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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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Saturday, July 21, 2007

entry arrow2:55 PM | Coffee Culture Takes Dumaguete

“Only a fool laughs at coffee shops.”

To define a city merely in terms of infrastructure and population is being myopic about the mechanics of how cosmopolitan lives work, and thrive. A city is also a city because it invites a culture of sophistication.

That said, a city without coffee shops cannot be rightly called a city. It is only a shadow of its possible self, because coffee -- a brew that has tantalized many for centuries -- is more than just being the most popular legal drug in history.

Coffee, one must note first of all, is symbolic of intellectual ferment, as it had been in Paris, Vienna, Rome, London, New York, Seattle, and all the other coffee-drinking great cities of the world. It has come a long way from the discovery of its beans by some goatherd in the mountains of Ethiopia. From Africa and the Middle to East to wherever this brew manages to land, it has brought with it great social change. The French Revolution, so the theory goes, germinated in a Parisian coffee shop -- and with it the democratic notions of equality, fraternity, and liberty. Harry Potter came to being while J.K. Rowling trawled one coffee shop after another, each sip of caffeine firing off the neurons that would soon bring us Hogwarts and its magical denizens. I have written countless stories and essays in coffee shops, and sometimes I wonder how many creations there are exactly that first saw the light of conception on tissue papers with circular brown stains of coffee mugs.

Coffee is conversation. Coffee is debate. Coffee is an organic pump. Coffee is an elixir. Coffee, with the anti-oxidants that enrich it, has became a health drink of sorts.

Coffee is the push that makes bearable the manic struggle with which we lead our lives. Coffee is the energy that courses through our veins and wakes us up to make contemporary living more bearable, less drowned in the haze of uncertainty. Coffee is the confidence of the gloriously awake, as surely as a shot of espresso gives us the energy to propel forward with our first steps of the day.

In other words, without my two cups of coffee in the morning, I am as energetic as a drugged-out zombie.

All that said, if coffee is the very liver (if not the heart) of a thinking city, Dumaguete then is quite lucky that there is something like Café Antonio in The Spanish Heritage to propel us towards a semblance of civilized wakefulness. The establishment is the lone bulwark of local coffee culture, given the absence of more popular franchises such as Starbucks, or Bo’s, or Seattle’s Best, or Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, or even Figaro. (Lee Cimbali is really just a bakeshop that serves blended coffee, and Café Memento is more like a beer bistro with barako pretensions -- and I do happen to like both, thank you very much. The New York Times has famously written about the brewed coffee in Don Atilano, calling it the best one in the country thus far, but it is a boast that has to be taken with a grain of, umm, sugar: what did that American travel writer exactly know about coffee in the Philippines? And besides, Don Atilano is not a coffee shop: it is a hotel restaurant famous more for its steak than for its menu of caffeinated beverages.)

Dumaguete has had a checkered history with coffee shops. I remember the first time a pioneering one—the long-missed Silliman Avenue Café (“SACs” to its devoted regulars) -- opened its doors to warm reception but lukewarm patronage. (One businessman I used to know jokingly said of it, “I’d rather make myself Nescafe instant coffee in my house.” Which may be, well, the practical thing -- but the businessman did not get the point of the enterprise. There’s a reason why there is something we call “coffee culture,” and it is not because of the ease of coffee-making. Troglodytes, for that matter then, can have their Nescafe.)

Is the city ready for barista-made coffee, and a peculiar coffee vocabulary that includes words like “java” and “cappuccino” and “espresso” and “macchiato” and “latte”? Can they see beyond the typical high prices for choice blends without simpering away to be content with cheap Nescafe? Sometimes I think Dumaguete isn’t. “We’re still edging on tagabukid,” a friend once helpfully said. That may hurt, but it’s true. SACs eventually closed down, burdened as it was with breaking in something new to a Nescafe-drinking population. (The old venue was promptly transformed into a massage parlor—burned down now, of course.) The only “cafés” that seem to have thrived (Memento and Cimbali, included) are more like joints who just happen to have coffee. Café Antonio had its start more than a year ago, and today remains the only one that takes coffee culture as its sole raison d’etre -- even when it goes on day by day to remain liquid, hoping for the full-blossoming of a population who will know their coffee.

Every time I meet proprietors Dixon Peralta and Rolando Piñero (and sons Raymond Vincent and Roderick), they seem always bent on improving the lot of the place -- a good sign for good business. In the first place, they have to go around the principled restrictions they have for the coffee shop -- there’s no beer or smoking here, and they open at 1 in the afternoon, easily canceling the possible morning traffic of those who need their caffeine fix early in the day. (My own solution has always been to go to Dunkin’ Donuts for takeout coffee, before I proceed to work.) The smoking prohibition springs from a Christian standpoint -- Dumaguete, if one must know, is replete with this unique business practice: Bethel Guest House is one such, and the distinction has been quite successfully ingrained in the corporate culture. Which is admirable, but the practice also significantly cuts into Café Antonio’s common coffee clientele who mostly imbibe their caffeine with their nicotine. “But we want to make a difference,” Dixon once told me -- and I agree with him: not all coffee shops should spring from the same mold.

Café Antonio is helped by the fact that it is located in what has to be prime property in Dumaguete -- a corner spot in the hallowed area between Avenida Santa Catalina and the seaside Boulevard. The Spanish Heritage itself is a grand sight from the street. It is done in the ancient Spanish style of a bahay na bato, which it really is, and the Peraltas has done great credit to the architecture by preserving it. This marks him separate from other entrepreneurs in Dumaguete who mark their own silliness and ignorance by demolishing old houses to make way for garish buildings to house even more garish business.

Café Antonio, of course, is the crown jewel in the building, and we are led to it the way we are led into the airy indoor courtyards of the old Spanish: we take the short flight of grand staircases, ornate and browned with age, that lead us to an inner courtyard. The air-steeped courtyard is named Patio Victoria, and the immediate impression we have is that of gilded elegance. The design is a mix of wood and brick, but the carefully chosen fixtures and the furniture of the tropical baroque kind lend it an Old World feel that goes great with each cup of coffee. Patio Victoria breathes: it is great to sip cappuccino while, from the sea nearby, a breeze gently wafts away the heat of the day.

There are new innovations: the wifi for the laptop set (another crucial market for coffee shops) is in place, the gallery is always filled with choice works of art, and Dixon is pushing for Café Antonio to be the site of cultural goings-on -- poetry-readings, book club discussions, and the like. Last summer, it hosted the writers of the renowned National Writers Workshop, making it one of the few businesses in Dumaguete to readily see that what sets apart Dumaguete from the rest of the country is its sense of culture. (Tagabukid we may be, but we are high-class tagabukids nevertheless.)

I decided to drop by Café Antonio last Saturday, to find out how it’s been faring of late. The Spanish Heritage is a little out of the way from my daily grind in and around Silliman University -- but I do make an effort to visit it most weekends or on free days. (I find the atmosphere of Café Antonio most conducive for book reading.) I’d been hearing some great news about the place, and I wanted to find out what the buzz was exactly. Seems like they have a “Perfect Blends” campaign that pairs your brewed coffee with some choice cake (either the buttery and crunchy Toffee Krunch Cake or the Swiss Choco Macchiato Cake covered with marshmallow meringue) -- and from 1 to 5 in the afternoon, something they call “A Perfect Afternoon” (and it is), you can refill your cup or mug of brewed coffee as much as your heart longs for an extended caffeine fix. That sounds entirely heavenly for somebody like me who needs more than three cups to feel remotely alive. (For those who are not caffeine freaks, you get free regular iced tea for every order of tuna -- or tuna crunch -- sandwich.)

To be sure, Café Antonio is readily your typical coffee house, menu complete with the usual array of hot and cold brews: from the usual espresso, espresso machiatto, café latte, cappuccino, café mocha (also the white variety), caramel latte, caramel macchiato... to what they call as special “barista” creations that include hazelnut, strawberry, macademia, and vanilla lattes, raspberry or strawberry mocha, and cookies & cream... to brews topped with condiments from raspberry to almond to crème de banana, to caramel to butterscotch to macadamia to peppermint to chocolate… to classic frappe blends, among them something called Peanut Butter Blast, which just happens to be my favorite. They have frajellis of mocha, strawberry, or caramel, and special drinks such as Granita Blush, Blue Crush, Peachy Mango, Creamy Pineapple, Choco Mallow Shake, and milkshake that comes in the plain variety or something that comes with strawberries or brownies. Basically the whole gamut of gourmet coffee.

Their food comes with the same list of delectability: from regular sandwiches to Pasta Alfredo, Pasta Bolognese, and Pasta Antonio (a vegetarian dish in fresh tomato sauce and Italian herbs). There are heavier fare with their paella, their pork and chicken cordon bleu, their pork and chicken schnitzel, fish fillet, Spanish omelet, and roast beef -- something I can’t take because of my current vegetarian leanings. They also serve pork cooked in mild pepper sauce with kangkong leaves, or in barbecue sauce topped with pineapple and onions, or in cheese. There is also something called orange glazed pork strips (which is basically tender pork strips in fresh orange flavored sauce), and pork tenders drenched in either sweet chili sauce or creamy mushroom sauce. They also grill pork and chicken (in chili and with cabbage sidings), as well as burger steak (topped with a la pobre sauce).

Best of all, they serve greens. For a vegetarian like me in a culture that practically discriminates non-meat eaters, that is God-sent.

I asked Karl, the waiter on hand, what the bestselling cake in the place was. He readily replied, “Chocolate Decadence, but there are days when our cheesecake sells more than anything.” I had that with my brewed coffee, twice refilled.

And that defined for me what a perfect Saturday really was: coffee in an airy place, with delicious caramel-on-chocolate cake on the side, with Nat King Cole singing in the background, with friends, with glorious conversation.

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich