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Food and Leisure

The fine art of chocolate decadence

THE X-PAT FILES - Scott Garceau - The Philippine Star
The fine art of chocolate decadence
The Ricciola e Cavolfiori a cocoa-crusted amberjack prepared by the chefs on the floor and drizzled with braised white chocolate cauliflower sauce amid roasted tomatoes.

It’s been a while since we’ve sat down for a memorable feast at Finestra. So the one-night exclusive degustation dinner “Chocolate Harvest: Farm-to-Table Degustation” felt a little like a homecoming. The luxury Italian steakhouse at Solaire, with its prized chef Alan Marchetti at the helm, has always been a haven for one-of-a-kind food events — stuff you just have to post about, but more importantly, experience.

Now, by partnering with one of the country’s most exclusive chocolatiers, Auro Chocolate, for a gobsmacking six-course menu, Solaire and Finestra are back to the highlife.

The concept was dazzling: a wine-pairing farm-to-table degustation menu that married Italian dishes conceived by chef Marchetti, incorporating the heart and soul of local cacao used in Auro Chocolate (cacao farmer Arman Agravante from Cotabato was there with family to enjoy the food and fun). The one-night-only April 28 event brought together Italian heritage and Filipino excellence, while championing sustainability and elevating communities.

Call it an infusion of chocolate perfection. Each item on the special menu played off flavors and textures of local cacao — proudly displayed at each table — and surprised with its versatility and variety.

How do you show the story of the cacao bean, this big, fruity gourd that reduces itself to delicious chocolate medallions and confections and pure dark chocolate bars? You start by serving an appetizer of fresh tuna ceviche, avocado, raw cacao cubes and cacao shavings that tantalized with its pulpy mouthfeel and texture. The Tonno al Cacao was paired with a Cava Cuvée D.S. Brut Freixnet from 2015, crisp and light to complement the cacao in its rawest form.

Tris Al Cioccolato: A trio of Auro dark chocolate coating 77% salted caramel popcorn, a fluffy Auro milk chocolate cake in a pool of Finestra olive oil (served with The Dalmore 15 Years whisky), and a hazelnut Auro white chocolate cheesecake semifreddo amid a garden of fresh berries and raspberries.

The story of this dinner progressed to the Coda Di Manzo hot starter of oxtail cubes vaccinara (a touch of Roman history there), infused with a dark chocolate sauce and crisp celery shavings. Served with a 2018 Australian Cabernet Sauvignon from Vasse Felix, the sauce complemented and enhanced the oxtail, never overwhelming it, but as the night continued chocolate played a more central role, running head-to-head with the dishes and wine pairings, bringing its own surprising character to each course.

Our favorite dish was the Pasta Ripiena, a plate of chocolate fagottini, softly encasing foie gras and porcini in a sublime combination: finally, we get the chocolate imbedded in the course, the rich foie gras and mushroom oil swimming together on the palate, and the result is divine — especially when paired with an Italian La Poiane Valpolicella-Classico “Ripasso” from 2017.

Our next course was the fish. The Ricciola e Cavolfiori was a cocoa-crusted amberjack prepared by the chefs on the restaurant floor: the fish pieces were laid on an earthy puree bed and drizzled with braised white chocolate cauliflower sauce amid roasted tomatoes. The show was fun to watch, and the taste was intriguing, almost playful: the white chocolate cauliflower was reminiscent of subtly sweet vanilla candy (someone compared it to a ginataan), but this played off the roasted flavors of tomatoes and delicately seared fish like a charm. Enjoyed it with the lush 2018 Pouilly Fuissé from Bouchard Père et Fils.

Our meat dish was the Agnello al Burro di Cacao e Patate, a setting of cocoa-butter confit lamb tenderloin medallions precisely heated on a plate with creamed cabbage and fondant potatoes (a perfect smash with the 2015 Keyneton Euphonium from Barossa Valley. The incredible wine selection, incidentally, was presented and poured by Finestra’s tireless beverage director, Daniel Blais.)

We can’t skip dessert, because it made all of this chocolate decadence fit into a perfectly logical conclusion: a trio of Auro dark chocolate coating 77% salted caramel popcorn; a dish of fluffy Auro milk chocolate cake in a pool of Finestra olive oil, over which our servers poured The Dalmore 15 Years whisky; and a spectacular hazelnut Auro white chocolate cheesecake semifreddo amid a garden of fresh berries and dehydrated raspberries.

After all this, it made perfect sense to end our decadent chocolate pairing menu with an artisanal selection of Auro Chocolates, dispensed to us from a crafty cart with multiple hidden drawers.

Auro Chocolate co-founders Mark Ocampo and Kelly Go.

The new partnership with Auro was initiated by Solaire’s VP for Culinary, chef Michael Dinges, a staunch sustainability advocate who puts emphasis on farm-to-table practices as a means to support local farms. Solaire’s kitchens use select ingredients sourced directly from the resort’s partners, incorporating these in the list of specialties from its 15 dining and beverage establishments, while Auro supports six local cacao-producing cooperatives and organizations as well as individual farmers (including farmer Agravante) representing 1,000 families over 20,000 hectares of farm land. Since 2018, Auro has won 50 international awards in four years, receiving the Cocoa of Excellence Award for the Top 20 best cacao beans in the world. Both Auro and Solaire share a Filipino-first ethos, empowering Filipino farmers and their communities.

We always end up closing down Finestra for these pairing events. “Chocolate Harvest: Farm-to-Table Degustation” was no exception as the restaurant officially introduced its newest signature retail chocolates crafted in collaboration with Auro Chocolate — there were exclusive and limited-edition chocolate bars for guests in three decadent flavors and cocoa percentages: Olive Oil and Sea Salt (64% Dark Chocolate), Hazelnut and Mango (42% Milk Chocolate), and Calamansi and Basil (32% White Chocolate). Add to that the bubbly presence of Solaire communications director Joy Wassmer and retail VP Andie Aguirre-Jugueta, who made sure we were the #funtable all night long, and it’s clear from this sold-out Finestra event that things are indeed perking up again for Philippine nightlife (the casinos were a-ringing and a-dinging as well).

Mostly, it was a celebration of the marriage of a fine chocolate brand (Auro co-founders Mark Ocampo and Kelly Go were on hand as well) with a firm commitment to sustainability (it was great to hang out with farmer Agravante and his family, who were clearly knocked out by the reception their cacao and chocolate products received), and the finest, most innovative Italian cuisine prepared by chef Marchetti.

But it was also a celebration of Solaire and Finestra coming back — and in great style.

* * *

Book your tables for Finestra Italian Steakhouse at Solaire Resort by visiting https://www.solaireresort.com or calling +632 8888.8888.

CHOCOLATE

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