header image


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

Interested in What I Create?


Friday, July 29, 2011

entry arrow11:52 AM | Abandoned Rooms

There are rooms in our houses that we shutter away for some reason. We lock the doors, we forget these spaces exist. And then comes a time -- some point in a future without definition -- when something in you feels a small need to reclaim them, and you do so little by little. Each small act becomes absolution: you open the door, and in that inch of space you make, you let the light and the air in. You go in. You remember the ghosts that live in these rooms, but they don't touch you anymore. You sweep away the cobwebs when you can, when you're ready.


[1] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Monday, July 25, 2011

entry arrow12:06 AM | Haven is a Coffee Place

Part 4 of a series on Dumaguete food

There is a painted poster somewhere near the north entrance of Café Antonio that makes me smile every time I go there for my almost daily caffeine fix. There’s a coffee cup, and a swirling caption says: “Given enough coffee, I can rule the world.”

I always grin like there’s no tomorrow when I see it—because it smacks to me as a kind of hyperbolic truth, give or take a few palpitations. (Coffee rules! and all that. The caffeine freaks among us, and there are legions, can attest to this.) But the theme of world domination is not something you get as a given when you’re around the comforts of Café Antonio. This is a place I come to often, to relax, to feel or to imagine the increasing stress of Dumaguete life fade away. It is a haven.

There is something about the place that speaks to me. That it borrows its charms on the general architectural motif of its building, The Spanish Heritage, does not take away anything from it: in fact, if you ask me about it, the café itself has become the building’s heart. Is it the rustic mix of brick and wood? The carefully placed Spanish-inspired finish, with the gilded edges and the baroque tone? Is it the displays of scooters and musical instruments scattered about? In the air-conditioned confines—separated with walls of glass from the al fresco veranda with its colored-glass windows, its Tifanny-inspired overheard lamps, and its wooden swings—the round tables with their wrought-iron chairs are always filled with a mix of the city’s people—the occasional office folk on their lunch break, the casual Caucasian tourist looking for a quiet place to read a book, the city’s photographers who seem to find in this café an excuse for a headquarters, and the hordes of laptop-armed students deep into their books. It can get crowded sometimes, this place—but when it is quiet it becomes a cocoon. When I think of Café Antonio, I think of a good combination of café latte or fraps and also deep comfort, a refuge. This is where I go to when I want to hide from the world without really hiding from it.

One can’t help but marvel at the change of fortunes for this café, which opened many years ago and struggled for a while to find footing in what was then a largely nonexistent café culture in Dumaguete. There were constant menu changes over the years that reflected a kind of confusion in the kitchen. Then the coffee-and-cigarette crowd (which is the café society—the vocal, usually artistic types who would give the retort, “What? No cigarette over my brewed barako? Are you nuts?”) shunned it for so long for its insistence on banning smoking from the premises. It was, and still is, a beautiful place to come to now and then, but places do develop a magical pull, resistant to formula or earnest effort, that guarantees regular foot traffic and word-of-mouth patronage. For the longest time, it didn’t have that.

And then something happened. Café Antonio, for some reason, suddenly became cool.

What happened? I don’t know much about this café and its efforts at evolution (I’ve started coming back to it only the past year or so), but one can bet on the efforts of the two brothers who run the place, Rochris and Rayvin Piñero, two young men who seem to have the pulse on what the city and its coffee people want—and increasingly a feel for what the rest of everyone else wants. It takes perseverance, one can guess. And also a sense for just making people happy. As Rochris once told me, “Café Antonio is about good food and good coffee, and building relationships. Food should make us happy, feel happy.”

The idea of a café sprang from something a family friend, Dixon Peralta, was mulling over. “He offered the opportunity to start a coffee shop business in the city,” Rochris said. “We started out as a coffee shop, and only that—but eventually we decided to evolve into a coffee shop and restaurant.” And increasingly, it is the food of the place that has people coming back. Among its bestsellers—and what now constitute the signature dishes of Café Antonio—are the grilled pork ribs glazed in hickory sauce, the Cheezy Pork—strips of meat rendered in cheese cream sauce, and herb-marinated lamb steak. And then there is Jamaican grilled pork chop, tenderly marinated in herbs and spices. I can swear by the Jamaican chops: it is meat that overwhelms with a distinct herby flavor, earthy and spicy at the same time. What you now have is a whole new experiment in food, all of the entrees given certain explosive twists—the onion soup with bread and cheese, the garlic shrimp salad, the seafood paella, the grilled squid, the pasta marinara, the pesto pasta with tomato sauce, the pimiento basilica, the carbonara, and the tantalizingly sinful French toast with the caramelized banana (the mango slivers hidden in the bread was a touch of genius). The Fricadel burger with mushroom, one must say, is an experience.

The new menu is courtesy of Chef Eugene Gueverra from Cebu who whisked in, and stayed with the Piñeros for the entire month of April this year, and concocted a definitive change in the menu, and standardized the café’s process. “It was difficult because I am not a chef nor was I trained anywhere,” Rochris said. “Balancing finances and creating a product and service that satisfies the customer is a challenge.”

And then there are the Music Nights, randomly scheduled but increasingly popular. The streams of the café’s now-devoted patrons go through its glass doors unceasingly due in some part to an experiment in music the brothers have hatched. “We love music,” Rochris said, “and Music Night basically started out as an open mic night. And then slowly the members of what now constitutes our regular band got to know each other, with our regular singers Sela Saga, Alex Quilantang, and Reicha Piñero. Our plan is to make café Antonio a haven for aspiring artist, and to provide an avenue in which they could express themselves.”

Music Night is a monthly jamming among its young regulars, which started with a very successful The Beatles Night that had everybody singing “Hey, Jude” by the end. And then it continued on with some other themed nights, including the Apo Hiking Society Night, complete with Buboy Garovillo in the audience. (A Dumagueteño, Mr. Garovillo quickly obliged with everybody’s fevered expectations by singing one song with the band.)

That night, after the APO songs have been played and sung, it was time once more for open mic—and then somebody sang a fevered rendition of “Quando, Quando, Quando,” and transfixed us all with this discovery of a new voice—alluring, confident, graceful. Who was he? But it didn’t matter. He took the song and made it his own, above our familiar memories of Frank Sinatra and Michael Buble. We all turned to him, and knew this was it: how talent can be so divine it can turn any place into a sudden venue for worship. And so, on my own or with a bunch of people all singing, Café Antonio has become what it has become: a place of such comfort, anybody here can burst out into song.

All photography by Urich Calumpang

Labels: , ,

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Saturday, July 16, 2011

entry arrow7:55 PM | All That Longing

The Thais know something about longing. They capture it well on film. The mad surging, the illusion of nobility in denial, the perfect -- if short-lived -- happiness of catching a glance, a smile, or a touch from the beloved. Which is to say I have finally managed to catch Puttipong Pormsaka Na-Sakonnakorn and Wasin Pokpong's สิ่งเล็กเล็ก ที่เรียกว่า..รัก [A Little Thing Called Love, 2010] ... egged on by the sheer popularity of the film among girls (and women) around me who are normally of the even-keeled sort but have been reduced to hysterics by the Tagalog-dubbed version of this film which aired in a network TV station a few months back.

Watching it, I understand the passion of the fans. It is certainly not a perfect film -- everywhere in its narrative, we encounter awkward bumps telling of a inferior acting or directorial or writing choice -- but the film wears its charm lightly and with frank resoluteness, it is hard not to like it. Heck, it is hard not to fall in love with it. Heck, it is hard not to feel the painful longing of Nam (played by Pimchanok Leuwisetpaiboon, who is the spitting image of Kim Chiu, without the malnourished look) as she gazes into the eyes of Shone (played by Mario Maurer), her object of desire, someone she has fallen for since the beginning of high school and has remained somehow removed from her efforts, this despite the frantic tips she gets from a booklet that promises nine sure-fire methods gleaned from cultures all over the world to get the man of her dreams. [And in that regard, we completely agree with her obsession: Mario Maurer has it in spades, and is perhaps this generation's Asian answer to Alain Delon.]

Truth be told, this is the StarCinema romcom I have always wanted to watch, if only Cathy Garcia-Molina or Olivia Lamasan had enough imagination to get away from the gutter thinking of assembly-line cinema and actually strive enough to create something whimsical like this, or at least to put an original spin on the same old formula. (There is a reason why Jessica Zafra insists that all StarCinema romantic comedies are all virtual remakes of Notting Hill, that 1999 Roger Michell film starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts.) Consider that the film is essentially told from one point-of-view, that of Nam's, and her teenage desires are what drives the film and its heart -- and yet what proves wrenching is the twist in the end that subverts our own idea of who actually does all that work in longing, something reminiscent of the kissing film clips near the end of the original version of Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso [1988]. The revelation had naked emotional power that had me reeling. But also like that beloved Italian film, this Thai romance also ends with a coda that goes on too long, made of course to give our protagonists their happily ever after -- but feels too calculated to be truthful. (Consider the sudden swell of music at the end of Shone's final sentence.)

But nonetheless. This is a film that knows very well the music of every lovelorn person's heart. It speaks gently of that unbearable, sweet longing -- and if only for that, it is very much welcome to enter the hidden pantheon of our guilty film favorites.

Labels: ,

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Friday, July 15, 2011

entry arrow8:22 PM | The Gusto of Presko

Part 2 of a series on Dumaguete food

Nobody remembers—except perhaps those who have a penchant for nostalgia and have seen Dumaguete evolve over the years—that Lab-as used to be a “floating” restaurant. And not in the spot where it is now. A few meters away, in fact, where Barefoot Bistro is presently. The old al fresco ensemble of coco lumber and wood and nipa, with a running veranda belted around it to set the rustic tone, sat on a man-made pond, a moat really, which was seeded with fish, oyster, and crab. The effect was both visual delight, and source of fresh catch that can directly to the nearby grill and on to the plate of hungry gourmet.

It has been more than twenty years since Lab-as (the Cebuano word for “fresh catch,” or more tellingly, a “freshness of flavor”) was founded on that old spot in 1988. “Back then,” writes Vicente Fuentes of his family’s lasting contribution to Dumaguete’s culinary culture, “the vogue in the dining fare in and around [the city] was either … Chinese or Spanish … with a sprinkling of European and native dishes in some resorts and restaurants… It was thus a bold step for Lab-as to venture into seafood, in a location that was even regarded as a ‘no-no’ in business practice. [We are] situated quite a distance away from the heart of [town], where the convenience of walk-in customers—like shoppers and businessmen of the downtown commercial district—was a built-in come-on.”

The spot, near the crossroads of Escaño Boulevard and Flores Avenue, overlooking Tañon Strait, was—at least in the late 1980s—a kind of no man’s land in Dumaguete: it bordered the shanties of nearby Lo-oc, and at night, it turned into a desert of quiet darkness. It existed in a metaphorical version of the doldrums, the way places in a small city can be, unmeasured by actual standards of distance. Things have changed since then, with Escaño becoming the city’s current throbbing heart of all things you could call the night life. Lab-as might as well be the germ of that transformation. Without the Fuenteses, would life stir in Flores Avenue the way it does now? Probably not.

It was a gamble—and it paid off handsomely. And yet it was a risk that was also founded on one sure thing: there was, and still is, a visionary sumptuousness in Lab-as’ fare. They had food—fresh, delectable—you had to keep coming back to. It was worthy of repeated word-of-mouth appraisals—and it is exactly that kind of enthusiastic response from diners over all these years that has sustained the restaurant. And yet, in the beginning, all that Mr. Fuentes wanted was to create something new for Dumaguete, to offer something new for its collective palate. He writes: “We tried to ride the growing tide in health consciousness sweeping the country, to veer away from food rich in cholesterol and animal fats. We conceived of an idea of freshness in seafood, [not only as a healthy alternative but also as something truly appetizing and satisfying.] When seafood, like grilled fish or steamed crabs or oysters and prawns, are eaten al mano—or kamayan style—the satisfaction is doubled.”

Consider the bestsellers in this restaurant.

There’s the talaba, always a succulent experience, which comes in cheese, basil, garlic, or sibuyas dahon. Taken with wasabi, each bite becomes a whole buffet in one swallow. “We prepare them raw with kalamansi or sinamak na suka,” says Vicente’s son Sande, who is Lab-as’ current conjurer, or at least an ambassador, of culinary witchcraft. “They live off from our aqua tanks to purge them before we serve them to customers. They are grilled and then steamed with sinamak, which is native coconut vinegar with garlic ginger, sili, and peppercorns. And then we have them baked with garlic basil and cheese.” The secret to the delectability is that they try to keep the oysters alive—“and it is a challenge now to get big plump ones,” admits Sande, “because Bais is also now supplying restaurants in Cebu and San Carlos.”

You go next with the crispy shrimp, seasoned in kalamansi, salt, pepper, and garlic and then dusted with corn starch; the whole ensemble is then deep-fried quickly, so that the shrimps’ shell becomes crispy but the juiciness of the meat remains, locked in. It comes served—all in delectable crunchiness—with bagoong, tomato, and sibuyas, and the whole thing is best eaten from head to tail, each bite dipped in sinamak with crushed sili.

The halaan or punao clear soup is a favorite starter among diners. The dish primarily consists of fresh clams sautéed in garlic and ginger. Added to the mix are onions, tomatoes, and atsal or red pepper in a clear soup, which is topped with sili espada and sibuyas dahon before it is served. It becomes for many an instant taste of home, something comforting and “makakalma.” Paired with grilled seafood, it becomes almost a complete meal, and also becomes a great match for Filipino guilt-inducing cholesterol-laden favorites like crispy pata or grilled pork belly; the halaan clear soup perfectly counters the oil of these dishes.

The fat chili crabs—sautéed with onions, garlic, and a generous helping of milled pepper, and then served with a dash of tomato sauce (plus Lab-as’ secret hot sauce formula) and a serving of garlic rice—is an invitation to finger licking. It is another one of Lab-as’ favorites. “We keep the crabs alive, ready for the cooking,” says Sande, “and then we have them steamed, then deep fried with a lot of garlic and guinataan....”

There are three grilled dishes in the Lab-as menu that I keep coming back to. The first is the panga of the blue marlin or malasugi, always grilled to perfection, the tenderness of the meat mingling with a smoky flavor that is arresting. The flavors are subtle, bursting only in the back of your tongue.

The second is the sinuglaw, which is my ready favorite in the menu. It is essentially a Dumagueteño version of binakhaw: fresh tangigue cut into cubes, mixed with slices of onions, ginger, and atsal, and then with biasing (a relative of kaffir lime, fresh from Camiguin) thrown in with a measure of fresh coconut milk (“No mayonnaise, please,” Sande says), native coco suka and salt, finally topped with sibuyas dahon and some crushed sili. The final ingredient is sugbang baboy or pork chop hot off the grill, the meat succulently chopped and layered on top of the binakhaw. The contrast in taste and color is a feast for the senses.

Finally, there is the popular Dumaguete Express—Lab-as’ take on the Bicol Express, but something that is inspired by the cuisine of Camiguin—complete with slivered flesh of botong, fish, squid, and shrimp, cooked in coconut milk with malunggay, ginger, and onion, and then topped with lechon kawali. “It is a complete meal,” says Sande, “and it has somehow become a favorite of backpackers…”

That mention of backpackers is testament to Lab-as’ growing popularity, not just among locals, but among traveling gourmets from all over the country, and even the world. Many food critics have proclaimed Lab-as’ menu as something that has perfected a taste for the native—which is enviable because it is a menu arrived at only with the strength of one man’s culinary philosophy. Vicente Fuentes was not a chef, just a food enthusiast who knew what “freshness” was all about. “What we have,” Sande says, “are our trusted kusineras—our manangs who have been with us through the years. We have two chief cooks, Manang Carmen and Manang Tasing, who have been loyal to us since 1988. It is quite a team we have, with five other cooks and what we call as the ‘talaba boys’ and the ‘grill boys.’”

What Lab-as has is a menu that may stick to classic favorites, their quality consistent and unchanging, but is also something that evolves over time with inspiration taken from travels, including surfing and diving, that the Fuentes family does, as well as with their unceasing food trips in karinderias in Bohol, Siargao, and Camiguin. What inspires them in these jaunts across the islands trickles down to variations in the menu, with perhaps a new dish or two to keep the culinary adventure going. And so we keep coming back to Lab-as—and one soon realizes that the beauty of Lab-as food is that it is basically the most basic of home-cooking, but taken to a level that approaches sumptuousness, the detail rich, the taste made more distinct and tantalizing.

It is hard work. “Most important in our menus is a consideration of consistent quality and the availability of seafood, like our tuna panga and belly,” Sande says. “I’m very happy, as of the moment, with their quality. Our supplier exports to Europe. They’re local, too, straight from the seas off Bayawan and Sta. Catalina. There is less travel time when I get my stock of lapu-lapu, maya-maya, and others. Presko gyud.”

Presko. That singular word. Twenty years later, it is a culinary philosophy that has proven to be of the lasting kind. [To be continued...]

[Photography by Greg Morales. Food styling by Arlene Delloso-Uypitching. Coordinated by Moses Joshua Atega. Thanks to Sande Fuentes for the food adventure...]

Labels: , , ,

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

entry arrow7:45 PM | A Primer for Table-Hopping in Dumaguete

Part 1 of a series on Dumaguete food

Every time a traveler comes to Negros Oriental, I am always asked the same two things, the first being an inquiry about the local delicacy, some edible pasalubong to take home. That has become a kind of touristic expectation—Cebu with its lechon and chicharon, for example, or Bohol with its kalamay and peanut kisses.

Such query used to vex me. What do we exactly eat in Negros Oriental that is worthy of culinary tourism?

Jutsz Cafe doubles as a space for the city's artists

Over time, it has become easy to answer. My roots being Bayawan, a small city in the southern part of the island looking out towards Sulu Sea, I am ready to pronounce the gustatory delights of baye-baye, a kind of sweet cake made of sticky rice and coconut—and thinking of it now brings on a surfeit of childhood memories. I’m imagining the burst of sticky sweetness that explodes on the tongue, and the way the paste lolls around the mouth.

Then there’s Tanjay’s budbud named after itself or Dumaguete's budbud kabog—the two towns' version of puto bungbung, really. (Alas, why it’s named after the local species of bat is beyond me.)

In Dumaguete, the easy answer has come to be the silvanas from Sans Rival, that quaint cake house near the Rizal Boulevard that has found a solid way to make this frozen delicacy of a pastry last a plane ride by coming in pasalubong variety: its powdery shell is made extra hard, which preserves the quick-melting creamy heaven inside.

The second query, still about food, has nothing to do with pasalubongs, but everything to do with the matter of solving any current pangs of hunger. If one is a stranger to Dumaguete, where do you exactly go that would also define a sense of place? To eat where the locals gather is, in a sense, getting to know well the stirrings of every day life as it exists in this peculiar spot of geography. This one goes beyond considerations of fast food. You do not go to another place to have Jollibee.

But if “definition of a place” must be a criterion, you could always start with this one kind of fast food popular in the city: the “tempura,” a flour-coated something (definitely not shrimp—but it sure does taste a little like it), which is an unhealthy mix of MSG and deep-frying oil. But locals do gravitate towards the tempurahan, how we call this spot at the head of the stretch of paseo, at the corner fronting old Sillliman Hall, which is the city’s picturesque Rizal Boulevard. At night, the place turns into a haven for moon-seekers, its acacia-lined stretch overlooking the dark currents of Tañon Strait lit orange by lights emanating from Corinthian lampposts that dot it. Many years ago, a city mayor once thought of doing away with the “tempura” vendors, their makeshift chairs and colorful beach umbrellas considered an “eyesore” in the midst of the Boulevard’s Spanish/American feel. And then the New York Times, in its travel article about Dumaguete, splashed images of the tempurahan in its pages. It became an instant curiosity of a place, a tourist spot. The order was withdrawn, and so the tempurahan stands where it is until now, gentrified a little bit, the vendors now in uniform. (The tempura is also available with hot sauce, and coupled with a bottle of Coke, it becomes a kind of feast. One has been known to devour fifteen pieces of it in one sitting.)

Dumaguete, for some reason, is in a culinary renaissance of some sort. It is a small revolution, but it sizzles still.

Why a revolution? Consider this. There used to be a time when dining out was a perennial problem in Dumaguete. Essentially a big town with small city airs, it was a place where nobody went out for dinner—and if they did, it was mostly a family affair that was quick, usually undistinguished, lacking the pizzazz of experience the way a place with a culture of dining out has. Which is why, for the longest time, what can be said to sum up a typical Dumaguete dining experience is the outdoor grill. Jo’s Chicken Inato is iconic in that tradition—its grilled chicken, marinated with a secret recipe of herbs and a milky what-not, is almost synonymous with the city. Today, that tradition, always done al fresco, has expanded a little bit with City Burger (which is not known for burgers, but for barbecued chicken dipped in a tantalizingly sweet sauce—a real experience, if you have the patience to spare with its gruffy and belligerent waiters and waitresses, who seem to begrudge your very presence for some reason), and with Atong Kamalig, also near the Boulevard, with its smorgasbord of grilled meat and funky-sounding bands. More recently, there’s Sundown, near the intersection that leads to Robinson’s Place—a beautifully landscaped beer garden, complete with the alfresco feel, that transcends whatever image it wants to project to offer some of the most surprising cooking in town. Surprising because you don’t expect so much from such a small place. Still, it has the imprimatur of Santa Monica’s kitchen, which says a lot about the seriousness of its food.

In consequence, we only had a few restaurants with slim culinary imaginations, coming and going in fashion. The local cheese burger that defined Dumaguete the most had always been the one from Taster’s Delight, an institution now gone, much to the lamentations of several generations of students in this University Town for whom its delectable blend of sauce created magic with its patty. North Pole Emilia and its glorious coco flan are also gone, and so has Dockside with its late-night feasts of tocilog and its other -log cousins. And who remembers Blue Oyster in Sibulan? Jumong, a Korean restaurant in the bowels of Portal West, has also disappeared into kimchi hell. Then most recently, the closing of Gimmik, which prompted an overwhelming response for a sense of loss for its "perfect" sisig, its sun-roasted pork belly, its Peruvian steak, its calamares, its sinugbang isol...

Gone, too, is Sampan Food Haus near Don Bosco, which was the closest Dumagueteños could get to good Hong Kong-type dining—Chinese food with a street flair. Italia, that glorious Italian restaurant near Avenida Sta. Catalina, is also now gone—and all I have left of it are memories of its delicious carpaccio di Resce con verdure marinale—a thin slice of tuna with marinated vegetables that simply melted in my mouth—which I had for antipasti, and the 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). What proved to be its demise? Its pricey fare, in a city that is quite notorious for wanting its fine dining within the budget of a take-out from McDonald’s.

A growing city—and its increasingly ravenous appetites—changes with time. It is an inevitability. Our favorite food places come and go in fashion. Our shifting standards dictate it. The menu is now a mess, we say. The place has lost its charm. The toilet looks dirty and forbidding, so you can imagine how the kitchen must be. The prices are just a little too steep for what looks like a carinderia. The menu, alas, is now a mess.

But we eat out more and more still, the city changing and becoming more cosmpolitan under our feet, and the restaurants continue to mushroom with much hope—and most of the time, they just vanish like stale French fries.

Some food places and their famous dishes, of course, stay for good: the pinsik from Rago’s; the addicting cheese bread and fruit mix from Silliman Cafeteria; the spaghetti carbonara from Chantilly; the lechon manok from Golden Roy’s and Manok ni San Pedro; the cheese de sal from Mrs. Breadworth in Lee Super Plaza; the steak from Le Chalet in Why Not; the kebab in Persian Palate (now Tandoori); the grilled squid from Mamia’s; the crispy pata from Santa Monica; the tocino from Manang Siony’s; the pastries and cakes from Ana Maria; the cafeteria spread and dimsum from Howyang; the batchoy and arroz ballao from Qyosko (and sometimes its delicious dulce de leche cheesecake, or Oreo white chocomousse, or milk chocomousse); and the homemade ice cream and organic chicken steamed rice from Panda Haus.

There is still the Rosante, along Perdices Street, which after it burned down a few years ago, became the more posh Don Roberto’s, and still serves its famous roasted chicken. La Caviteña may now be a shadow of its former self—but it’s still there, hanging on. Chin Loong, with its pseudo-Chinese menu, has had its ups and downs (and now it looks like it’s in the ups again), and CocoAmigos, with its once delightful Mexican whimsy, has been in steady decline for the past few years, its go-go musical acts on weekends becoming an Angeles City kind of attraction. Baduy. So we stay away.

For dressy fares, you go to Fuh Garden (what used to be Mei Yan); or to Casablanca—or if you had a car, all the way to Atmosphere in Dauin, or to any of the resorts that dot that beach town. (We used to frequent this delightful little Thai restaurant called Sawasdee in Tanjay—which was quaint enough to patronize largely due to the distance and effort, and the food was truly brilliant, never mind the hangers of dreadful RTW crowding out the make-do tables and chairs. Once it made the move to Dumaguete, however, it carried its barriotic eccentricities with it, and was promptly shunned by the AB-aspirational crowd that’s the Dumaguete bourgeoisie. Everything in food, you see, rests on reputation, in a region that takes its sugarlandia air with utter seriousness.)

Most often, we go to La Residencia Hotel’s two restaurants—Don Atilano for its steak or Wakagi for its Japanese fare. I go to Don Atilano sometimes for breakfast, when I am bored and have a hankering for tapa or daing na bangus or danggit or tocino or Spanish chorizo or double-fried adobo, peculiarly prepared the Don Atilano way. (Which is, well, snobbish.) But my most memorable dinner here was not its famous steak—which is as ordinary as they come—but with its sake-marinated Norwegian salmon (complete with roasted shallots, mandarin orange and greens, served with soba glazed in teriyake sauce), coupled with its lengua bordelaise (which is ox tongue braised in bordelaise sauce and cooking wine), its bacalao (cod fish fillet sautéed and simmered in rich tomato and olive oil), its roast chicken with pesto butter, and its seared fillet of dory over shrimp ravioli sautéed on butter and shitake mushroom and topped over shrimp ravioli on heavy cream. That was one truly memorable dinner, something I shared with friends with similar tastes for culinary adventures—but since La Residencia’s latest remodeling, its old charm has been lost to its shiny new chrome and wood finish. Even its brewed coffee, which was once praised by The New York Times as probably one of the best in this part of the world, has lost something of its magic.

Things have changed. That much can be said. The city has changed. Today, with a new Robinson’s mall south of downtown, the choices have become a little more crowded. Not in the same way that Cebu or Manila or Bacolod do it, but nevertheless it’s a stirring of sorts, perhaps a sign of better things to come. There’re already Gabby’s Bistro and Jutz’s Café (formerly Boston Café) and Neva’s and Likha and KRI and Mamia’s and Royal Suite in the mix. Sans Rival has expanded from the small pastry shop of our collective memories, to become a full-fledged restaurant, open even on Sundays. There’s even a new Thai restaurant, an affair called Ti Ban Thai along San Juan Street, a stone’s throw away from Sans Rival, where the waitresses remind me of the girls in Patpong—scantily dressed, luring in a specific kind of customer. (Here, I ordered kai sate for appetizer and pad thai for dinner. The kai sate tasted like an afterthought, its meat brittle-tasting verging on the merely okay. Dipped in generous peanut paste, its pad thai was a little more passable, its noodles had a respectable consistency, and it had the surprising earthy airiness of sprouted mung beans; the whole thing, caked in a mushy layer of fried scrambled eggs, seemed like something concocted with an eagerness to please.)

Over the past year or two, I have gone on random food adventures with three other friends, each of us equipped with a role—Moses Joshua Atega acted as our liaison man for restaurants around town, Greg Morales was food photographer, and Arlene Delloso-Uypitching was newly-discovered food stylist.

The following articles in this series are an account of our tasting trips, which became, in essence, a culinary discovery of some of the best that Dumaguete had to offer.

There are two kinds of articles about food: one talks with such specificity about the dish in consideration and the reach is for the technical, an examination of ingredients and process; the other talks about the experience of the partaking, which is how I approach food appreciation. It is for me a kind of theater of gustatory delight that is part communal act (we call that a “feast”) and part individual meditation, done in bites, for the pleasures that life can offer.

This will be an attempt to do the latter... [To be continued...]

Mooon Cafe, an import from Cebu, has quickly come to capture Dumaguete with its affordable steak and what-not...

[Crossposted in a different form in TravelBook.ph]

Labels: , , ,

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Monday, July 11, 2011

entry arrow3:23 PM | The Whirl and the Madness

I know that I am not the only one who knows how this feels: that sometimes you catch sight of his face, and everything else in the world becomes a whirl in an instant — and you’re so happy and you’re so sad all at the same time, you have to believe there is this one kind of madness in the world that calls itself by your name.

Labels: ,

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Sunday, July 10, 2011

entry arrow10:48 PM | Dark Heart

There is one simple reason why the horror stories of Yvette Tan come off with such a sense of satisfaction, and can be rightly considered as being among the best in the genre: reading her debut collection Waking the Dead and Other Stories [Anvil, 2009], I soon realize that at their darkest hearts, these stories are really all about love and longing. The malevolence at the center of each story can be quite terrifying, but somehow Tan manages to go above the fray of mere horror to underline the human element that is at its core. This is what makes them transcendent. Consider the title story, where a lovelorn man unlocks a secret language that can summon the dead -- all to call from the other realm the woman of his affections. You read on, and you are confronted by a vast variety of horror -- both human and supernatural -- but it all goes back to this: there's one, and there's the other, and there's the longing to connect or to love, but there's the darkness between them that consumes. This is most darkly exploited in "Stella for Star," where a tiyanak story becomes a dark fable of "motherly" love. In "Delivering the Goods," the precise and unfeeling butchering of a young boy for underworld reasons becomes a reflection for connection and fatherhood. In "Kulog," a kapre makes a connection with a little girl, to his own detriment. In "Daddy," a father's ghost phones in, to leave one last bilin. In "Boss, Ex?," a futuristic contraband movie chip becomes a means of dealing with the ghosts of the past, and loves lost. In the end, while you reel from the horror and the graphic details and the sense of dread of many of these stories, you are pulled in by the strange comfort of knowing that what lies beneath them is a pulsing heart -- bloodied and bruised, yes, but alive and filled with aching longing.

Labels: , , , ,

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Thursday, July 07, 2011

entry arrow4:03 PM | Decisive Moments

There are those small moments that happen to us that we know will have the pull of gravity on our lives -- and that we know will change some of the ways by which we currently go about living.

In recent memory, there was the encounter with a good friend bearing heartbreaking news in a late afternoon of 29 December 2008, in the gentle airs of Don Atilano while I was reading a book and drinking coffee, which led to a stupendous roller-coaster, which led to so many things, both bad and good, and that finally culminated in my trip to Iowa. I remember feeling a gnawing pain that pierced through me then, which made me stand up and take the first step towards a completely different life. I started with a small goal, which had repercussions on other things. All of which has led to what I have made of myself the past two years.

Today is a similar day, I think. 7 July 2011. A message from another good friend. The same kind of gnawing pain. The same reaction -- standing up from my chair while drinking latte in Cafe Antonio, and taking the first decisive step towards what I know will be a new phase in my life. I don't know what is in store for me in the immediate future, but that will be part of the adventure -- not knowing exactly, but striving towards a workable goal.

And so it goes.

Labels: , ,

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich