Once upon a time (around roughly a third of a century), there was a jolly Swiss chef named Werner Berger who moved to Manila from his home in Sennwald to seek his fortune. And seek his fortune he did – after having all sorts of adventures as a chef and entrepreneur, he wanted to put up a restaurant. Then he put up another and another and soon, he had three little digs up and running where he got diners to try lots of wondrous things coming out of his kitchens (actually he put up more but that’s a story for another time, kiddies). No Big Bad Wolves or huffing and puffing here – just honest facts and wholesome food.
Chesa Bianca – Alpine Crème de la Crème
“We were always operating here in Yakal Street since the late 80s,” begins Berger. “It was a very small restaurant with twenty-seven seats and it had an open kitchen. It was unique in the sense that it was all community seating. We couldn’t take reservations so people had to mingle with everyone else. As a result, a lot of them became friends and they’re still customers today.” A fire damaged the building a few years later, so the restaurant was rebuilt and renamed after Berger’s daughter. Today, Chesa Bianca sports a rich pine wood interior (“I got the wood from a guy who supplies saunas and I love the fact that the wood darkens with age,” he reveals. “It gives it more character.”), and lots of Swiss memorabilia such as the kind of skis Pope St. John Paul II would’ve used back when he was plain ol’ Karol Wojtyla.
“We emphasize typical home-cooked food, European style. There are a lot of Swiss items here, of course, but we’ve got a lot of German and Austrian dishes too. Even some Italian. We have a weekly menu as well, where we offer a lot of unique items, which you won’t find in any other restaurant.” It’s that last point that Berger attributes Chesa Bianca’s popularity with his patrons. “This keeps them all coming back all the time. We have people eating here three or four times a week.” In the end though, it’s all about simplicity and excellence. “We try to keep our customers satisfied through the highest quality of food,” he states without preamble.
Among Chesa Bianca’s loyal patrons, the Sliced Veal Zurich Style (Zurcher Geschnetzeltes) is a dish that is worth mentioning, thinly sliced veal in mushroom cream sauce served with crisp Swiss rosti potatoes and served with a hardboiled egg and arugula. But everyone goes to a Swiss restaurant for the cheese, and the Wallisser Raclette – traditional-style raclette cheese served with marble potatoes, cocktail onions and crunchy little gherkins – does not disappoint. You have to eat it fast because it’s best hot and gooey. Want your cheese in a more constant state of taffyness? You can’t go wrong with the Swiss Cheese Fondue; they have more than a few, but the one we tried had Emmental and Gruyere cheese, white wine, garlic, black pepper and freshly baked bread. After your cheese fix, load it up with a Chesa Bianca Platter – thinly sliced air-dried ham, sausages and bacon from the mountains of Switzerland with cocktail onions, gherkins and arugula. It’s a combination that works pretty nicely, assuming you’re all sharing the same dishes (because I recoil in horror at the thought of a single human being ordering and consuming all this food, all by his lonesome. That’s really sad.)
Capping the meal with Apple Fritters (Opfelchuechli) served with vanilla sauce is a good choice – the fritters look like deep-fried donuts with crisp apple slices inside, and they swim on top of the vanilla sauce like lifesavers in the ocean.
Pork Cordon Bleu (Schweins Cordon Bleu) – ham and Gruyere cheese-stuffed breaded pork escalope served with a lemon wedge and French fries – is a popular favorite. Many of Berger’s diners come back to Chesa Bianca just for this dish. Once the rich cheese center starts oozing out of the breaded pork fillet, it works nicely as a dip for the French fry siding. This is an easy dish to get children to eat as they’ll love the melted cheese and pork fillet and no kid can resist French fries.
I’m Angus – Steaking Your Claim
“As the name implies, I’m Angus Steakhouse is mainly about top-quality beef,” asserts Berger. “We import a lot of air-flown, chilled Angus beef on a weekly basis. It’s pre-aged in Seattle, courtesy of this one supplier who’s been our sole supplier for more than thirty years. He is also the supplier of Santis.”
“I have never changed because I have always been very satisfied with his goods – in spite of the fact that his name is MacDonald,” he quips mischievously. “Nah, he has nothing to do with a hamburger joint.”
Ol’ MacDonald sure has quite a lineup, as I’m Angus offers a plethora of steaks – tenderloin, striploin, rib eye and big caveman-sized steaks on the bone. Once you get the meat right, the next secret is all about proper care. “We make our steaks as simple as possible,” confides Berger. “The grilling itself is done a special way. It’s always finished off on beechwood from Switzerland, specifically my hometown.” Berger then begins to regale me with how an old schoolmate of his would chop the beechwood from the forests of Sennwald and send it to Manila for him to cook steaks with.
I’m Angus keeps the seasoning simple. “You don’t want to put any rubs on premium quality steak. Just good salt and good pepper – that’s all you need. Nothing fancy.”
That philosophy seems to have served Berger well, especially when I start seeing the food coming out of I’m Angus’ show kitchen. We kick off with a flan-like mound of
Beef Tartare lovingly surrounded by melba toast and various mixed greens in the shape of a flower. Adding more meaty (as well as fish) goodness into the mix is the Angus Appetizer Sampler, a hodgepodge of prawn cake, chorizo garnished with red peppers and onions and seared mahi-mahi tuna, piri piri style (Whooooo! Do you hear sirens?) thrown in for good measure. For that carnival of flavors of salty meat and naughty-but-nice spicy, there is nothing like a tall-but-not-too-much-okay-as-I’m-driving-that’s-enough-stop-pouring-now crystal glass of 2011 Odfjell Orzada Carmenere from Maule Valley in Chile. Its succulence briefly turns to truculence on your tongue as it dances with hints of blackberries, cherry wood and raspberry licorice and makes an ideal partner to practically anything in the menu.
After your palate’s been on fire from all those flavors, there’s nothing like a little sweet stuff to switch gears with. The Mascarpone Passion Fruit Cheesecake with tropical fruits and yogurt ice cream almost looks out of place with its artful composition – the dish was most likely one from Carpaccio that got ordered at I’m Angus so often that it eventually became part of the menu, much like how potatoes got transplanted by conquistadores from Peru to Spain. Anyway, who’s complaining? One spoonful of this refreshing confection and you’ll be purring like a contented kitty. In an all-Western steakhouse, that is.
Certified Angus Beef Big (30 oz) Tomahawk Steak – What else are you gonna come to I’m Angus for, pardner? This is the showdown special at High Noon – sink your teeth into this steer-without-peer, thirty ounces of pure protein and mouthwateringly marbled Angus beef. With root vegetables, mushroom, garlic, shallots, baby potatoes and a choice of mustard, fresh horseradish and pepper gravy for sauces, the Tomahawk is guaranteed to have you whooping a solid Rebel Yell this side of Laredo and west of the Pecos!
Carpaccio – Chow Bella
The Italian word for raw meat, Carpaccio is often assumed to be just beef, but Berger elaborates on the idea. “Carpaccio can be any sort of raw meat. It can be beef, it can be pork, it can be veal – it can even be fish. Some people even do it with vegetables. As long as it’s got olive oil, lemon and capers, it works. What’s important is you follow the classic way for it.” Like its sibling restaurants, Carpaccio has ready access to Santis Delicatessen next door, of which Berger is acting CEO. “If a guest wants something different that isn’t on the menu, we’ll see what we can do to provide it. In our business, we always say, ‘There is no ‘no’ – whatever a customer wants, if we can do it, we do it. And it helps a lot that we can get all sorts of food and wine from Santis.”
That said, Carpaccio caters straightforward Italian food. “We do a lot of promotions featuring different regions in Italy – one week we’ll feature Maremma cuisine, the next week Piedmont, then Tuscany – all the different places.” With such a rich culinary backdrop, the resulting a la carte menu of Carpaccio is pretty wide. “We have a lot of appetizers, pizzas, osso bucco, risottos,” enumerates Berger. “Italian food is pretty easy, easygoing, easy to prepare. You have olive oil, you have garlic, onions, tomatoes and you’re all set! Like their food, Italians are not a complicated people.”
It’s no surprise that many Filipinos adore Italian cuisine. The similarities and sensibilities are evident in even the simplest of dishes. I find myself munching on slice after slice of
Pizza al Diavolo loaded with tomatoes, spicy chorizo, onions, garlic, olives and oregano. Berger chides me, stating that I have to leave room for the rest and I’m glad he does because the Costoletta di Agnello con Rosmarino – grilled lamb chops with rosemary butter, red wine and herb gravy – is not to be missed. What really blows my tastebuds away, though, is the Branzino alla Marinara – Chilean sea bass with tomatoes, white wine, onions, garlic, capers, olive oil, black pepper, basil, broccoli, baby carrots and mashed potato. One bite of the ethereal, angel’s kiss-like sea bass sets my soul on fire, so exquisitely is it flavored.
Alas, like all fairy tales, all good meals must come to an end, but closing with Tiramisu Classico – ladyfingers dipped in coffee with mascarpone cheese, coffee liqueur and amaretto is sublime. The Dolce alla Casa – a triple shot sampler of tiramisu, panna cotta and crème brûlée – follows, a hint of what to order next upon my return.
Carpaccio alla Cipriani – As with its namesake restaurant, Carpaccio Cipriani style is a humble dish of beef prepared in the traditional carpaccio style with extra virgin olive oil, freshly ground black pepper, lemons and parmesan slivers in a ring of alfalfa sprouts. The raw meat is ‘cooked’ by the lemon juice very similar to how soy sauce complements sushi or more accurately, to how vinegar reacts to kilawin. For first timers, this dish actually requires a bit of courage, unless you’re already used to eating raw food. Taking the plunge has its rewards though, as the delicate slivers of beef are like symphonies on one’s tongue.