April 27, 2007

A Holy Week food trip down south

(Casa San Pablo's grilled tilapia in banana leaves)

Text and photos by Ma. Stella F. Arnaldo
BusinessMirror, April 27, 2007

THERE is nothing like good old Filipino cuisine to tide over the hungry tummy while abstaining from meat during the Lenten holidays.

I was lucky to have partaken of really simple but sumptuous traditional Filipino meals in San Pablo, Laguna, although I did surrender to some Italian fare, meatless nonetheless, on Good Friday. (I did try to stay away from the grilled pork but, yeah, I confess to spearing two pieces from my friend’s plate. Mmmm….)

Casa San Pablo, a quaint and rustic inn where we spent the Holy Week, served up some of the most sincere home-cooked meals that made me an instant fan of Laguna cooking. There is surely more to Laguna than its buko pie.

Healthy and light

Casa San Pablo’s meals are a divine testament of how Filipino cuisine can be almost effortless to create, but deliver a delicious kick in the way each dish melds all flavors of each ingredient. Making full use of its homegrown product, the coconut, and tilapia from the nearby Sampaloc Lake, the inn’s cuisine is healthy and light.

My favorite was the kulawo, basically some mashed grilled eggplant in smoked coconut milk. According to innkeeper Boots Alcantara, the eggplant is grilled in its skin before being peeled then mashed. Instead of just using young coconut milk, hot burning charcoal is rubbed all over the coconut making it toasty. Thereafter, the coconut meat is grated and squeezed in vinegar to milk it. The gata is then mixed with the mashed eggplant along with onions and some chili peppers, thus giving the dish its smoky tasty flavor. I don’t like eggplants but this dish was beyond belief in its simplicity but truly delectable, I didn’t mind a repeat during the week.

Another favorite was the grilled tilapia wrapped in banana leaf, which was juicy and succulent, my mouth still waters just as the thought of it. I could taste the freshness of the fish with each bite. Casa also serves a special dipping sauce of grilled tomatoes mixed with soy sauce and vinegar that complemented the tender flakes of the tilapia.

(Kulawo na talong)

Although its breakfast fare consisted of the average cacophony of sinangag (garlic fried rice), red salted eggs with chopped tomato and onions, pork tocino or sausages, it was still about uncomplicated hearty dishes. Casa also serves hot chocolate with toasted pinipig (flattened glutinous rice) on the side, making each breakfast day truly uplifting.

Most dishes are Alcantara family recipes, which is why every Casa San Pablo meal epitomizes what we all yearn for, lutong bahay.

Casa San Pablo accepts dine-in customers who may wish to partake of its daily buffet at P350 per head. Breakfast is from 7 am to 10 am, lunch 12 noon to 2 pm, and dinner from 7 pm to 9 pm. Breakfast or lunch with a room, which may be used from 9 am to 5 pm, is P750 per head.

Fiesta fare

For some reason, Good Friday usually brings out the egg salad sandwiches in most homes in San Pablo. We had it at Casa, then again at the home of Maris Capino, from whose balcony we watched a procession of saintly images. Egg salad is probably the easiest sandwich filling to make and one of my childhood baon favorites. Just hardboil an egg or two, then mash them and blend in some mayonnaise. Add a little salt and pepper to taste and spread over white bread (somehow it doesn’t taste as good when spread over whole wheat, but then that’s just me). Voila! Yummy egg salad sandwiches!

Maris also served really scrumptious crunchy turon (fried saba bananas in lumpia wrapper) which, in contrast to those served in Manila, were more banana than wrapper, thus making each bite truly a delight. Maris’s simple fiesta fare also included refreshing turnips (that’s singkamas to the lot of you), which I haven’t had the pleasure of eating in years. I had to consciously stop myself after I realized my right hand was robotically reaching then plopping the singakamas pieces into my mouth.

While everyone was still in mourning on Black Saturday, my travel buddy and I were celebrating the fantastic cuisine of Kusina Salud. Owned by couturier Patis Tesoro, the restaurant showcases traditional Filipino dishes whipped up by its chef Paul Poblador, husband to Patis’ daughter Nina. While local ingredients are used, Chef Paul gives them a modern twist, thus elevating traditional Filipino recipes to a level of French bistro-like sophistication.

Who would’ve ever thought that garlic spaghetti would complement a plate of carabao salpicao? The carabao meat was supremely tender and tasty by the way. Or how about the Hot! Crispy! Hito! (yes, the menu provides all the exclamation points for emphasis), where the catfish is fried to crunchy perfection then bathed in chili mango sauce? The cooks also accommodated our request of a vegetable dish to balance off our rather meaty dishes, and offered us an off-menu dish of simple sautéed pechay which turned out to be quite tasty and pleasant. Now that’s what I call service! The brewed coffee, which was infused with the aroma and taste of pandan leaves, was also outstanding.

Kusina Salud also offers lunch buffets every Sunday.

Thin-crust pizzas!

(La Pizzeria staff prepare to serve some sumptuous pizzas for loyal clientele and new fans from Manila.)

Amid our celebration of traditional Filipino cuisine, we discovered, with the help of Boots, La Pizzeria, which serves what is perhaps the best thin-crust pizza this side of the world! Its owner, we were told, studied to be a chef, and uses only the finest Italian ingredients in generous quantities. The pizzas are baked in a real woodfire brick oven, which gives the pizza its smoky and crunchy flavor.

We ordered the Romana, which is totally meatless—only thick tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, anchovies, capers, oregano, and olive oil. The Quatro Formaggio is also truly divine, with four cheeses—mozzarella, parmesan, romano, and feta—melting their wonderful flavors into each other. There is no restaurant to speak of as regulars just course their orders through the cashier in a gas station. The actual pizza parlor consists of one tall table and stool parked in front of the cooks’ working area, so it gets extremely hot inside the rather small place. Customers thus eat their pizzas while seated on monobloc stools and plastic tables around the gas station’s convenience store.

Of course we just had to return to La Pizzeria on Easter Sunday to take home some of those yummy pizzas back to Manila. The convenience store, by the way, also serves strong coffee concoctions, both hot and chilled, which my travel buddy swears to be better than Starbucks! What a great find indeed!

For a food trip down south, be sure to swing by San Pablo, Laguna, and enjoy all the pleasures of Filipino and, yes, Italian cuisines.

Casa San Pablo is located within the Gomez Compound in barangay San Roque; Kusina Salud is in barangay Sta. Cruz, Putol; and La Pizzeria is in the Total gas station along Maharlika Highway.

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