Entering Café Mary Grace was like stepping into my mom’s parlor, with a scent like that of baking cookies wafting through the air, and the comfort of a much lived-in home, and decked out with just as much imagination. Bottles and glass-paned boxes hung suspended from ribbons planted onto the ceiling, filled with rice lights that seemed like fireflies frozen in perpetual stasis. The walls were adorned with actual family snapshots, a wedding photo here, a family outing there, a beloved pet’s treat-begging expression next to a beaming graduation portrait. Glass sheets on coffee tables simultaneously guarded and displayed a plethora of daintily scribbled love notes from appreciative visitors – lauding the cheese rolls (sugared buttery roll), the ensaymada (rich buttery bread dusted with sugar and topped with edam cheese), the convivial ambiance, or the affable manner of the waiters. The loft above held mirrors etched with whimsical whirls and swirls, drawings of children at play and random words of encouragement.
Off to one corner was a tiny alcove painted to look like a picture window straight out of Peter Pan, looking into a tiny town in the distance. The alcove was a play area with a low plush couch, a toy piano (complete with requisite children pounding on it whilst squealing with amusement) and shelves chockfull of storybooks that framed the faux window. From an awning, two diminutive grinning cat figurines sat, staring down, oblivious to the activities below. This was the world of Café Mary Grace, full of memories and treasured keepsakes. It was like being invited into someone’s home for a meal and a chance to escape the humdrum hectic harassment of the outside world.
The escape was not just limited to the interior. Mary Grace does with comfort food like Nikola Tesla did with electricity. Crispy Cassava Chips began the meal, with rich onion dip, almost good enough to make me forgo potato chips. The Laguna Cheese with Olive Oil and Garlic was served with slices of soft, whole wheat bread. The velvety white cheese spread evenly and the garlic bits gave it even more character. The Seafood Chowder was a chunky mélange of fish fillet, clam, shrimp, mushroom, corn and carrot that simply brought a tender glow to my tired soul. I couldn’t help smiling as I took in every spoonful. The waiter then brought in a bowl of Caesar Salad, lettuce glistening with creamy Caesar dressing and bite sized chicken squares so crisp I thought them to be croutons.
For pasta the Spicy Scampi held a delightful surprise of zesty linguine noodles cooked properly al dente, with shrimp, asparagus and a lemon twist. Puffs of steam escaped the mound of pasta as I twirled my fork into it for a bite. By now, I realized that much of the secret of Mary Grace’s food had something to do with temperature – a lot of their food was kept hot and made the dishes even more tempting to the palate. Case in point was the Vigan Longganisa (sausage) Sandwich, a marvel of exquisite fried skinless longganisa from that northern Luzon town, surrounding tomato slices, a wedge of white Laguna cheese and lettuce on two slices of perfectly toasted bread. The bread halves were crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside and neither too dry nor too juicy, so the insides did not spill out in a sloppy mess, unlike more overstuffed sandwiches. Served with toothsome homemade potato chips, the whole ensemble was deceptively simple but I acknowledged that a lot of trial and error went into getting this meal right.
Whatever effort went into the Vigan Longganisa sandwich paled in comparison to the pièce de résistance that is the trio of the Three Cheese Ensaymada, Hot Chocolate and the Cheese Roll. Like the sandwich, they remained simple and elegant looking without artifice. However, one morsel from all three items was all I needed. It explained why dozens and dozens of love notes lay under the tabletops of every table of the café, in fact, in all the Café Mary Graces all over the city. The Three Cheese Ensaymada was lavishly dusted with keso de bola (fully ripened Edam) while slices of glazed cheddar draped over it like languid felines. To top off this lovely pastry was a dollop of white cheese. The bread, light and fluffy like Persian silk, was tantalizingly yielding, and tasted incredible. The cheese roll was no less a joy, lightly coated with butter and sugar with cheddar cheese in the center. As for the chocolate, it poured like lava and was the stuff of childhood dreams.
It was also difficult to decide on which beverage I liked more. The Strawberry Shake (made with fresh strawberries) that arrived afterwards was a cooling, scrumptious counterpoint to all the warm food. The Apple Cinnamon Tea tasted straight out of an orchard, with just the right hint of cinnamon. The Peach Tea was like drinking a soda fountain-style peach cobbler, with fresh, syrupy peaches. For coffee lovers, their frothy cappuccino with a floral sunburst pattern on its foamy surface would’ve been more than enough.
No wonder that everyone was walking away from the café with boxes and boxes of goodies stacked like skyscrapers. It is the Yuletide season after all, and there’s nothing like sharing a bit of sunshine for the holidays.
Visit Café Mary Grace at Greenbelt Two, Greenbelt Shopping, Legaspi St., Legaspi Village, Ayala Center, Makati City 1226, Philippines. You can also log on to www.marygracecafe.com or find them on Facebook and Foursquare.