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Legend has it that the distinguished and venerable continent that is Europe was so named after the Phoenician-born mother of King Minos of Crete, the creator of the first Labyrinth. Europa would find herself carried off by a beautiful white bull, the momentarily-chosen disguise of Zeus, king of the gods. Their union would eventually produce the Minotaur, the subject of many a fantasy sword-and-sandal epic and genetic crossbreeding debate.
For all the fanciful tales of its origin, Europe in its own right has since been a mover and shaker for many a century, spawning art, culture, history, science and societal strides that have few equals anywhere else in the world. Its people manage heritage as if they are gatekeepers to an eternal flame, seeing to it that traditions of excellence burn bright for the rest of the world to see. This is especially true in the field of cuisine, where European countries have been the birthplaces for gastronomic innovations which continue to evolve and spread throughout the globe, gathering faithful followers of almost religious fervor.
Come with me as I explore a trio of havens where European cuisine is making those selfsame ripples – right in Yakal Street, in the heart of Makati City. Don’t forget to pack a hearty appetite, because I promise, you’ll need it.
I’m Angus: Good things come in threes
On the surface, I’m Angus Steak House comes across as American, from the cowboy-hat-adorned waitresses to the Texas longhorn-sized steaks that only Godzilla himself could gobble up in a single sitting. Dig deeper and you’ll discover the unmistakable continental European feel of everything, from the elegant presentation of every dish to the extensive and formidable wine list. Chef Leo Marquez wouldn’t have it any other way in his domain.
Chef Leo is all smiles despite his shy demeanor as he brings in his prized dishes straight out of the kitchen himself. A lot of these dishes are his personal favorites, which he regularly samples to ensure their quality.
We begin with some Smoked Salmon with Green Apple and Cucumber, served with salmon roe and caviar. The cubes of salmon and apple look put together like a modern art piece, the colors and textures contrast with each other while tiny mounds of salmon roe and caviar add to the surreal architecture of it all. Each bite delights, and a lightly drizzled vinaigrette added in Pollock-esque dashes and dots brings a zing to it and completes the entire experience.
Seafood lovers and health buffs will simply adore the Main Lobster Medallion and Sea Scallops with green and white asparagus and saffron-scented beurre blanc (white butter). The scallops are seared in crisscross patterns like tiny waffles and the lobster medallion is like a thick little cake with a crispy wafer sprouting out of it like an ornamental plant. The green and white asparagus is nice and chewy, contrasting but complementary to each other with cherry tomatoes to punctuate the ensemble. The lobster is sweet and heady, the beurre blanc giving it character and just the right amount of oomph. It also goes wickedly well with a sweet white wine, preferably one with honey notes like a botrytis or prosecco.
Remember that quip I made about I’m Angus steaks and Godzilla? You won’t think I’m exaggerating when you see the Tomahawk 30 oz Rib Steak with Country Style Potato Wedges. Seriously, this is caveman fare, insofar as it’s enough to feed a whole tribe. The monstrous certified Angus beef slab is flown in straight to Manila from the United States and stands at two inches thick, is properly aged and grilled to perfection by Chef Leo and his people. Mushroom gravy is made available in a shiny tureen and it pours in thick rivulets cascading down the meat like lava from Pompeii.
Chesa Bianca: Aller Gute Dinge Sind Drei
Chesa Bianca’s cozy interior is reminiscent of an alpine ski lodge, from its pinewood walls personally selected by its owner, Chef Werner Berger, to the cheery accordion music piped in from cunningly concealed speakers. All signs, overt and subtle, point to this being an oasis from the elements, whether the unlikely wintry cold that this place is really meant for or the all-too-real perpetual summer heat of the tropics.
Chef Abner “Amby” Sales’s sunny disposition is infectious and indeed, it spills over into his cooking, for Swiss food is bountiful and unrestrained. He disappears in between conversations to bring in his dishes, making sure everything’s in place. The personal touch is everything to this chef who got his start as a short-order cook in fast food franchises. Despite his skill and his rich personal experience, he looks like a kid on Christmas morning, waiting to see how we react to his creations.
The meal opens with Wurscht & Chäs Salat or sausage and cheese salad, with cherry tomatoes, boiled egg slices, cocktail onions, cornichons (tiny pickled gherkins no bigger than an anchovy) and thin squares of Appenzeller cheese, smothered in cream dressing and dusted with chopped parsley. Easily a favorite, the Wurscht & Chäs is an enjoyable cornucopia of flavors that one will keep coming back for.
What gets me salivating like a Pavlovian pooch is the Clochard Rosti with sausage bacon egg and onion rings. Truly a robust breakfast, rosti is a Germanic-Swiss method for making grated potato patties that put the vaunted hash brown to shame. Add smoky bacon with the crispness of a Ruffles potato chip, a fat, juicy cervelat sausage and an irrepressibly cheery fried egg and you will not want for more in this meal, or this existence.
And yet you must make room to try the Apple fritters with Vanilla cream sauce dusted with cinnamon sugar. Toothsome and not at all cloyingly sweet, they’re a great way to end your repast – as enthusiastically as it began but with quiet simplicity.
The thumbs-up I gave Chef Amby made him grin even more widely, an honest smile for honest fare.
Carpaccio: Le Cose Buone Vengono in Tre
Having gotten itself a tasteful facelift from penultimate style maven Tessa Prieto-Valdes, Carpaccio Ristorante Italiano sports Renaissance-inspired prints on its ceiling – whimsical images of colorful fish and vibrant birds alongside cathedrals, faces in domino masks and rapiers.
This sanctum of Italian gourmet delights also finds itself with a new captain at its helm, inveterate chef Maurizio Gibillini, whose numerous credits include Pagliacci Gelato, Pazzo and Dusit Thani’s Tosca. Ebullient and effusive, Chef Maurizio shares many a story whilst we dine. “I tell you about this pasta,” he begins in a musically lilting Italian accent. “I go to Rome and I try this in famous restaurant there and they tell me is favorite pasta of Pope Benedict. Of course, I do not ask Pope Benedict himself so I not sure, but you try, is good anyway!”
Chef Maurizio calls this divine dish Papardeli Benedetto in honor of the name Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger chose when he ascended to the Throne of Peter. Freshly made, al dente papardeli noodles are so chewy you just know they were made this morning from scratch. The pasta is covered with an alchemically arcane mixture of olive oil, scallions, saffron and cream in secret amounts. Topping it all is a brace of sweet, cuddly prawns to give it that toasted lobster aroma and taste. All in all, this amounts to a dish so heavenly that Handel’s Messiah should play in the background whenever you eat it.
He wasn’t done showing off – Chef Maurizio brought in Octopus Carpaccio. This was paper-thin slices of octopus made into discs resembling salami, suffused in chili powder with an arugula and cherry tomato salad at its center. “The Japanese, they like this very much,” he chortled with glee. “They go craaazy for this!” Wasn’t hard to see why.
The main course was brought in afterwards, the Filetto Gorgonzola. Prime beef with a hefty dollop of Gorgonzola cheese served with baked marble potatoes, carrots, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower and string beans, this lovely mélange of eatables is just what the doctor ordered after a long day at the office. Red or white, beer or scotch, I’d pair this baby with anything and come out a winner.
We called it an evening with Strawberry and Gianduja (chocolate and hazelnut paste in vanilla) Gelato with mascarpone, fresh strawberries and balsamic vinegar. As the chocolate and hazelnut drops popped between my teeth between spoonfuls, Chef Maurizio swished his finger over his smartphone to show me the breathtakingly gorgeous landscapes of his home in Vicenza. It’s a triple treat, I thought. A feast for the eyes, the body and the soul.