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Talk about a tough market to crack – it has got to be the Filipino diner. Consider how Filipinos talk about food while enjoying their meals, or how even the most unsophisticated diner has an opinion about the fragrance (or lack thereof) of the rice that accompanies the meal, there is little doubt the Filipino diner feels strongly about food.
For a restaurant to break into this tough market is hard enough, but for it to dare and serve Filipino food to Pinoys… and succeed? That is definitely one for the books.
Asya Filipino-Asian Restaurant is a relative newcomer to a segment dominated by marquee brands in Filipino cuisine. For years, the Filipino dining segment has been ruled by names like Aristocrat, Barrio Fiesta, and Cabalen, to name a few. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the cult carinderias like Aling Lucing’s and Aling Sosing’s.
Filipinos are unforgiving when it comes to restaurants that serve native cuisine, not only because it is something that is close to their hearts, but also because each family and each region has its own opinion of what good home cooking is.
But it was the diners themselves who shaped Asya into what it is today. When it first opened in 2010, it specialized in cuisine from all over Asia. Its original menu consisting of Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Japanese food was warmly welcomed by diners, but eventually the menu inched closer to more and more Filipino fare. The shift happened slowly over less than two years. Today, the menu lists 80 per cent Filipino food.
Perhaps it is a compliment to Asya Executive Chef Ding Lazona’s combination of a practical knowledge of the Filipino palate and his years being expertly trained in the kitchens of the legendary Le Soufflé. At Asya, he insists on serving Filipino food with a modern twist by careful plating and portioning. Tinapang bangus (smoked milkfish) is not served as a whole fried fish on a platter but rather as bite-size fillets wrapped in rice paper and mustard leaf, with the rolls stuffed with slices of salted duck egg. The dish is served not as a main course but rather as an appetizer. Seeing the potential of standard fare like smoked milkfish with a simple salad accompaniment is what makes Asya different from the ordinary Filipino restaurant.
Asya is also unafraid to take on the competition head-on. Judging from its menu offerings, it went and took the best of the selection among popular Filipino restaurants and came up with its own versions of signature dishes. Asya would rather call this strategy “benchmarking against the best,” where in the end, Filipino cooks raise their game and the dining public is all the better served for it.
Take for example its Sinigang na Corned Beef. A popular innovation of an upscale Filipino restaurant, this dish is a modern take on the beef dish that uses a soup base soured by tamarind pulp. Like the popular version, Asya also uses home-brined beef. Asya’s version uses brined camto that is then boiled for an hour and a half, taking it from high heat to low heat to fully tenderize the meat. The tamarind soup base uses a combination of fresh and commercial soup base.
The popular bar chow sisig is also benchmarked at Asya. The restaurant’s version is also served on a hot metal plate and has the addictive savory-sour combination of flavors that go so well with a bottle of ice-cold beer. However, Asya’s version is lightly flavored with mayonnaise, and the maskara (hand-chopped pig’s cheek, snout and ears) is boiled until tender, and then deep-fried instead of being grilled. The result is a sisig that treads that fine line between two philosophies: wet and dry. Sisig fanatics are divided between these two choices: you are either a fan of the wet or dry version. Asya’s sisig happily gives diners both at the same time. If you must try something at Asya, then it has to be their version of the sisig.
Another thing that differentiates Asya is the pragmatism that pervades its philosophy when it comes to Filipino cooking. Chef Lazona is quite candid about his use of commercially available soup bases as well as liquid seasoning. Not only do these aid in efficiency with the kitchen, he also understands that the Filipino palate is quite used to the flavors of the commercial products and does not discriminate against them.
Although the restaurant’s current menu is now far from the original one, there are still shades of the old Asya. The interiors remain modern and the signature “face chairs” are still there. As for the food, Filipinos, it seems, have welcomed into their favorites list the Thai import Bagoong Rice. Asya’s version uses a spicy shrimp paste mixed with oyster sauce and chicken powder. While it is topped with the usual unripe mangoes, Filipinos will recognize the cured pork as tapa. For contrast, Chef Lazona flavors and colors the scrambled egg strip topping with annatto seeds.
Filipino diners also seem to have taken to sushi. One of the more popular dishes at Asya is the Atomic Roll — spicy chirashi stuffed with unagi and cucumber then topped with marinated tuna tartare. The rolls are served with deep-fried crabsticks for texture and contrast.
Asya has evolved to reflect how Filipinos want to eat. Its Salo-Salo meals allow anywhere from six to ten people to share a feast together for a value price. The restaurant’s 150-seating capacity is almost always taken up by large groups that fill up both the indoor and outdoor seats. Filipinos, it seems, are happiest when they eat together.
The transformation has proven good for Asya business-wise, as it is able to more easily procure local ingredients. Where it used to import spices to come up with regional Asian dishes, today, given the Filipino menu, the ingredients are not only locally available, they are also cheaper. The shift has also allowed the restaurant to fully explore the banqueting side of the business, one that is now a profitable side of operations.
Asya’s lone branch at the Eton Centris commercial cluster in Quezon City has become a destination restaurant, and its success is reinforced by the fact that among the many restaurants that were launched during the opening of the commercial center, it is one of only a handful that survived Eton Centris’s location and clientele. Although there are plans of creating franchises, the company is not rushing into it as they would like for the satellite kitchens and the planned commissary to be able to faithfully reproduce the dishes at Asya.
Its Inihaw na Pusit (grilled whole squid), for example, has to be stuffed a la minute and cooked precisely to achieve the firm-yet-tender texture of the meat. Judging from the popularity of the dish, Asya’s decision to take it slow and respect the diners who have helped achieve its current identity is spot-on.
Christmas Treat at Asya
It is during Christmas that most families bring out the Chicken Galantina. Because of its elaborate preparation method, it is served only during special occasions. To make galantina, a whole chicken is deboned, then stuffed with ground chicken meat mixed with chorizo, Vienna sausage, whole boiled eggs, sweet ham and raisins. It is then baked and served whole at the Christmas table. At Asya, it is made with chicken breast stuffed with sausages and glazed with sweet pineapple sauce flavored with star anise.
Executive Chef Ding Lazona takes this Filipino favorite and gives it a regional flavor by dredging it in tempura batter and deep-frying the rice roll. Each roll is prepared in-house and stuffed with slices of ripe mango and ube halaya (purple yam). It is glazed with a coconut-caramel sauce when served. Asya Filipino-Asian Restaurant is located at the ground floor of the Eton Centris Walk, Eton Centris, Quezon Avenue cor. EDSA, Quezon City. Tel. (02) 994-8467 and 738-4938 to 39.