Food and Leisure

The Manila Hotel regains its old glory

TALACATA - Mary Ann Quioc Tayag -

Recently we were invited to dinner at the Champagne Room of Manila Hotel. Being very Pinoy at heart, I honestly feel Manila Hotel should be our No. 1 hotel in all our books, not only for its historical value, but also we should be proud of our very own. But there was a time it lost its glory and beauty. For a while I thought the owners did not know what to do with it and would not be surprised if they changed its name. I remember one elegant lady calling Manila Hotel a chopsuey of sorts. And an artist friend regrets having taken a Japanese national artist to see the MacArthur suite, though he requested it.

But this time, the lobby pleasantly surprised us. Gone is the grime and tired look. It is fresh and bright and elegant again. A huge original painting by Fernando Amorsolo beautifully adorns the lobby, but sadly, it is paired with a very poorly done Amorsolo lookalike on the other side for symmetry. But even for the uninitiated like me, it is quite an eyesore. A choir provides a nice touch but as one impeccably dressed lady said, “Gusto ko silang bihisan.” Calling Dita Sandico Ong to the rescue! 

Manila Hotel executive sous chef Christine P. Zarandin with her prime rib carving

The coffee shop Café Ilang Ilang has been changed beyond recognition. It has transformed into a modern beauty. No more veranda look with all-white wicker chairs. It is a lot bigger with nine food stations. They have Spanish and Korean sections, which are both unusual in buffets.  Their tempuras are as big as what one would expect in an a la carte but not in a buffet. The Indian rogan josh smelled delicious. Claude and I looked at their marbled steak and knew we would go back on a Thursday night for a steak dinner buffet. 

At the newly renovated Champagne Room, Claude was looking for the huge Romulo Galicano oil painting, which might have been moved to a suite. I am glad to see that the timeless 1977 glass trees from Impy Pilapil have stayed. They still stand tall and proud. The dainty prints on soft lemon-yellow upholstery make an elegant and charming room. The menu and large amount of cutlery on the table told us it was going to be a 10-course dinner, and with so many glasses I had to move some so I could see the lady in front of me. 

House-smoked duck breast with Caesar salad

We started with lobster tail on vanilla custard topped with Ossetra caviar. It tasted nice, like a salty chawan mushi because of the caviar, followed by a two-way seared foie gras with apples and a mousse in crisp lemongrass tuile, paired with a Southwest France 2008 Gros Manseng (tuile is the French term for “tile,” or thin cookies that are very pliable when still hot and are traditionally pressed over a rolling pin. When cooled, they resemble old French villa tiles. In chef Christine’s case, she rolled them over into tubes much like barquillos). Of course, everyone enjoyed this. We also had scallop with truffle that came with grilled shrimp served in a cheddar bowl. Amusingly, I liked the bowl more than its contents — it had the taste of grilled aged cheddar. This was followed by Claude’s favorite, a house smoked duck paired with a heavy red Bordeaux, a 2008 Merlot, Cabernet Franc.

A pan-roasted fillet of sea perch was served with a white, fruity Loire 2009 Chenin Blanc. Then the dish I had long been waiting for, Cote de Boeuf et Pomme Frites. Beef always comes last. The problem with beef is it is often served medium rare, while I like mine medium well to well done. Since I do not eat fish fillet (long story why) I was praying I would be served a big end cut of the roast. But alas, my beef came with blood and all.

Two-way seared foie gras with apple and mousse in crisp lemongrass barquillos-like tuile

Dinners like this, you tend to be polite and take what you are served. The gods must have seen my disappointment and given the lady in front of me what she would call “overcooked,” which I call perfect. We swapped and her face also lit up. My beef went deliciously well with the dark and full-bodied Northern Rhone 2008 Syrah. By now I was having a problem following the conversation. I looked at the menu and saw I had seven wines and there were more to come. Then a pinot noir was served and another white wine came with the three desserts. The dessert worth mentioning is a nice mascarpone cheese soufflé.   Overall the food was more than good, especially the beef. But it was just too much. Plus, because we had excellent wine for every course carefully selected by the young French sommelier, we were getting slower in chewing and faster in drinking. Another guest asked if he could come back the following day just for the beef and some salad and I volunteered to keep him company.  

Dessert trio: Mascarpone cheese soufflé with fresh strawberries, warm hazelnut ganache, and chocolate pot de crème

The portions were too big, very unlike a French degustation, maybe because we are in the Philippines, where hosting means extra food left over is a must. Some even dictate that there has to be more food for guests to bring home. Such a dictum does not apply in any French home. Then the chef of the night turned out to be pretty Filipina from Negros.  If you have been to a Negrense home, you will know how abundantly they prepare for their guests. By the way, her tuile with foie gras mousse is flavored with lemongrass, obviously inspired by the region’s famous inasal flavor. 

To me, what makes this dinner more interesting is we had wonderful French food in the Champagne (a region in France) Room by a young Filipina chef, Christine P. Zarandin, who studied Classical French cooking and trained and gained experience abroad. She worked many years at the famous Spago, Las Vegas, owned by Wolfgang Puck, the Austrian celebrity chef. I myself have eaten in Spago, Los Angeles. The world is indeed getting smaller. One day — and I say this with certainty — there will be a fine-dining Filipino restaurant in Paris with a French chef impressing his French diners with kare-kare, sisig and adobo.  But maybe before that we should first have a fine-dining Filipino restaurant in our five-star Manila Hotel.

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