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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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Friday, June 06, 2008

entry arrow7:16 PM | In Dumaguete, Five New Places to Have Great Food

There used to be a time when the search for gastronomic pleasure in Dumaguete City was a one-note affair consisting entirely of simple home-cooking. Or a sit-down dinner with friends who either live secret lives as chefs (Patrick Chua, the city’s most hard-working dentist, easily falls into this category), or nurture unbounded pleasures in small dinner parties and conversation (Arlene Delloso-Uypitching is Dumaguete’s undisputed queen of the dining table, regularly hosting conversation-filled banquets for the city’s power movers and culturati in her so-called “highway house” near Valencia town).

When we want to indulge in rare evenings dining out, what we have are nippy choices from a slim list of restaurants about town that quickly tests the limits of our boredom, and often our patience. Sometimes, this is simply because the variety displayed in their menus is virtually nil, or limited at best. Sometimes, we find that the food is simply pedestrian—nothing to write home about. Sometimes we are simply turned off by the filthiness of their comfort rooms—which is often a good indication of the kind of kitchens these restaurants have.

Not counting the increasing number of fast-food franchises in Dumaguete, the old list of restaurants in the city is mostly a motley crew of the tried and true, and after a while they do exhaust our expectations. There is Rosante, now Don Roberto’s, and there is Mamia’s. Le Chalet and Fhu Garden. La Caviteña and Don Atilano. Coco Amigos and Lab-as. Sans Rival and Persian Palate. There are the cafeteria-style comforts of Howyang, Qyosko, and Sta. Theresa. There’s Jo’s Chicken Inato and the other grilled chicken joints around town. There is the small-scale modesty of Nerisse and Chantilly. There are the assorted hotel dining halls, including Sugba in faraway Santa Monica and the mostly undiscovered The Cellar in Coco Grande Hotel. There is the outdoorsy staple of Gimmick and Habhaban, an amakan-plus-nipa-hut dining style quickly copied by a dozen other lazy restaurateurs around town, who have since seen an unceremonious snubbing by the city’s increasingly discriminating diners no longer fascinated by the starry views and the beer-plus-pulutan ambience of such drecks (including that sad place—the name of which I cannot even remember—near the crossing to St. Paul University).

Some restaurants come and go. Who remembers Blue Oyster in Sibulan? Or Sawadee Ka along Piapi? Or Carmine’s, that short-lived Italian restaurant near Avenida Sta. Catalina? Boston Market, one of the best of the newcomers, has unfortunately gone into hibernation, and a Korean restaurant in the bowels of Twin Arcade disappeared into kimchi hell.

The truth of the matter is, a growing city inevitably comes to witness a change in its gustatory expectations, and Dumaguete is nothing but growing. With Robinson’s Place coming to the scene in the near future, the culture of local dining will see significant changes, hopefully for the better. Along with that comes an increasingly discriminating taste among locals, because with the slew of competition around town, we are no longer hostage to patronizing restaurants whose food, and type of service, is not even worth the effort of a visit. We are also no longer so ignorant as to be unable to tell that a restaurant is playing us for fools, charging us a small fortune for a variety of meat dishes, which, upon close examination, are basically several lumps of the same bland meat distinguished only from each other by the type of sauce bathing it (read: Le Chalet). The smallest things now count: bad ventilation (read: Mamia’s) and filthy comfort rooms (read: Likod sa Payag) come to play to our dining considerations. The waiting staff, too. I used to regularly eat in Nerisse, which has good barbecue I love—until we had a waiter with atrocious body odor. It was not a pleasant experience.

Tickling the palate for the increasingly discriminating (and loquacious) Dumagueteño is never a simple matter to wrestle with: success is not always earned overnight, and the word-of-mouth news of culinary disappointment is quick and easily banded about this small town. One courts the Dumagueteño diner like a patient lover, which is not always easy in a small city where the rents don’t come cheap. But once you get them coming, the rewards are often enormous, and loyalty is all but assured.

Since last year, with the opening of Portal West near Silliman University, a steady stream of dining hot spots have come to vie for our attention. I am often amazed by the variety of restaurants opening left and right. I once had a Manila visitor who once texted me that she wanted to meet up in Traveler’s Lounge. “Where is that?” I texted back. She said it was on the top floor of Portal West. When I got there, I—a local food enthusiast—had to admit I simply had no idea Traveler’s Lounge existed. (Which does not bode well for the publicity abilities of these entrepreneurs. Who do they invite to their openings? Only their friends and relatives?) Its massive floor area and wide spaces amazed me—although the cowboy country interior design threatened to overwhelm to the point of ostentation. The food, however, was a vacant affair, lacking pizazz and imagination.

But that poor quality seems to be the common denominator among the many restaurants opening in Portal West. Blessed with abundant space in an elegant building in an intersection of town that gets the most walk-in customers, these new dining places are often very disappointing. Jumong, a Korean restaurant in the ground floor, has great dishes, but is now inexplicably watering down the quality of their best ones. Their dolsot bibimbap (a heady mix of namul or sautéed and seasoned vegetables, beef, fried egg, and gochujang or chili pepper paste), for example, has gone from scrumptious to spotty. The two times I ate in Miracle Mile, an otherwise beautifully appointed place with great view and a friendly crew, were excruciating: in my last visit, I had to force myself to finish an entirely tasteless dish of lasagna. There’s some pleasure in eating at Living Café, but the Japanese food is not exactly up to par with even the sidewalk stands I used to frequent when I lived in Tokyo.

So, what are the best new restaurants in Dumaguete?

Here they are, in reverse order.

In the top five slot, we have Casablanca along Cervantes Street, right near Sta. Rosa. The restaurant, which is a more-than-makeshift transformation of an old house, specializes in European food, so one gets a lot of schnitzels, assorted pasta, cordon bleu, and the like. I love the food, although there are dishes that border on the edges of bland. A very discriminating Swiss guest I had found the overall taste only so-so, but Casablanca is a definite improvement of the menu in Le Chalet, which remains to be Dumaguete’s main European food joint. And the old Hollywood style of its interiors—casually hinted at by the restaurant’s very name—is precious and charming.

When Carmine’s, that old Italian restaurant along Noblefranca Street, opened a few months back, we had no doubt about where its future laid: while the food was great (the risotto was too die for), the courses arrived at our tables in infuriating spurts—ruining entire dinner parties with guests eating at different times. The last time we ate there, several guests got their orders an hour after the rest had eaten theirs. And the bill that we received was astronomical, beating even some of the best restaurants in Makati. The décor deserves mention. It was the very definition of tacky and cheap: imagine red-checkered tablecloth, fuschia walls, and framed pictures of alpine mountains and assorted European scenes cut out from some miserable calendar. “Six months,” we said, heralding its doom. Our word proved prophetic.

Now, in its stead, and in my top four slot, is a classy new Italian restaurant simply named Italia. The interiors alone are a far cry from the embarrassment of its predecessor, blank maroon walls offset by white lines. On one wall, advertising a good knowledge of spirit, are shelves stocked with their best wines, and on another wall, an abstract painting becomes the room’s focal point. And the food was divine. For antipasti, I had a carpaccio di Resce con verdure marinale—a thin slice of tuna with marinated vegetables that simply melted in my mouth. For the main course, I had bistecca Italia (succulent beef tenderloin sautéed in extra virgin oil, with carrots, potatoes, and herbs), and bistecca di Pepe (grilled tenderloin steak with black pepper). Chef Fabrizzio promises a homemade feel and taste for his original recipes, and his restaurant proves to be Italian dining in a most casual, classy affair.

Sampan Food Haus, near Don Bosco, is the closest Dumagueteños can get to good Hong Kong-type dining—Chinese food with a street flair unseen in our city. The place itself—my top three choice—has no frills. With only five or six tables, the entire “food haus” can easily be mistaken as one of those karinderia types offering the most simplistic of fares, save for one crucial difference: the food in Sampan is great, and very filling. During a casual dinner party with old friends, we were treated to a hot pot dish of two kinds: a seafood set and a meat set, into which a variety of ingredients is tossed to hot perfection, with either a clear or satay soup base: jellyfish, fresh eggs, fresh chopped garlic, sliced fish fillet, shrimps, squid, lobster balls, sea urchin bun, crabmeat, seafood sandwich, mayflower sandwich, chikuwa rolls, Singapore fishballs, gindora tofu, taro fishballs, fried squid cake, sweet corn, pumpkin, tomato, cabbage, mushroom, beef sirloin slices, bacon strips, cheese balls, crab roe bun, and others. The result was a sweaty fullness that sated our appetites.

Along Avenida Sta. Catalina, just two doors away from the popular Café Noriter, we have a little restaurant that goes by the name of Nikki’s Kitchen. It’s a charming place that owes much of its appeal to the whimsy of its design. Its walls are covered with paintings and ink drawings made by its Korean owner, Nikki Kim (a former top model in Seoul), herself. The resulting art works are fluid in style and reminds me of the best New Yorker illustrations—all of which lends to the pastel, bistro-style ground floor an easy charm that soothes. On the second floor, one gets a totally different world altogether: there are curtains and low tables, and antique fixtures that lend to the place an exotic Oriental ambience to the dining experience. The food itself is varied, and is categorized to five main groups: Filipino, Japanese, pan-Asian, European, and Mexican—which means one gets a variety of food cultures, fusion-inspired, from litson kawali to tongkatso yasay, from carne de salsa roa, to tacos de pollo, from beef curry to bulgogi, from curry crepes to bistek Tagalog. The result is a quality that is largely delicious—although I must admit that in trying to encompass all kinds of dishes from all over the world, the menu becomes too crowded and no specialty emerges to make the restaurant a must-go place. Still, despite that, this takes the top two slot in my list.

But for the best food—ever—in Dumaguete, one needs only to go the short distance to the enclave of Bantayan, along Rovira Road, where a stylish new compound by the name of Florentina Homes houses a little restaurant by the name of Gabby’s Bistro. Gabby, of course, is Gabby del Prado, a young chef trained in one of the best culinary schools in the country, who has returned home to Dumaguete to open this intimate restaurant. I love the place, which reminds me of a delightful Swiss chalet made more fanciful by quirky wall art by Gabby and his mother, who happens to be a painter. (They’ve even made their comfort room a piece of caricature art.) Beside the obvious charm, the one reason to go to this restaurant is the food, which goes best with Gossips, their house wine. I would suggest starting with the Adobo a la Gabby, a succulent affair with marinated chicken that is soft to the tongue, its sauce a perfect blend of sourness I have never encountered before with adobo. In fact, it is the sauce for most of the items in the menu that opens doors to our experience with each dish. The chili sauce for the Oriental shrimp skewers, grilled to perfection, brings out a delectable taste. The fish teriyaki has an intensity and a tenderness that I love. The Cajun chicken fingers—beer-battered chicken strips with pomodoro—are delicious. Everything else in the menu—the tuna and olives penne pasta, the grilled pork chop pomodoro…--are delicious.

Which makes me happy to report that there is life yet to Dumaguete cuisine.

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