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“Abe” in Kapampangan means friend. It is also a Kapampangan restaurant that carries the name of a man who was a friend to many: Abe Cruz, artist, foodie and father of famous restaurateur Larry J. Cruz.
At the restaurant’s branch in SM Megamall, the old man’s touch is all over the place. His impressionistic painting graces the cover of the menu. His black-and-white sketches adorn the walls. A mural of Abe’s life story in photos runs along the side of the restaurant. His portrait also appears on a frosted glass in a divider.
It was not just his name that he lent to the restaurant, he also lent his genial spirit and his genuine appreciation for good, authentic food.
His granddaughter, Lorna C. Ambas, CEO and president of the LJC Group which manages the restaurant, recalls with fondness this loveable trait of Abe. “From his travels,” she says, “he would pick out the best dishes that he enjoyed. He may not have cooked for us, but he sure had the palate to know which dish is the best.”
She adds that if her lolo (grandfather) were still around, he would definitely go for bringhe (similar to the Spanish paella), betute (stuffed frogs) and kare-kare (oxtail and vegetables cooked in peanut sauce with shrimp paste on the side).
While Lorna could not pinpoint exactly how she can say a dish is good, she offers her Lolo Abe’s take on it: “Dapat mapapataas ang pwet mo sa sarap!” (“It should be good enough to lift your derriere off your seat.”)
It is a mantra shared by Corporate Executive Chef George Lizares. “Our food [in Abe] is presented in a simple way but it is tasty,” he says.
For years, Chef George has been developing dishes for the LJC group of restaurants. He has trained most of its chefs, including those who are now cooking for Abe. His is a straightforward way of working with food—to make Filipino food universally acceptable.
He thinks that every version of Filipino cuisine has been done before. So how does he inject some novelty into it? He does not stray far away from what many of the guests have been familiar with. He cleverly “replaces” an ingredient previously used as an accent or for another dish.
For instance, in Abe’s Sinigang sa Ube, he deftly uses the purple root crop as the thickener of the soup, giving the dish a more vibrant color and its sweetish, warming feel to the tastebuds. Still, slices of ube form part of the other vegetables usually found in sinigang dishes. While the appearance of this version of sinigang has put off some guests (they think it’s some form of guinataan), many more adventurous palates have enjoyed it.
If, like me, you are fond of gabi in sinigang, this version can require some adjusting. Your tongue would naturally yearn for the pleasant stickiness of the gabi as an accent. But in time, the blending of the sourness of the soup and the creaminess of the ube can really be a treat, filling you up and converting you to an ube-for-sinigang fan.
Chef George also looks at symmetry or balance as a crucial element of menu planning. He plays off two opposite tastes creatively such that the tastebuds would find the counterpoints pleasing.
A case in point is Abe’s Guisadong Hipon sa Kamias, in which the saltiness of the shrimp (a favorite of calamares lovers) and the sourness of kamias blend beautifully. The kamias also helps rid of the “fishy” taste of the shrimps. When you sample the dish, you immediately recognize the characteristic flesh of the shrimp but the kamias sort of changes that experience. It’s either you reach for more spoonfuls of the dish or ask for more rice. If it were spicier, it would have been a perfect viand and pulutan, for me.
Abe’s Manyamang (Delicious) Beef Asado is another example of blending opposite flavors: the sweetness of the sauce and the saltiness of the beef. Acting as a respite from such “fusion” are the potato cubes and spring onions that are used as garnishing for the dish. The beef that goes into the dish is thinly sliced and tender that it could be mistaken for ox tongue (lengua). The sauce is perfect for pouring over steaming hot rice.
What really stands out among the dishes served that afternoon is Kilayen Babi. It is not for the faint of heart, for it has liver among its ingredients. But it can be rewarding for those who set aside their bias about liver. For in this dish, the liver slices are crunchytender. The pork is thread-like fine. When combined with the coconut cream on which the meats are served, they become heavenly creamy. The spike of the siling labuyo served with it completes the appetizing sensation. There is no bitter aftertaste or greasy feel. To wash down all the mentioned dishes is Abe’s signature beverage, the Tamarind Shake. It is done from fresh sampaloc. It is pulpy and sweet, a refreshing substitute for the lemonades and iced teas of this world. You have to keep stirring it though to prevent the lumps forming on the upper portion of the glass and leaving you with just the juice on the bottom.
For Abe’s guests to immediately enjoy the Kapampangan dishes, the restaurant depends on the technical skill of Chef Ninoy Aquino (yes, that’s his real name) who ensures that all ingredients that need a great of deal preparation are ready: soup stock is on stand-by or meat and fish have been pre-cooked. His time to beat is approximately 20 minutes, assuring every guest of the restaurant the quality of food its inspiration, Abe Cruz, will be proud of and will definitely share with his good friends.
As Chef George says, “Ours is a combination of Filipino food that can be enjoyed by everyone and interiors that are Western enough to make foreign guests feel welcome.” And it is a combination that delivers what the restaurant says on its façade: “Abe, Where Good Friends Dine.”
what’s for dessert
I have been to a lot of Kapampangan fiestas to know that they are not complete without the signature leche flan made with duck’s eggs. The eggs make this popular dessert creamier and richer than its regular commercially made cousin. It is for me the most fitting finale to any festive meal in that part of the country. I was thus hoping to have one in Abe after having enjoyed some of its clever concoctions. Instead, I had maja blanca. White as snow and accented by a poking corn kernel here and there, it is topped by more whites, this time with pinipig. I had about a spoonful of it to know that it was light though too sweet for my taste. I felt full after that small bite.
But I don’t think I can blame the maja blanca for feeling satiated. I now realize it must have been the picture-perfect turon with kalamay that did it; I meant the one that made me content so that I couldn’t proceed anymore with another dessert.
Erase from your mind the image of the turon sold in the neighborhood streets. This turon has a thin wrapper that embraces perfectly the soft slice of saba inside with a small slab of slightly sticky kalamay. The whole thing looks flattened sideways it fools you into thinking it’s going be an easy bite. It is not; it needs balance on the way you bite into it so that the kalamay wouldn’t fall off or obscenely jut out of the turon. You can cut it into two and wield a fork and knife to attack it. But it removes the fun of being able to hold it and enjoy it, licking included.
What do I think of it? It’s just plain delicious. The kalamay adds a dimension to what would otherwise be a plain turon. It gives body to the turon and balances the natural sweetness of the banana. It is actually two sweets in one, without either ingredient overpowering the overall taste. Order it next time you’re in Abe – you will be hooked.
For those who can’t get enough of cakes, you can try any of those made by Polka Dots, the pastry extension of Abe (and the LJC restaurants). You can choose from the classic Sans Rival, Carrot Cake, Red Velveteen, Decadence, Yuki Mousse or the Mango Balls. They are available in petite size for P150 to P160 each or the bigger size for P350 to P475 each.
Again, because of the turon with kalamay, I couldn’t go further than a little slice of Decadence and the Mango Balls. The latter has a light chiffon base and thus easier to finish; the mango gives a refreshing sweet touch to it.
I was told that you can’t go wrong with the two as they are Polka Dots’s bestsellers.