Eat Better, Be Faster, Grow Stronger (My Current Healthy Eats Picks)

In this crispy pata/sisig/lechon loving country of ours, there is indeed a case for eating a bit better and healthier.

Octopus Salad (Wildflour) I love salads that try to go beyond the usual. This is one of the better ones!
Octopus Salad (Wildflour) I love salads that try to go beyond the usual. This is one of the better ones!

I tip my hat to those who’ve blazed the trail – like vegetarian restaurants like Bodhi in the food courts (though I think they just used a lot of meat substitute such as seitan – or wheat gluten - which a chef friend of mine hates and calls “satan”) or Corner Tree Café – arguably the first restaurant who took vegetarian cooking to another level – or even Denise Celdran’s Edgy Veggy who delivers veg these meals to your front door.

I’m not saying we should all go vegetarian, of course, although doing so a few times a week does have its benefits, not just for general health but for the environment as well. No, it’s just that vegetarian restaurants are what easily comes to mind when you say “healthy eats”.

Nowadays, It’s good to know that it’s possible to eat well and eat healthily when going out. Watching what you eat doesn’t mean you have to be on some fad starvation diet – and that’s mainly because more chefs are doing fun things with food that’s actually good for you. That’s probably the best food “trend” we can ask for, really, don’t you think? So eat more of these kinds of foods and save the rib eye, fries, chicharon bulaklak and lechon kawali with garlic rice for weekends or special occasions.

In no particular order are some of the healthiest discoveries I’ve tried recently. Still haven’t been to The Wholesome Table, nor tried Jam Melchor’s Healthy Eats food delivery, and I’m still waiting for Bianca Mabanta’s new restaurant.. but in the meantime, chow down on these and don’t feel guilty..

Salmon Donburi (YourLocal) Hearty eating for the healthy eaters
Salmon Donburi (YourLocal) Hearty eating for the healthy eaters
  1. Salmon Donburi – Your Local – Check it: rare Norwegian salmon, skin torched crisp, with tobiko and ebiko on roasted corn and shiitake wild rice. The idea behind this is so thoughtful and simple, and it tastes like gold. I didn’t want my bowl to empty. Ask for it with a soft boiled sous vide egg – break the yolk and let it dribble into the umami filled wild rice. Oh yes.
  2. Octopus Salad – Wildflour – Octopus is such an underused seafood in these parts – and admittedly takes some technique to get it right - but when you get it tender and caramelized like Wildflour does – and mix it with mango, and cabbage, and dress it well? You’ve got a healthy winning meal right there.
  3. Shakshuka – Blackbird – I’ve been here exactly ONCE with my folks, and haven’t been back, also because it’s a bitch to get a ressie. However, my one and only time was actually quite the grand experience – this restaurant is breathtakingly beautiful. Service and food is what you can expect from Colin McKay – and though some say they’re still getting their kitchen groove, my Eggs Shakshuka was brilliant for a light Sunday brunch.
  4. Eggs Traviata – Toby’s Estate – Yeah, they’re best as coffee peddlers, but their food ain’t bad either. This Traviata, baked eggs with roasted tomatoes and basil, and served with a great piece of bread (one of my favorites, actually) is a satisfying go-to breakfast that will send you on your way for the rest of the day.
  5. Greek Yogurt – Greek Yogurt – A sleeper hit caught in a quiet corridor of Century Mall, this place has deliciously thick, creamy and tangy yogurt by the gram. I had mine with some walnuts and yogurt, but you can opt for fruits if you wish. Go, please, because sadly, this place is perennially empty.
  6. Black Bean Cakes – The Bowery – Make no mistake; this comfort food joint is driven by meat. They do however have this one seriously filling vegetarian dish – and a delicious one at that: black bean napoleon – black bean cakes layered with spinach, corn, shiitakes, red peppers, cheese, and served with a spicy tomato sauce and sweet potato mash. Food coma? Yes, guaranteed. But you’ll be smiling.
  7. Miso Broiled Salmon – Todd English – ‘Twas my pop who first ordered this. He asked for it medium rare – and I suggest you do too. It’s like buttery sashimi, with an umami filled miso glaze to take it over the top. It’s served with mashed pots, but you know what? Go for it and eat it with some hot rice, if you want. It’s a perfect combination.
  8. Lah Lah Land Popia – Spring By Ha Yuan – This is the lovechild of Singaporean popiah and fresh Hokkien Chinese veggy lumpia. Filled with shrimp, scallions, egg, cucumbers and belachan and kecap manis (sweet soy), it’s perfect as a filling snack or as a light meal.
  9. Poke – Patricio’s – In case you haven’t been to Patricio’s yet, this is a one of a kind hole in the wall inside Taguig. The menu is built around ceviches and kinilaw – the obsessions of owner Pat Roa – using recipes he’s researched during his travels as a commercial pilot. To start your journey here, check out poke, a Hawaiian creation, essentially chopped fish with a base of sesame oil and soy sauce. It obviously has Japanese influence, and is an easy eat. Watch it disappear just like that!
  10. Roasted Kalabasa – Sarsa – When I want to feel virtuous yet still silence my raging hunger pangs, my latest go-to is this satisfyingly simple squash dish. I ask for extra ginamos (Ilonggo bagoong) and their XO sauce (to add spice – highly addictive!) and eat it with red rice. Gives you a big hit of flavor, plus it can fuel you up for whatever else you have to do.
 Poke (Patricio's Cevicheria) This is arguably the easiest jump off point into the world of real ceviches and kilawin. Yummy!

Poke (Patricio's Cevicheria) This is arguably the easiest jump off point into the world of real ceviches and kilawin. Yummy!

Popiah Lah Lah (Spring By Ha Yuan) The best healthy dishes are the ones that debunk that "healthy" means tasteless. Go head and chow on this!
Popiah Lah Lah (Spring By Ha Yuan) The best healthy dishes are the ones that debunk that "healthy" means tasteless. Go head and chow on this!

Popped and Loaded

As we greet the sun kissed months, the ever morphing local restaurant scene seems to be getting THAT much more interesting.

Like, for example, never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that a place like the vaunted International House Of Pancakes (that’s IHOP to you, bud) would show up on our shores. A US diner chain in the middle of urban BGC, with people queuing up for hours to eat there is absolutely crazy! (Have you lined up yet? Because I haven’t. haha!)

And for that matter, how crazy is it that US West Coast burger giant In-N-Out went and did a one-day test run to dip their toes in our food obsessed waters? Considering that they’ve gone on record saying that they hardly have plans of expansion in the US, that they bothered showing up in Southeast Asia at all is just a bit shocking (they did this stunt in Singapore and Hong Kong as well).

Many more chains are popping up like mushrooms: Cold Stone Creamery, Saboten, Paul Patisserie – all just around the bend.

Not that I’m complaining, of course. Bring it on, chain restaurants – Manila is a hot place to be now (literally and figuratively!)

It’s a really interesting time to be a diner in Manila – many new local joints are popping up as well, with some of them pushing dining into new directions, which is fantastic for the dining community. Check out spanking new places like VASK and Grace Park.

Speaking of “popping up”, just last night, I found myself in a pop-up concept in Salcedo Village. My buddy Jeremy “The Delicious In Mr. Delicious” Slagle just texted me saying he had extra seats to this event by a group that called themselves Pop Up Manila, so I jumped at the chance. The pop-up restaurant, in case you haven’t read about it yet, is basically a restaurant within a restaurant: a cook, often one without his/her own place yet, takes over another restaurant’s kitchen on it’s quieter night, cooking his/her brand of food.

Yes, we are goofballs - but that just makes us fun!

Does that make sense? Well, let me just say it’s pretty fun.

The people behind this – Erwan Heussaf (who doubled as the waiter. Saan ka pa?!), Dee Jae Pa’este (well, that’s his Twitter handle..haha!) and some members of the Concepcion family (Michael, is that you behind this?) – hooked up with young chef Bruce Ricketts (yes, he’s related to Ronnie..) formerly of the now defunct Robot and currently of his own place called Sensei Sushi in BF Homes. The food concept: Latin American via Vietnam.

Did you get that? Again, let me just say it’s pretty fun. Mind you - it’s not the time and place to expect haute cuisine. No, son, you come here to enjoy the ride.

Called Barba Cua, they decked out this small Thai restaurant along Valero with DIY attitude: South American posters, sombreros, rice paddy farmer’s hats, and ukuleles – and presented a cool little menu of small plates – perfect for sharing.

Being the adventurous peeps that we were, of course we just proceeded to order most of the menu (research, my friend. All in the name of research.)

Besides, the small plates concept – like tapas with international flair – is a great way to eat without feeling like you’re going to rip your jeggings.

A lapu lapu ceviche type thang came with little cubes of watermelon, crab, citrus bits and fresh dill.

Shredded oxtail and lengua rode in on a slightly greasy garbanzo based tortilla and topped with salsa verde and pickles. This was one of the tastiest stuff we ate. High on fat it seemed too (which may explain why it was so good.)

Some rolled and fried bits of pig head, topped with a little salad and some pig ear bits, was quite over the top. Did we like it? Well of course! Wouldn’t you?? But this was the kind of food that you could only eat a few bites of, and it begged for an ice cold beer which unfortunately was not available. (They had a cocktail menu instead – which I think could have used a bit more booze. Apparently I can be a lush too.. heehee!)

Kulit mo, Mr. Delicious.

Piggy in all it's glory

The slightly more virtuous smoked tofu came with a nice “relish” of cauliflower, raisins, carrots and other veg in a nuoc nam (fish sauce) based dressing and would’ve been great with rice, with the other vegetarian offering crispy tamales (more like a veggie and quesong puti taco of sorts) being equally tasty as well.

Virtuous? Nah...

A steak and eggs with black garlic, and an avocado sauce was good – something every meat loving Pinoy will take to like a moth to a flame – but it was the lone starch dish of rice cooked in what was probably crab stock and topped with uni and prawns that took it all home. All in all, pretty loverly stuff.

For the meat lovers in the house!

Considering that this was probably a bitch to pull off (when we do dinner events like this with Pinoy Eats World, my body definitely takes a beating!), I gotta hand it to their team for producing a fun, let down your hair sort of evening. I had no expectations whatsoever – which is probably the frame of mind you want to have entering events like this. The food was pretty good, the room was pretty vibrant, there were lots of celeb sightings (well, Anne and Solenn, plus fashion icon and provocateur Rajo), and my company was great. (A side note: Rajo introduced me to Solen, and she said she remembered me!!! Of course, I don't think we've ever met. I would've remembered by now. Sorry Erwan. You probably get this all the time.haha!)

I can’t think of a better way to close out the weekend. The Manila Pop Up guys and gals throw a great experience our way – just the kind of thing this town needs more of. I’m looking forward to seeing what else they have up their sleeve.

Pop Up Manila is on Twitter. Follow them at @PopUpManila to find out about their next gig. Pareng Erwan said sometime in April - wait for their announcement!

Coffee, Tea, or Me (..with Coffee)?

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My love affair with coffee is like one of them super colorful relationships, filled with twists and turns, long stretches of both true passion and empty, meaningless MOMOL sessions. O ha.

Back in the day, I used to frequent this Japanese coffee shop: a dimly lit, often cigarette smoke filled cafe with old movie posters of James Dean and Humphrey Bogart (I'm not even going to say which it is. You'll figure it out - and it will date you. haha!). On the menu was everything from chahan (fried rice) to tuna sandwiches, and of course, coffee (or rather, coffee concoctions): sweet drinks filled with chocolate and cream and honey and whatever else you could pile on there - plus some coffee. Emphasis on the "some". Yeah they were basically milk shakes.

Of course I loved it, as did the girls my buddies and I took there. It was the perfect place to chat with the ladies (*shudder*) and get to know them, and is definitely the starting point of a lifetime of “having coffee”. I felt very cool sitting there in that dim room, reeking of "yosi" (cigarettes), and with a steaming cappuccino, albeit one that tasted like candy. And thus the said affair began at this “getting to know you” stage.

By senior year of high school, during our last retreat as classmates, my buddies and I would pounce on our classic breakfast of red dyed hot dogs, cold eggs sunny side up, and rice – and wash them down with a very potent (and seemingly adult-like) instant brew with a shitload of sugar in a Styrofoam cup, its color lightened by a heaping spoon of powdered “creamer”. That certainly kept us up throughout the weekend.

Coffee became a “friend” of sorts.

At some point (I forget when), the juggernaut known as Starbucks marched into town and made quite a splash. I won’t deny – I was crushing on that mermaid pretty bad.

And how could you blame me? Their flagship at 6750 was gorgeous! 2 stories, full of couches and obscure background music and the heady aromas of coffee – it was seductive. The seduced came in droves, like zombies, and learned to sip….. frappuccinos. In their best clothes, too – I remember spotting couples out on prom night dropping by for a mocha frap.

At that point I tried to up my coffee game by trying the more “serious” offerings: apart from my staple cap, lattes soon entered my vocabulary, and - when I thought I was ready and following the footsteps of my Pops – an espresso (con panna,though, with that dollop of whipped cream smoothing out the rough edges). I felt so dirty and macho. Yes, yes, this was definitely a MOMOL moment.

It went on for a long while, all this emotionless making out with coffee. The mighty S had become a de rigueur hang out space, even a place to see and be seen. Lots of pretty young things doing their hair toss, all the while displaying their cute little frothy cream mustaches from their fraps. Cute.

Even during my travels, I’d make a beeline for Starbucks to beat my drowsiness, or any other place that served coffee. No deep feeling, no emotions. Triple espressos, usually after a long haul flight. The coffee equivalent of the walk of shame.

The day I fell I love was special. Down right torrid, even. I was in the Bay Area, and had read about this newly opened place called Blue Bottle Coffee. C and I, both intrigued, gave it a go.

I had an espresso, because my gut told me so. With no sugar sachets in sight, they pretty much discourage you from putting any sugar in their drinks – though there is a container of really nice Japanese sugar crystals if you insist – so I didn’t. It had the thickest crema I’d ever seen (that head of brown froth that forms after the barista pulls a shot)..one that didn’t go away and dissipate in 5 seconds. One sip of that stuff, smooth and not bitter, with a finish of chocolate, took my breath away. I sipped C’s cappuccino – even THAT made me curse out in it’s deliciousness. We went back for more: New Orleans style coffee with chicory, flat whites, lattes, even a mocha. Best I've ever had.

And it was the place itself – the baristas who all looked like displaced hipsters (even before I even knew what a hipster was!) all tattooed up and moving with purpose; their rows of sleek machines, grinders, and siphons (something UCC had going even before them, I might add); and one of the funkiest things I’d seen – hand filtered coffee, where you put coffee in a special filter and hand pour the water in a steady stream to produce one of the cleanest tasting cups you’ll ever sip. Apparently this was how coffee was done waaaay back in time, and it was just a method that was being reintroduced.

This was when coffee and I left the MU stage and just went for it. The Third Wave of coffee is the movement where Blue Bottle was smack dab in the middle of – a time when coffee obsessives opened shops, sourcing the best beans often straight from the people who planted them,  and trying their best to extract the most flavor they could from various methods. These guys treat coffee like fine wine, and that concept just blew me away.

The only problem was that the Bottle was all the way in San Francisco. I don’t know about you – but I hate long distance relationships. I tried my best not to think of it, but the separation was unbearable. Worse, I got spoiled by it too. Where o where was I going to find someone to pull that kind of shot for me?

That quest went on for a loooong time. My espresso connoisseur father and I would order an espresso in every local restaurant we would visit. Time and time again, we were let down by watery shots, some found in the best of restaurants in the city. Restaurant peeps – you really should consider upping your coffee service game – it’s always disappointing to have a great meal be drowned out by bad coffee.

Then during my travels, I chanced upon Fuel Espresso in Hong Kong. This gweilo (Canto-slang for “white dude”) hangout, a New Zealand chain owned by a couple of Kiwi gents, made KILLER espresso and only did espresso-based drinks. Their flat white (ristretto with milk, no foam) was really fuel for me, putting a bit of strut in my stride, and their iced latte cooled me and boosted me during warm days. Every trip I made to the Fragrant Harbour made me visit Fuel every day, sometimes twice a day, even if it was out of the way. My only gripe with them was that they forbade me to take pictures of their location –although it was a great set up, I don’t get how they think it’s so “unique”. There’s nothing there that hasn’t been done before! But well gee – who cares, right? It was the coffee I was there for.

A way cooler experience came last year, when a coffee blood brother of mine – Nicco Santos – happened to be in Singapore the same time I was (see my “New Order” post) and wanted to take me to this special coffee temple, knowing that I was hooked on the stuff.

We took the subway and emerged in the middle of nowhere, walking in a neighborhood I had never been to before. It looked like the Singapore ‘burbs, if that’s possible. Nicco then pointed to this high gate, like something you’ll find at a big home in, say, New Manila, and entered.

Chye Seng Huat Hardware then proceeded to greet me like we were old lovers. Yes, torrid. Super. Where was this place all my life?

Located in an old (duh) hardware store, this was so my kind of place: airy, chill, full of light – the main room had a long bar where all the coffee magic happened,; a few cozy tables; a music corner with a vintage turntable, speakers and vinyl; a wall full of coffee machines, gadgets, grinders.. like all cool places that get to me, the atmosphere was intoxicating. And the coffee…  well, let’s just say they knew what they were doing. Like Blue Bottle, they had it all – shots, pour overs, siphons, and a new creature for me: cold brews. Cold brewed coffee is simply coffee that is filtered for a loooong time (24 hours or more!) and chilled. The result is akin to sipping the cleanest iced tea, but with a mild hit of coffee at the back of your mouth. Delicious! But don’t be fooled – this shit will keep you up spinning and dancing if you fool around with it at night. The caffeine level is through the roof.

Beside the main room was an area for roasting (because that’s how respectable Third Wave shops roll!) and arguably an even cooler spot than the main room called The Annex. Basically a room with equipment and a small bar, it was used to hold coffee classes, as well as what I went there for: pairings and tastings. Nicco’s cousin, Andre Chanco (who works there as a barista) and one of his colleagues (whose name escapes me right now) did the session. I left smiling, like I had found something I had long been looking for. That was the closest I had gotten to my Blue Bottle experience, and I went home with a wealth of knowledge too.

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However, Singapore and Hong Kong still aren’t in the vicinity, obviously. It’s not like I can drive over and ask for a date to Tagaytay and have dinner at Antonio’s. It was still long distance. My heart ached, and longed to listen to some balladic Journey. I needed some Faithfully. In a dark room.

But fret not, dear reader (and THANK YOU if you’ve read this far! Haha!), because this does end with a Happy Ever After.

The Third Wave has landed on our shores, in case you didn’t notice, and hopefully like our penchant for 80s New Wave, it will never go away.

One of the joints in the frontlines is this place called Craft Coffee Workshop. Located on a sliver of storefront along 14th St. and Broadway in New Manila, Craft is a great way to get introduced to the world of coffee. I had only heard about them, and was quite surprised that to find that they also knew the people who ran Chye Seng Huat through my man Nicco. It was high time to investigate.

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The 3 gentlemen who run it (Raymond So, Peter Ong & Sly Samonte) are obsessive, like most of the Third Wave generation: they source their own beans, roast them, and do everything they can to get good flavor – siphon, cold brew, espresso shot, pour over. Its vibrant and alive inside - some people even mistake it for a bar – and if it weren’t a little far from me I’d go there everyday. The crowd is a mix of people who live around the area, and young med students from nearby St. Luke’s --- all looking for a place to be still and enjoy the java. At least you know that if you cut your finger or bump your head you will be in awesome hands.

The baristas and owners will gladly discuss you about what exactly is going on in your cup, and if wish to learn even more, they sometimes conduct classes in their second floor “extension”. The good people behind this place have managed to grow a small community – a “Cheers” for coffee – and the surroundings are all the better because of it. I was there one night when they held an impromptu “latte art” competition – regulars and baristas went at it head to head, producing tulips, ballerinas, and..uhm.. ganja leaves made of milk, as the crowd cheered them on and judged the winners as well. Good fun!

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So that’s my love story in a nutshell. From Manila to the San Francisco Bay Area, to Hong Kong, Singapore, and finally back to Manila, I am happy to say that the torrid affair has blossomed into marriage: Life long and strong, an endless love. Lionel and Diana would be proud.

BLUE BOTTLE COFFEE (66 Mint Plaza, San Francisco, CA .. +1 510.6533394;  1 Sausalito, San Francisco Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA .. +1 510.6533394)

FUEL ESPRESSO (Shop B47A, The Landmark, 12-16 Des Voeux Road Central, Central, Hong Kong .. +852 2869 9019; IFC Mall, 1 Finance St, Central, Hong Kong .. +852 2295 3815)

CHYE SENG HUAT HARDWARE (150 Tyrwhitt Road, Singapore .. +65 36960609)

CRAFT COFFEE WORKSHOP (66 Broadway Ave., New Manila, Quezon City, Philippines .. +632 5703436)