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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 12, 2009

entry arrow2:00 PM | A Haven in the Sky

There is a new, wonderfully surprising place to do lunch (or merienda, if you feel like it) this side of Negros Oriental—a perfect hideaway only a few kilometers shy of Lake Balinsasayao.

It is something called Azalea, and I break no sweat when I say that this is a spot of such astonishing beauty you could eat ground stone for lunch, and not mind. (The food is perfectly fine, if you need to ask me.)

Nestled on a hillside, the place has a perfect view of Tañon Strait in one direction and far-off Cuernos de Negros in the other. Its unassuming roadside entrance—just a thatched archway with a signboard bearing the restaurant’s name—do not do much in advertising the surprise that springs at you once you’ve gone down a few steps, which soon leads you to such cozy affair.

Azalea may very well be the definition of lounging comfort. You come away from it feeling as if you have discovered a haven for both food love and peace of mind. That I speak in hyperbole is indicative of the place’s power—because how does exactly describe breathtaking without taking a leap into descriptive extremes? Azalea, as destination, comes close to perfection. But don’t take my word for it.

We came into Azalea on a lazy Sunday afternoon, last Mother’s Day, and the only sound we could hear was that of the nearby river, down below, coursing from the twin lakes of Balinsasayao into the distant sea.

“This is the only spot around here where one has the sight—and sound—of the river,” Baby Armogeña, who owns the place, told me. I sat with her in one of the lacquer-black tables, near the terrace. She had come out of the kitchen with her signature bob hair, wearing a brown ensemble, to accommodate us.

When one looks around Azalea, every nook and cranny springs with intricate detail: a latticework in bamboo crowns the ceiling; walls and walls of glass invite the generous sunshine in; Japanese lanterns anchor Azalea’s atmosphere into a perfect grid, and gives the bamboo and wood and concrete structure a certain brand of softness; a small hillside garden shares boundaries of perfectly arranged slate and stone; objets d’art of fascinating kookiness lend the place a warmth that balances the cool brightness that pervades it. Everything about Azalea tells me that, like God, beauty is in the details.

But the thing that most fascinates is the view—and it is all-encompassing. I was talking to Baby at past four in the afternoon, and from where we were sitting, I could see the white beaches of nearby Cebu island. (That must be Santander town over there.) Below, there is the valley that contains the stretch of San Jose to Amlan. In the hazy distance, there is Bohol, which is a faint outline in the horizon. Then there is the blue, and sometimes there is no telling exactly what part is sea and what part is sky—the only clear demarcations seem to be the rush of surf that peters off into the horizon and the ferries that crisscross the sea.

“How’d you ever find this place?” I asked her—simply because the idea, while not radical, may be entirely new for Dumaguete: build a restaurant up in the mountains, in a place that is, in local parlance, “tuluyuon,” and see if the people will come. (And it seems people are indeed coming, mostly from word-of-mouth.)

She shrugged a bit, with a hint of a smile that told me this place was a project of personal passion. The family, which owns South Seas Resort north of Dumaguete, has been in the business for the most part of the last quarter of a century, and Azalea has clearly benefited from that long experience in local hospitality—and cuisine. “Everything was God-given,” she finally said. Foresight also had something to do with it, because the unassuming hillside was just a thicket of ipil-ipil only a year before. But her husband Rene, also an architect, saw potential and told her the spot would be perfect for a restaurant. Thus, Azalea.

“Why Azalea?” I asked.

“I just loved the sound of it,” she said.

“It is all about the flower, right?” I asked.

“Yes,” she smiled, “but not exactly. I just like the sound of the name.”

The sound of the name.

What she said made me remember what I always tell my literature students about how poetry starts its magic with each keen reader willing to fall under its lyrical spell: with the sound of every word filling us with music which becomes meaning.

I don’t know when I would be back in Azalea again. One does need a car to get there, and the place closes every day at five in the afternoon. (And rightly so—because what is there to see when everything else is dark?) But it should be soon. Just because.

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