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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

entry arrow1:48 AM | My Favorite Food Places

I don't cook much.

The last time I baked Angel's Food Cake was for high school's Home Economics class, and the cake we eventually produced straight from the oven was unbelievably spongy, and the icing runny. Mrs. Timtim, who was our ever-patient teacher in Silliman High, gave me a passing grade nevertheless. This despite the fact that my group had ran out of our ration of three matchsticks for the oven, but Gerard, who was already wily even in our younger years, had evilly pocketed a matchbox-full into the helm of his apron. The cake was a relative success: it didn't collapse upon itself. And despite its aesthetic failures, it was surprisingly delicious. Gerard since then has graduated with an HRM degree from the University of the Philippines ... and I am still the pedestrian food taster. Never one made for the magic of skillets and measuring cups. I was to be one of those hopelessly inept Filipino boys spoiled too much by mother to be lord of the kitchen. That I do make great achara is no boasting matter, because pickled papaya does not a dish make.

When I studied and lived on my own in the concrete jungles of Tokyo -- where a restaurant meal cost far more than anyone's monthly salary here -- I reveled in the joys of living in a first-world country where everything can be had for a few yen more. The busy Japanese had developed a heat-then-eat pack of microwave-ready fried rice, which was available 24 hours a day from the nearest SunKus. (Or the 7-11 a few blocks south, which was a bit too far from my side of Mitaka.) That was a tasty instant food, something I lived on as staple for the most part of my Japanese residence. Sometimes, I fried something. Bacon, I think.

On good days, when I feel just a tiny bit epicurean, I switch on the television and watch the various temptations proffered in the cooking shows over at the Lifestyle Network, and more often these days, on the Food and Living division of Discovery Channel. Anthony Bourdain, besides being a great writer, becomes even more enviable for me when I learn he knows his exotic food like the back of his cooking hand, too. Then there is Nigella Lawson. Television food indeed made sexy. Which goes without saying that watching television is the extent to my efforts in food preparation, and I've convinced myself luckily, too, because this couch potato exercise is helpfully cholesterol-free.

But a kind of wish often escapes from my mouth in the guise of sighing -- something I interpret as my soul wishing that my hands were a bit more creative, food-wise. I can perfectly imagine myself with a chef's hat, skillets and knives on hand, concocting the perfect tocino del cielo. But there is no passion in even attempting that, not the kind of passion I have anyway for, well, eating. I blame my mother sometimes; herself a very good cook -- the kind who absolutely loathes the dishes she makes -- she never taught me how to handle myself in the kitchen, although all five of my older brothers have certain specialties that somehow elevate them, at least in my estimation. Brother Alvin, who makes a living as a chef in Los Angeles, has all the gifts. Brother Edwin has all the imagination and European-savvy, while Brother Rey puts his own stamp on his chicken salad.

I cannot make spaghetti without consulting the cookbook.

The ultimate reward for all these in a bachelor's life such as mine, is that it makes me as a kind of expert in choosing the best restaurants anywhere, brought about more out of a sense of necessity. I need to eat, and I just don't eat anywhere, because the rule of any gourmand involves also the enjoyment in the eating. In my Dumaguete life as a bachelor, I know of the endless parade of culinary possibilities that present itself for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I am going to share some of the more interesting ones. The top ones, because they are closer to my heart.

It's not the deliciousness of the meal that catches my fancy all the time. It is not the primary criteria. In Don Atilano, I once had a wonderful dinner (with Father Jacques de Boccard) of the most savory steak, done rare, complete with a 2002 Cape Gold Cabernet Sauvignon from South Africa, the soft berry and fruity aroma of which made the whole experience a refection of divine gusto. Its Wakagi counterpart is great enough for a Japanese resturant (the maki is to die for). But I never liked the atmosphere, and oftentimes the service, of Don Atilano. My cousin, newly-arrived from Canada, took me for dinner there once, and upon entering a near-empty Wakagi, we were immediately dismissed by the waiter with a suggestion bordering on snobbery, to "go to the other side" of the establishment. Manang Yvette replied coolly back: "My dear waiter, I wish to have Japanese food for my dinner. Do you have a problem with that?" Later, she made a statement by ordering more than half the available listings in the menu, all charged to her platinum credit card.

Which is why I like Blueman's Chicken. The very name suggests imagination (why, indeed, "blue man"?) that belies the fact it is actually a little more than a roadside stand, offering deep-fried nuggets of chicken. Mark used to take me for dinner to the old stand near St. Paul's, where we would dine on either deliciously fried breast or drumstick, in darkness. (They had no electricity, only quaint candles.) Today, they have transferred near my pad along Aldecoa Drive (otherwise known as Laguna Silliman), with a tiny (and well-lit) sitting room with three tables. The chicken is still the same, perhaps even more delicious. And intriguing, because it is so ordinary, reminding me of the fried chicken Mother used to make for me when I was a kid. The chicken has a certain crunchiness to it, and the meat is tantalizingly soft for something that is fried.

The chicken is not so great over at Sta. Teresa, near Piapi. (It is often bony.) But this wonderful upscale carinderia compensates for it with its other dishes that define the very best of home cooking. Over the past few months, and without any advertising at all, the business has thrived on the power of word-of-mouth. And now days are rare when the place is not full to capacity. The proprietors have had to erect a table or two along the sidewalk to accommodate the growing throng of very faithful patrons. What I like about Sta. Teresa is its meticulous attention to detail. They have somehow learned what is already common knowledge among food aficionados: that dining out must also be an experience, not just for the palate, but for the rest of senses. The whole place evokes something Zen-like, almost Japanese, with its carefully cultured landscaping and perfectly designed lighting. The whole experiment has thus resulted to an illusion of relaxation and quiet, even when the place itself is buzzing with activity. To eat at Sta. Teresa is to enjoy a sense of wholeness.

That sense of wholeness takes on a different approach in Chantilly. An old name for most Dumaguetenos who flock to the place for their pastry needs, the reason why I love Chantilly is the fact that I can spend whole afternoons there and get out feeling a little bit happier, and more in touch with myself. Yes, it's the food: the carbonara and the Chantilly bread are old favorites; but it is also the music selection, which is soft, and easy. When I have to attack the piles of student papers for grading in my work as a college instructor, I prepare myself for the assault on grammar and syntax by doing it all in Chantilly, over some cake and hot tea.

I like an atmosphere of friendliness and accommodation in my restaurants -- which is why it disheartened me when I noted a particular notice in Dunkin' Donuts barring students from studying in its premises, because of "complaints from other customers." Which gives me pause. I, too, used to study in Dunkin', burning my midnight candle while burping over a box of Bavarians and cups of brewed coffee. It was the perfect place: open 24 hours in a city purported to be a University Town. I mean, who else would be awake in Dumaguete at 2 o'clock in the morning, except students? So now, studying there is banned. Alas, we, too, can choose not to eat doughnuts. Most of the students I know -- law students, mostly -- have gone back to Chantilly, where the music is more relaxing, and the food great.

When I want something heavier for lunch and dinner, Howyang is the place I go to. There is a certain charm to the place. It's friendly, and very clean. There once was a survey among consumers in Manila to determine what people considered a very good restaurant. The surprising result was the restroom factor: that the cleaner the restroom, the better the restaurant is perceived to be. On that one criteria, Howyang is perhaps the best restaurant in Dumaguete. Notwithstanding the fact that for a cheap total of P55, you get a good meal of your choice, with drinks. Which is more than I can say for most fastfood joints in Dumaguete. My current favorite fare is the grilled pork belly, always a scrumptious affair.

But for the best food in town, all roads lead to Royal Suite Inn, along Rovira Road in Bantayan -- a place which is, for the most part, the sacred secret destination among the city's gourmands. The place looks unpretentious, but the moment you taste their sizzling pochero and garlic chicken, you would have yourself believe that God is in heaven, and everything is good in the world. Because of places like these, I do not mind at all the fact that I am a cooking ignoramus. What's a little ignorance, in exchange for food and atmosphere like theirs?

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