Di Fronte a . . .
Via della Croce 38
+39 06 6780355

My sister was the one who brought me to this place one fine May day. From what i remember, the place is walking distance from the Piazza Augusto Imeperatore and fashionable Via Condotti.

The name
Di Fronte a . . . literally means "In Front of . . ." which actually refers it being in front of Sergio Vertecchi's cartoleria, who also owns the restaurant.
It has a casual atmosphere and quite a popular place for the locals who make it quite a happening place in the evenings. Their menu offerings are dependent on market availability so you can be sure that your are enjoying the freshest ingredients as well, especially vegetables.

For our lunch, we didn't do as the Romans did and went straight to secondi piatti (second plate). My sister was still feeling full so she only ordered the Salade Nicoise. I had the grilled steak with Mushroom and Black Truffle Sauce while my daughter had the Salmon Steak with Red Peppercorn Sauce. What more can one say except that we had a truly satisfying meal at Euro12-18/pax, my choice being the favorite of the batch. Ample servings prevented me from being a sourpuss at having to share my lunch with my companions. I could barely breathe afterwards when we stepped out into the sunny street. I suppose being doused with a glass of their house red made me amiable.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

My Neighborhood Oasis

One of the many good things of having household guests is that you get to have an excuse to go out of the house and show off your town and the many charming secrets it holds. In such situations, my family will most likely introduce our guest/s to the nearby Crescent Moon Cafe. The operative word here is "nearby".

I remember the first time we noticed the simple signage along the national road towards Teresa, Rizal, where it directs you to go down a narrow street right off the road. We promised ourselves that we'll check it out one day. The next weekend we went by, it was when we discovered that this narrow road is a shortcut towards the subdivisions of Maia Alta and Mission Hills, among others. This was when we found out where the cafe was exactly located. It was fenced off from the street with a chicken wire fence and surrounded lots of foliage.

It was on our third trip to that narrow street that we actually went in and were greeted first by a pottery barn and next, by such verdant scenery of trees, plants, and man-made ponds and waterfalls. It was indeed a refreshing sight. It was similar to the unfolding of a peaceful secret place that rejuvenates the senses instantly.
In the middle of it all was the cafe, similarly constructed as the pottery barn by the entrance. The first time visitor such as I will notice first the pond full of koi leading to the cafe main entrance. Then, the waterfalls further on. Upon entering the cafe and choosing a table, one can get a 360-degree view of the garden as the walls are surrounded by screens. The cafe interior is charm itself - here and there are batik and other indigenous Filipino textiles either covering the tables or hanging from the ceiling or down one side of a wall.

Of course, there being a pottery barn, there is a nook devoted to assorted ceramic items for sale and at reasonable prices.

The cafe opens between 10 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon only, and their menu is limited to what is being prepared that day by the cook. One has to call in advance to be sure that you can be served because sometimes, there are events that they cater to as well. The first time we were there, we only had an afternoon snack of suman with fresh mangoes and coffee. On other occasions, we brought our own bottle of wine to accompany the 3-course meal.

That day, we were served this plateful of leaves which we use to wrap an assortment of fillings - there were diced green mangoes, fried alamang (shrimp fry), siling tagalog, basil leaves, onions, ginger, toasted and fragrant coconut and doused with this special blend of peanut sauce. Next was the creamy mushroom soup, unforgettable for its freshness. Then the main dishes of prawn curry, mixed vegetables, and fried fish fillets with chili sauce. Everything was fresh and flavorful and served on the ceramic plates made and produced by the owner herself. The dessert was the ever reliable suman and mangoes of course, which we capped of with a cup of coffee or tea, for our guest.

Each visit is truly a special experience for us and never fails to impress our guests. It is indeed a delicious secret to be shared.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Budget Meals

When I was younger, I didn't understand why my parents always had packs of ground beef and pork on the grocery list every week. I would even become disheartened at the thought that i'll probably see this ground meat sauteed with cubed potatoes, carrots and red bell peppers in tomato sauce. That was how our cook would usually prepare it.

However, ever since I was managing my own kitchen, I find that there was good reason for always having ground pork and/or beef on hand. It's one of the most versatile food items there is. Now, I was thinking - if only our cook back then also had a versatile mind. . .

Well, one evening, I was in a pinch as to what dish to serve my family. Remembering I had lean ground beef sitting in the freezer, I transformed it into hamburger patties with a twist. Mixed in were minced vegetables as well for an even healthier take. It just took me under an hour to compose a complete meal of burger steaks with mushroom gravy, corn niblets, sauteed spinach and java rice. The results were very satisfactory. I'm sharing it here and hope you make it part of your "emergency kit". But having it with pre-meditation for dinner with friends can wow them as well.

Burger Steaks

3/4 kg. ground lean beef (top sirloin)
1/2 c. each of dry bread crumbs, minced carrots & green beans
1 whole red onion, minced
3 medium-sized eggs
salt & pepper

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl until well incorporated. Form into patties and stack them on a plate separated with wax paper. If you have time, refrigerate the patties for at least an hour before cooking to allow flavors to blend. If you're in a hurry, put the patties in the freezer for 15 minutes first before cooking. I prefer pan-grilling the burgers in chorizo lard, but cooking it in other fat is good as well.

For the mushroom gravy:

1/2 c. button mushrooms, quartered
1 T. minced garlic
1 c. chicken stock
2 T. cornstarch mixed with 3 T. stock or water
2 T. Worcestershire sauce
1-2 T. pan juices from the burger steaks
butter for sauteeing

Saute garlic in butter and pan juices until almost brown and/or fragrant. Add mushrooms and cook for 1 minute. Add chicken stock and Worcestershire sauce and let boil mixing the broth occasionally. When broth boils, mix in the cornstarch mixture and stir continuously until sauce thickens. Correct with salt and pepper to taste.

But if you want another short cut, I can recommend using a pack of Cream of Mushroom Soup. I mix the contents of one pouch in 2 cups water, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon over a low fire. I still add the Worcestershire sauce for color and additional flavor. And, you can't have too much sprinkling of salt and pepper.