Thursday, March 26, 2009

"Summer in Provençe" at Café Provençal

A few nights back I cooked some chicken in red wine and Herbes de Provençe for dinner. A somewhat overly hearty meal for such a balmy night, but we enjoyed it. What would've been great is a glass of cold, cold rosé. It got me thinking back to just such a glass I enjoyed a few weeks ago at Cafe Provençal.

Café Provençal hosted a bloggers' pizza & wine event to promote their "Summer in Provençe" theme which will run all summer long. One of our very gracious hosts, Kathleen Chua, explained that during summer in Provençe people will often sit and talk with friends while sipping rosé wines, an experience they hope to introduce here in the Philippines. Most Filipinos are only aware of red and white wine, and are not very familiar of rosés which are fruity and light and go well with pizza. The folks at Café Provençal hope to change all that, and hope that these wines will catch on in the Philippines.

For their summer theme house chef Jacq Tan took the Neapolitana Pizza (thin crust, tomato sauce, mozarella, drizzling of olive oil) and created four variations which we were able to sample. We started with the Roasted Garlic Pizza (cherry tomatoes, fresh basil, chilli flakes), a rustic, very fresh tasting number. I asked our hosts whether their ingredients are locally sourced, and Bryan Chua said yes, explaining that they are aiming for freshness of ingredients instead of importing ingredients that will sit in an airplane somewhere for days. It's a good move, and it was evident in the flavor of the pizzas.

Next up was the Asparagus Pizza (asparagus, sundried tomato, ricotta). Those who know me best will tell you I won't hesitate to put weird stuff on my pizza, and asparagus isn't anywhere near weird, but it did surprise some of my dinner companions. More surprises with the Tarragon Chicken Pizza (strips of chicken, fresh tarragon leaves, and ricotta). This was Steph's favorite. What was a pleasant surprise to me was the use of dark chicken meat with the skin on to add a little crunch. The age-old pairing of chicken and tarragon worked really well here.

My compliments for the pizza crust! My pizza test is whether the crust is good without any toppings, and this did not disappoint. No wood-fired oven here obviously, but still very good. A nice touch accompanying the pizzas were the small plates of fresh basil leaves, dried chilli flakes, and sea salt (nope, not fleur de sel...that might be asking for far too much hehe).

The fourth pizza was the Spicy Chorizo (chorizo, red onions, bell pepper) which I felt was the weakest link not because it wasn't good, but because the three other flavors (in my opinion) far outstripped it. Maybe it would have stood out better paired with the Torres Viña Esmeralda that I saw on the wine shelves instead of the rosé that we were having.

Speaking of the wine, we were served ALEXIS Syrah Grenache Rosé in chilled glasses (another nice touch...bravo!) and 2007 Chateau de Roquefort CORAIL Cotes de Provence. Very good pairings with the pizza. The Syrah-Grenache was a little bit headier than the second wine but I found that my palate enjoyed it more.

Other stuff we enjoyed that night were "Pasta Provençal," their version of pasta puttanesca, and "Burgundy Beef", their own version of Beef Bourguignon, or beef braised in red wine. The beef was falling-off-the-bone tender. The sauce was very nicely done, and wasn't even the tiniest bit greasy despite being very rich. The side serving of garlic mashed potatoes (a little chunky, just the way I like them!) helped cut into the richness, as did the successive glasses of wine hehe.

For dessert we were served beignets with chocolate sauce, and a dollop of crème fraîche. Nice and simple. These were very good, the lightest beignets I had ever enjoyed.

All in all a very good meal enjoyed the Provençal way: with some old friends and a lot of new ones, with good wine and conversation. Kudos to Café Provençal for the nice touches and their efforts to create an authentic Provençal summer experience.

"Summer in Provençe" will run all summer long. You still have this weekend to catch the pizza & wine. Next month they will be offering different pastas, and I am definitely going back for that!

Thanks to the folks at Café Provençal and to Paul Pajo for organizing the event.

These photos by Azrael Coladilla

View all my photos here.

Café Provençal
2nd Level, Shangri-la Plaza Mall
Telephone: (63 2) 631-8046, (63 917) 535-6165


Chocolate Appreciation 101 @ Heavenly Chocolates

It's 4am and I'm enjoying a nice bit of hot chocolate. I've been a fan of chocolate all my life. I grew up in Batangas which is tablea land, and in my godmother's yard there used to be a cacao tree. Imported chocolate bars weren't as readily available back in those days before globalization, and my mother used to limit after-meal chocolate to one-square rations. I guess she figured my brother and I were hyper enough without the theobromine rush. Back in those days I thought that the Goya Fun Factory actually existed and the big dream was to dive into the chocolate pool. Of course after seeing the fate of Augustus Gloop in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory", my enthusiasm was tempered a little.

I learned to temper chocolate in culinary school. We worked with white, milk, and dark Callebaut couverture. That's when I decided I wasn't going to be a chocolatier, because it broke my heart when tiny bits of chocolate got left on the utensils and in the piping bags and stuff. I wanted to eat it all!

And so when I got the invitation to Benjie Pedro's "Chocolate Appreciation 101" at his shop Heavenly Chocolates. I was in it for the chocolate tasting. I wasn't uninitiated, and I knew all about the history of cocoa, the different bean varieties, cacao harvesting, the many stages of chocolate processing and all that.

That's what I thought. Little did I know that I was about to have my mind blown.

The session begins like an AA meeting "I'm Benjie Pedro, and I'm a chocoholic," and then Benjie took us on a journey peppered with fun trivia, candid revelations and personal anecdotes from travels around the world chasing the food of the gods. What was very new to me was single origin chocolate. Like fine wine from grapes grown with care, these chocolates were just as luxurious and unique. Ghana (mostly Forastero beans) was smooth and gentle, with notes of coffee. Madagascar (Criollo) had hints of citrus, with a fruity finish. My favorite was the Ecuador (Arriba a different variety of Forastero), very dark and bold, not for the timid. Benjie's passion for chocolate is infectious. He treats chocolate with both the sophistication of a wine connoisseur and the playfulness of a kid in...well, a chocolate store.

Benjie had us sample some Sachi Nama chocolates. Nama is all the rage these days and the reason is obvious. I have not tried Royce's, but many of those in the know say they prefer Sachi. He also has some other tricks up his sleeve. One of the offerings at Havenly Chocolates is penne with chocolate sauce. The dish was good though not quite mind-blowing. It's still well worth a try for anyone who has never had chocolate in a savory dish. The chocolate-coated potato chips were a treat, as was the chocolate fondue (choose your single-origin to go with it). Benjie is all for challenging the senses; he got us to try something in development and not yet on the menu.

I'm looking forward to going back to Heavenly chocolates tomorrow. Benjie says he has some new single-origins: Mexico and Bolivia.

Chocolate Appreciation 101
March 28th at 2PM and 6PM. For details, please call the shop at 666-22-08 or email Benjie Pedro at

Heavenly Chocolates
127 Roces Avenue (near corner Tomas Morato), Quezon City.
Telephone: (63 2) 666-22-08

Photo by Azrael Coladilla.

Sarah, Benjie Pedro, me, Steph. Photo by Azrael Coladilla.
Sarah, Benjie Pedro, me, and Steph. Photo by Azrael Coladilla.

Photo by Azrael Coladilla.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Thoughts on Foodie Workshop at Serye Restaurant

Saturday last week I started the day excited about the food writing & photography workshop I was to attend at Serye Restaurant at the Quezon Memorial Circle. I had never been to Serye before. I’d passed this branch a dozen times on morning jogs and noticed that they were open for breakfast, but had never tried it. Well here was my chance. That morning though I was more excited about the learning than the eating. Organizer Jayvee Fernandez had told us to bring blindfolds…the day promised to be interesting.

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Saturday last week I started the day excited about the food writing & photography workshop I was to attend at Serye Restaurant at the Quezon Memorial Circle. I had never been to Serye before. I’d passed this branch a dozen times on morning jogs and noticed that they were open for breakfast, but had never tried it. Well here was my chance. That morning though I was more excited about the learning than the eating. Organizer Jayvee Fernandez had told us to bring blindfolds…the day promised to be interesting.

As soon as I walked in I found the place very inviting. Inexplicably I was reminded of my lola, even though I couldn’t honestly picture her in a café. The place had the appeal of the familiar, and the warm-cozy atmosphere of a bistro-café. As I spoke with the very friendly staff the cake selection beckoned but I resisted. First, to business.

Introductions first. I was amazed that lecturer Christine Nunag had actually taken the time to read each and everyone’s blogs, and remembered little details about all of us, including little personal details we’d each put in our profiles. This put me at ease real quick. What followed was a very informative, often funny but always thought-provoking exchange of ideas on viral marketing, food writing in the traditional media & parallels with the (relatively) new blog medium, the blogger’s responsibility to moderate reader comments, the late, great Doreen Fernandez, strange food stories, developing one’s observation skills, and sharpening one’s senses.

That brought us to the blindfold. Blindfolds on, we were walked through a food-sensing exercise. Eight food items were brought before us, and we smelled, prodded, tasted, chewed, swished-in-mouth, “mmmm”-ing and “yumm”-ing all the way. In spite of some people (me included) dribbling spoonfuls of soup on their chins, and almost putting forkfuls of meat up their noses, there were no major injuries. They say that when you can’t see, the other senses kick into overdrive. It’s true. Here’s a quick rundown:

 Sizzling Pork Sisig
Sizzling Pork Sisig

At first whiff I knew it was pork. At the first crunchy nibble I knew it was sisig. Unfortunately it wasn’t sizzling anymore (a small timing problem; the food had been ready some time before the discussion ended) but amazingly the sisig retained its crunch. It wasn’t drenched in oil, as some places serve it, but had just enough of the pork fat to give it a nice buttery mouth-feel & flavor. At the reveal I found that it came with a special sauce which I’d missed at the tasting.

Sinigang na Tiyan ng Bangus
The sinigang broth had moderate sourness, nice body, and thankfully no detectable gabi hehehe. The bangus was firm, and the vegetables were pleasantly crunchy. I think I would’ve liked a fattier cut of bangus, and more bite to the broth, but ah that’s just me. This dish was nice and familiar, and I settled more comfortably in my chair afterwards.

Boneless Chicken Barbecue
Boneless Chicken Barbecue

The first morsel of meat told me this was barbecued chicken. It was tender, had perfect caramelization, and went well with the smooth, peanuty sauce. I thought to myself, “Hmmm..tastes like the famous chicken barbecue from Aristocrat.” I was spot on, as it turned out. We were to discover later that our host Miña & her co-owners/siblings were of the 4th generation of the Reyes family of the Aristocrat Restaurant. The name Serye was in fact an anagram of their family name. By this time there was joking and chatting all around, especially as Chris Haravata started shooting pictures blindfolded.

 Miki Bihon Guisado
Miki Bihon Guisado

My mouth could tell there were two kinds of noodles in this, a great play on texture. Flavor texture and further tactile surprises were delivered by the crunchy sitsaro & carrot, shrimp, sliced kikiam, and a hint of chives & a sprinkling of sesame oil. At the reveal we found the color palette was just as lively as the dish was on the palate.

 Serye Express
Serye Express

With this dish the familiar ended. More accurately, it became harder to pin down. At first whiff I identified coconut milk. As I went through the dish though the flavor profile was at once familiar and elusive. Was there meat in it? Is that langka ginataan Bicol style? I was pleasantly bewildered. At the reveal Mina explained that Serye Express was a marriage of pinakbet and bicol express. Genius! Despite the playful juxstaposition this dish had coherence. Attractively served in a traditional palayok, it was at once a group favorite.

Ox-tail Kare-kare
Back to tradition with this dish. I have never been big on kare-kare, except when it is impeccably executed, and this was one such occasion. Missed at the tasting: steamed rice & bagoong alamang.

Serye Iced Tea
First I got the foamy head in my nose. Then I discovered the drinking straw. This was a refreshing draught. Real tea and real citrus. We all slurped it down to the last drop.

 Serye’s Filipino Fondue
Serye’s Filipino Fondue

The last item was several pieces of miniature turon, but each piece seemed to have a different filling. Langka, saging na saba, sago. There was a small piece of some sort of creamy soft bread which turned out at the reveal to be cute mini ensaymadas. The Filipino-style (er Spanish) chocolate was a great accent to each piece. It was easy to imagine Ibarra & Maria Clara enjoying this dessert. It seemed fitting that the minds behind this dessert were the new aristocracy of the restaurant business.

trigger-happy food bloggers

The writing workshop officially over, we all gathered for lunch. Yes, more food! We enjoyed more of the great pancit, the barbecued chicken with java rice, Serye Express, the wonderful iced tea, and platters of Boneless Crispy Pata. Tender meat, crispy skin, and look, Ma, no bones! Awesome dish! I had promised my doctor I’d lay off the pork, but between pork day at chef school and this dish at Serye, I've surrendered!

Boneless Crispy Pata
Boneless Crispy Pata

It’s sometimes supposed that bloggers are men and women of few words—shy types who speak little and need the written word, and the relative anonymity of the internet to find expression. Either that was untrue of this group, or merely because good food loosens tongues, or perhaps because the warm atmosphere & the solicitous Reyeses made us feel truly at home, but we were truly loquacious in between mouthfuls of crispy pata. Chris regaled us with his account of hunting wild boar and cooking it sinigang style in the wilds of Bataan, Betty talked about the horrors of traveling this far north, and I offered my thoughts on how the pata was deboned. Now I had a new reason to go to QC Memorial Circle. I kept wishing I hadn’t waited this long to try this resto out. The dishes are at once familiar, steeped in tradition, and new and playful. Similarly, Serye is a great place to bring family and old friends, and as I did that day, make new friends. Perhaps the name of the place has another meaning to it: you’ll want to keep coming back.

Serye Restaurant
Elliptical Rd.
Quezon Memorial Circle
Quezon City
Tel. 924-3411, 924-3394

More later: The photography workshop facilitated by Markku Seguerra & Jayveee Fernandez.

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