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The long heritage of the Spanish colonization of the Philippines is least apparent in our language and culture. Nothwithstanding the religious artifacts they left behind in every province, city and town, through its coterie of churches, shrines and Catholic saints; and the culture of the fiesta (and the siesta) ingrained in every barangay specially in the May months, we largely remain unaffected by the 300 years as a Spanish colony. Any vestiges of their extended stay were quickly erased in the span of 30 years of Hollywood and the four years of the code of Bushido following the turn of the 20th century.
If one really thinks about what remaining Spanish influences have made their mark – it would have to be the food, so in a sense, we can’t say any more with real certainty that Filipino cuisine is Adobo. The very name itself lends a Spanish flair as does Mechado, Kaldereta and Sarsiado – all sharing the Spanish name.
Under a backdrop of this legacy, Spanish food has always been viewed with nonchalance or outright ambivalence. Blame it on history. But let me ask you this: When we say paella, don’t we feel a celebration in the air? When we talk about gambas and calamares, don’t we start feeling blessed and kissed by the richness of this food?
Enter Beso—that’s Spanish for “kiss.” This word bears the brunt of countless inflections in the typical Filipino penchant for doubling up monosyllabic names such as Toto, Jun-jun and of course, Beso Beso. However, the restaurant itself in its singular appellation prides itself in its singular uniqueness as an expression of flavor that is like a kiss of Life in a sea of clichés of this or that cuisine breathing new life into a mature, heritage cuisine.
Cual es el Beso
The restaurant overlooks the promenade at the end of Bonifacio High street and, although it faces west into the setting sun, it is surprisingly cool this afternoon with chilled Sangria in hand and the promise of good conversation. We walk in just as president Ivan Zalameda settles into a high table with benches and talks to us about how Beso became what it is. “We are businessmen and we have a group that travels a lot,” he says, hence a restaurant named after greetings. Certainly these travels serve as inspiration to the many creations of the group, from Draft at the Fort, and the c’est magnifique Opus at Resorts World. They possess a certain sensitivity to what they intuitively believe would do well for the Filipino and dive head on into the project, staffing right, developing the concept in their own unique style and adapting to the market. What would you call this approach to restaurateur–ing? Trendsetting seems a little too short lived; intrepid would imply some carelessness; perhaps audacious is the word we seek, all we know is that each idea lends a distinctive flavor to an all too familiar cuisine. “. . . one thing it is not is Filipinized! It’s a modern tapas bar” as Ivan declares and this responds to the Filipino penchant for something to eat with something to drink, in small bite size quantities but today, in Beso, it comes in a characteristically continuous flow of food and wine.
The executive chef at Beso is Carlos Miguel, a man with a lineage stemmingfrom Spanish, Portuguese and Filipino roots. Based originally in Manila, he honed his skills in the land down under. If you consider these origins, this would be a perfect combination to work the kitchens of Beso as the modern Spanish Tapas Bar and restaurant. “Work with big and bold flavors. That’s what I grew up with. That’s me,” he confides between tidbits of chorizos, jamons and other tapas laid out before us. Even as a chef in Sydney, rather than acquire that Aussie taste for food, he shared his version of the food he knows and loves as only chef Carlo can. “All the food here is well seasoned…that caters to the Filipino palate.” Indeed as we wolf down today’s concoctions we realize that yes indeed, these are bold flavors that show a generous but not abusive use of seasoning.
As is common with most tapas bars, servings are bite size or, rather, mouthful size portions. The starter plate is highlighted by the Jamon Iberico. It’s a real surprise to realize that the quality of this Jamon can be determined through grades pretty much like vintages and the way wine growers manage their appellations. The highest priced hams are from pedigreed pigs and, mind you, only those with black feet, hence the monicker Pata Negra. They must be sliced ever so thinly to allow the full flavor of the curing salts and reaction of the meats with the curing mix to come to fore at one’s palate. Salty almost to a fault and yet tolerable, the Jamon almost dissolves on the tongue the moment the saliva comes into contact with it. The set includes Lomo de Iberico that turns pure pork tenderloin into a flavorful, thinly sliced serving of Spain. The most interesting flavor here is the Chorizo con chocolate that marries two stark contrasts that amazingly impart a blend of flavors that tickles. This sampler brings the very heart of tapas into one serving. Oh and the bleu cheese with truffle honey needs no other embellishment. It is a must try.
Across Southern Europe, particularly in Catalan, the use of flatbreads in a savory concoction is a tradition particularly in communal brick ovens. Carlo regales us about how the oven would be fired up in the morning so that the people would bring their masas for baking. With or without yeast this community would create their pan planas that with manchego cheese, sardines or anchovies and the ever present tomato as a staple topping. The Beso’s version of the Catalan Flatbread (referred to as a pizza for the unfamiliar no doubt) brings the tart acidity of tomato in perfect harmony with the fatty cheese, making a perfect foil for the jamon Serrano and arugula toppings. Albondigas, however traditional, takes on a whole new personality at Beso, with chef Carlo’s unique personal touch of Romesco in the mix. Sitting in a bowl of rich tomato sauce, it is all at once savory and certified a winner. As part of a coterie if tapas, this can certainly be shared in the company of friends, after all, this is what the love of libation is all about, eh?
Despite its promise as a modern tapas bar, one of the more popular items in the menu are the ever present paellas. I note with some surprise that this paellera seems a little deeper than most. Wet. “I like it wet,” says chef Carlo again and again but surprisingly there is that healthy and nutty flavorful crust at the bottom of the plate that magnifies the “well seasoned” rice mixture. The Beso paella is rich and redolent with the aroma of shrimp, squid and chorizo, successfully allowing the flavors of land and sea to evolve together in the dish, heartily absorbed by the Bomba rice, a shorter grain that absorbs more of the liquid and the flavor. The second paella dish is simply called the Squid Ink Paella which still share the same textures albeit black and fragrant with the smell of the sea but in its richness, bordering on a cheesy consistency. “The secret is in my sofrito,” Carlo reveals a simple template on which the flavors of the ingredients in the paella build upon. A sofrito is typically onions, garlic, tomatoes and bell peppers, herbs and secret spices stored in the misty memories of every families’ secret recipe book. Simmered for hours, flavors develop that generate that unique flavor in every concoction.
Mi Ultima Palabra
Beso strives to serve and deliver what their market wants. As we wind down this review, an expat couple takes their seats outside and casually sip on their bottomless Sangrias (yes they have this everyday) and paint a picture of ultimate comfort in a place of pleasure. Never mind that we did not include the Fritata of Mushrooms, manchego and zucchini in this tasting, which we should have but Ivan and Carlo have certainly hit the spot in their rendition of the modern tapas bar and breathed life back into a centuries old cuisine showcasing a taste of Spain for today.