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The culinary powerhouse that is Margarita Fores |

Food and Leisure

The culinary powerhouse that is Margarita Fores

IN BETWEEN DEADLINES - Cheryl Tiu - The Philippine Star

When I arrived to meet Margarita “Gaita” Fores for a late lunch at Lusso one weekday, I found her sitting by the outside patio working on the costing for their new high-tea menu. We had initially penciled in 12 noon but had to reschedule to a later time because the 54-seater restaurant was packed.

“Busy,” “reliable,” and “timeless favorites” are common adjectives that describe Gaita’s restaurants, which include Cibo, Café Bola, the former Pepato and the newest addition, Grace Park. Lusso happens to be one of my favorite restaurants. The predominantly gilt interiors — an idea from fashion designer Inno Sotto, who told Gaita “the glow of your restaurant feels like Champagne in your flute” — has a touch of green in the form of the malachite-framed mirror, punctuated by the chandelier from the old Peninsula ballroom — is sophisticated and elegant, yet relaxed at the same time. It’s a hotel lobby feel — without being in a hotel. I often find myself here for brunch or dinner catching up with a girlfriend, as the dishes are exquisite, well-crafted and portioned appropriately for ladies who are careful about not overeating.

The Asiago Fries with Truffle Salt (P270) are the most sophisticated fries in town. So is their Foie Gras Croque Monsieur (P480) — béchamel and gruyere with very lightly seared goose liver enclosed in very thinly sliced pan de mie rectangles, each wrapped in wax paper (a consideration for those who like to share their food — their hands won’t get oily), and pierced with gold skewers, an idea that came to Gaita after having sampled the club sandwiches at Laduree in Tokyo. The Proscuitto Galloni Gold (P545) has the melt-in-your-mouth ham from Emilia-Romagna served in gruyere-coated toast — a deadly delicious combination, inspired by Harry’s Bar in Venice. The paper-thin Walnut-crusted Millefoglie, a Pepato favorite, which has filo pastry layered with mascarpone foam, is also now on the Lusso menu. 

Mariage freres high tea

Now Lusso is launching its high tea from 3 to 6 p.m. daily, which center on the gourmet Mariage Frères teas, which Gaita herself brings in from Paris. The Di Lusso High Tea (P995/ for sharing; P500/ solo) includes a pot from France’s oldest tea house, tea sandwiches (salmon, prosciutto with onion butter, cucumber with truffled butter, watercress and deviled eggs, and smoked chicken with fruit mostarda), and desserts (lemon tartlets, mini pavlova and Lusso’s in-house cheesecake), and homemade cones with classic Bonne Maman jam and clotted cream. “The secret to the tea sandwich is the way the bread is sliced so thin — you have to use a really sharp knife,” discloses Gaita. The Mariage Frères tea selection, always served with an hourglass for a precise three-minute steeping time, includes: Rouge Sahara, Ruschka, Breakfast Earl Grey, Russian Breakfast, Jasmin Mandarin and the Marco Polo.

Old world feel

“I like the elegant tea culture that Mariage Frères advocates,” Gaita shares. “It alludes to history all the time — the old-world appeal is what people go for.”  She reminisces fondly on the Marais district in Paris, citing the Mariage Frères store and Cuisinophilie as the two places she makes a “pilgrimage” to whenever she visits. “I always wanted to serve the teas here in Lusso. Café de Flore, and even Laduree in the afternoon, Harry’s Bar in Venice and even Peninsula in Hong Kong — these were my pegs. It’s those elegant cafes that inspired Lusso as a concept,” shares Gaita, who founded Lusso in March 2009, when she was 50 years old. “That was my frame of mind then. I wanted a place where you can hang out, where you can be alone, drink a glass of wine, and read, and you won’t be hiya.”

She also takes pride in the cotton jackets of her service staff. “They are Italian-styled jackets made from double-faced cotton. I wanted them to look crisp in their cotton jackets. It is a bit pricier but it makes a difference in how they look.”

Grace Park: Done with a lot of love

“Grace Park is the first restaurant where I did the interiors,” shares Gaita, whose other restaurants were designed by architect Jorge Yulo. “Things on the walls can change depending on what we want to put.” Gaita’s eyes light up with excitement as she points out the different decors of the restaurant that opened last March 2013: plates, glasses and tables from Kamuning; distressed chairs from her family’s sugar mill in Bacolod; old Pizza Hut chairs that had been restored with gold leaves; kitchen accessories from her own kitchen and Makati Cinema Square’s Swap and Meet; and even a rose that her son Amado gave to her on Valentine’s Day that has been dried and preserved.

While Grace Park was named after her house in Caloocan, the grace in this restaurant took on another meaning: “It is food that’s done with a lot of love and grace, like handmade pasta, healing food and organic produce made with artisans, and done in a careful way.” It celebrates that farm-to-table, seed-to-plate concept. “I wanted to put up a restaurant that has a conscience and is a reflection of the times. When people put up restaurants, they spend so much on interiors. This is farmhouse cooking and done with grace, and I felt the interiors had to reflect the same thing.”

The menu items, printed on recycled cardboard and paper, has standout pasta dishes like Spaghettini with Uni and Live Shrimp (P525) and Gramigna, served with Wine Tomatoes and Smoked White Cheese (P380). Their recently launched sandwich menu has also made the restaurant a favorable option for merienda.  The River Prawn and Scallop Squid Ink Bun (P435) is my personal favorite. It is squid ink on the bun, homemade mayonnaise (made from egg yolk, lemon and olive oil beaten by hand so it comes out very light) with a generous serving of the seafood.  The Sukiyaki Melt (P475) is roasted top blade steak, au jus, Asiago cream, fontina served on ciabatta bread; and Gaita’s favorite sandwich in the world is the Patty Melt (P400), a burger patty, caramelized onions, English cheddar, mozzarella and butter served on rye bread.

Future plans

So what is next for Margarita Fores? Well, her very own home line, called Casa di M. She has several items like the Bacolod knives and gold beverage cans (which Monocle’s Tyler Brûlé especially loved when he visited Manila, as they allow you to conceal the brands of soda cans while keeping them cold), already available at Univers also at One Rockwell, but the line will be fully complete by the end of the year.

“It’s an expression of the totality of the work that I do. It allows me to express creativity in most aspects and for people to be able to take the idea home with them.” It seemed like the natural progression — from catering, when people suddenly  became particular about their flowers, she created her flower arrangements company, Fiori di M — and now linens, plates, napkins, and tableware, which she will be addressing with Casa di M.

It’s not so accurate anymore to call her merely a chef or a restaurateur, but a culinary powerhouse. At the age of 54, after 26 years in the business, she just keeps on going, and is brimming with passion, energy and love while at it. If you love what you are doing, it never feels like work, and this can be felt with her. She is also one of the most established in the country’s food industry, having also recently cooked at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris for the largest Philippine exhibition in Europe, with the guest of honor no less than French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, yet you can still find her at her restaurants and catering events, personally buying what she needs herself, and on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, posting about her new menu additions or new food discoveries. And Gaita is nice. She has been known to share her recipes, secret tips and inspirations at cooking demos, too. And her menu items don’t follow trends or gimmickry, but stand the test of time by simply being what every restaurant should be — places to eat good food. While France may have Alain Ducasse, the UK has Gordon Ramsay and Nigella Lawson, and America has Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud and Wolfgang Puck — chefs who have expanded their restaurants into more — the Philippines has Margarita Fores. Except, she has her own line of flower arrangements. They don’t.

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Lusso is located on the ground floor of Greenbelt 5. It is open from 11 a.m. to 12 a.m. For reservations, call 756-LUXE (5893).

Grace Park is located on the ground floor of One Rockwell Drive, Makati. It is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays; and up to 1 a.m. on weekends. For reservations, call (0939)-93-GRACE (47223) or 843-PARK (7275)

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