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My first Pinoy comfort food |

Sunday Lifestyle

My first Pinoy comfort food

- Scott R. Garceau -
There’s a story behind this story, of course. We all ended up at Café Ysabel one Sunday afternoon to sample a smorgasbord of traditional dishes cooked up by the staff of owner Gene Gonzalez. But what brought us there in the first place was an essay Gonzalez had written for the Anvil book Comfort Food, edited by Erlinda Enrquez Panlilio (the essay first appeared in his popular book, Cocina Sulipeña: Culinary Gems from Old Pampanga).

Gene’s essay was called "Menudo Sulipeña: My Little Big Stew," and it caught the eye – and sparked the appetite – of my father-in-law, Dr. Eduardo Jamora.

Naturally, we had been eating while talking about food (again). That’s just standard Sunday lunch practice here in the Philippines. Somebody brings up the memory of a delicious dish while folks are heartily enjoying what’s in front of them, and they become magically transported to other meals. It’s probably one of the cheapest forms of entertainment – and gustatory travel – available here.

So my wife brought up Café Ysabel, and my father-in-law mentioned Gene’s essay, and it just seemed natural for us to book a room there at the restaurant’s shady, hundred-acre-woods location in San Juan.

Café Ysabel is an institution to folks in the Greenhills area. People have been going there for decades, and it was one of the favorite drop-in points for my wife and I when returning from a late night of editing at The STAR (or just whenever we didn’t feel like cooking). The fact that Café Ysabel was always "in the neighborhood" just underscores part of its enduring charm: it’s a quaint two-story house, with wood interiors that are authentically "old Filipino." Sitting there over spiked coffee drinks, admiring the ornate wooden balustrades from another era, we often thought about writing a book on Manila’s "authentic" cafes – the places that are real hangouts, not imported franchises. Café Ysabel definitely qualified for us.

Anyway, we booked a lunch with the fabled "Menudo Sulipeña" as the centerpiece; the rest, we were promised, would be up to the staff. Among our group were aunts and uncles, in-laws and our young daughter. We arrived in a pack, as usual, and found our way to the back room to settle in. The waiters brought the usual appetizing bread with a dipping sauce of balsamic and olive oil.

Key to such outings, chef Gonzalez recognizes, is having plenty of people circling the table, sampling this and that. The Menudo Sulipeña is supposed to bring it all together: "It is best (served) in front of brothers and sisters and kids running around the table misbehaving, or in a hearty bowl displayed in front of friends with whom you would want to spend an evening," he writes.

We definitely had that, with myself and daughter Isobel at my side, father-in-law and mother-in-law, a friendly aunt, brother-in-law and sisters-in-law all rounding out the table. I was trying to videotape the whole thing, and quickly discovered I had no knack for being a fly on the wall, especially standing behind a piece of equipment that loudly announces "SMILE, YOU’RE ON VIDEOTAPE!" (My young sister-in-law is the budding movie director, but she was away in the US.) Sadly, I have no record of this outrageously opulent meal. After a while I put down the camera and focused on the food instead.

Smart move, as it turned out, because the first course was a delicious prawn soup. The single large prawn at its center was tender and suffused with butter – deliciously complemented by the sinigang-type broth.

By now, a bottle of California red had been opened, and our appetites were just starting to perk up. Gene understands that different wines bring out different tastes, particularly in the Menudo Sulipeña: "A bold Bordeaux like a St. Estephe or Pomerol brings out the gaminess of the oxtail while the softness of a Margaux elicits this wine’s stone fruit qualities and complexity… A minty California Cabernet seems to bring out the freshness of the tomato and peppers while the gelatinous and creamy beef-tail flavor seems to get mite sweeter with an Australian Shiraz."

The next dish to emerge was a spectacular, lightly baked lapu-lapu – its top was loaded with various colorful vegetables (carrots and olives, peppers and mushrooms) in neat portions, lending the dish the appearance of a festive flag. Our appetites were stoked even further when we forked the tender fish – deliciously white and still steaming. A very special dish, indeed.

Before we could even get over enjoying this, though, the waiters brought forth the lengua and chicken pastel – a kind of tasty casserole that spiked our interest even higher. At this point, a second bottle of wine was opened. The waiters topped our glasses, and we toasted to a meal that was starting to reach the ambitions of Babette’s Feast.

We held our breaths as out came two plates of rice – one mounded with white, the other containing a fried rice rich with chorizo, carrots, stewed tomato and peas. We were now ready for the Menudo Sulipeña, which according to Gene is "oxtail, long simmered to jelly goodness with the sharp flavors of tomato, spices, and Spanish sausage contrasted with the softness of well-stewed chick-peas." In truth, the fabled dish was slightly less imposing in taste next to the lapu-lapu and the pastel. But it was all the things Gene Gonzalez said it was: "lightly tangy" and "pleasantly smoky." Most of all, it accomplished something else: it brought out something even better in the food it was paired with. It made the rice tastier. It made the wine more bold and full-bodied. This is some dish, I had to admit. No wonder Jose Rizal has called Menudo Suilipeña his "favorite Filipino food."

I guess the wonder of such a meal is that it does much the same for those who partake of it: you can’t help feeling richer, more connected to others – definitely much fuller – but also captivated, enchanted in a way that only a full, satisfying meal can make you feel. "This is a BIG HOUSE," my little daughter declared after having raced around Café Ysabel a few hundred times. Feeling the sympathetic resonance that comes with enjoying an exceptional meal, I knew she was right on the money.

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