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The tinkling of plates and glasses descends on the Felix as officer in charge Susan Salicanan’s staff reestablishes its presence with quiet efficiency, arranging the cutlery on our table and glasses filled with their house green tea. It begins with the Arata—a fresh bed of salad greens, with a generous helping of fresh orange slices, pomelo, strawberries, grapes and candied walnuts, serving as a luscious bed for the prawn and scallop, individually breaded in panko. A citrus vinaigrette provides some acidity, and as the tastes and flavors meld in our mouths, a heady mix of sweet, sour and the mild bitterness of the lettuce, we know that Felix will not disappoint.
It is at this point that Chef Patron and erstwhile owner Florabel Co-Yatco traipses in, in time for the GenSan to make its presence known. “It’s really a collection of my own personal experience from my travels because I love to travel,” she explains. This dish takes us south of the Philippines to General Santos City (hence the name), the tuna capital of the country, and is a play on the traditional manner of eating fish au naturel, cut into cubes and mixed with finely chopped scallions, ginger, the small flakes from tempura batter dropped into hot oil and blended with a mild wasabi mayonnaise, just giving off a hint of the popular radish. “I also like certain tasted and I show it in my food” she explains. However traditional the entrée may seem, there is this one bit of difference that sets it apart; it’s a light sprinkle of Japanese spice more often seen on a ramen table that is a mix of chili peppers, orange peel some sesame seeds and the veritable essence of Japanese flavor, seaweed. This is what provides the “bite” in the dish which serves to cleanse the taste buds and allow the fresh fish to shine through.
Chef Florabel has never had any formal training in the culinary arts, but as we talk through the parade of dishes laid out before us, we find that she speaks about this restaurant with a passion that can only be found in the hearts of the owners. “Put some of the bagoong (fermented shrimp paste),” she encourages us about the Prawns Kare-Kare referred to in the menu as the San Fernando. It’s these little inflections that reflect the length and breadth of her experience that gives her bragging rights to the success of her restaurant chains.
From among the different properties that she owns and manages, the Felix is named after the father of the family, because this is obviously what their family food was like. Apprenticing at some of the finest restaurants was her opening to the expression of her culinary craving. From the kitchens of Le Souffle to the food outlets of Glenda Baretto and Jessie Sincioco, she refined her expression and her passion. The entrepreneur in her gave birth to Florabel’s, then Crisostomo, until it just blossomed into a profusion of different restaurants, themed with different persuasions of cuisine resulting in a mix of different worlds from the view of Chef Florabel.
The dishes were planned out before she arrived so the rest of the spectacle continued unabated, with the Tango, which surprisingly is not present in the online menu but is a celebration of fresh sea bass, paired with a perfectly pan browned portion of foie gras and Canadian scallops in a mild reduction of sorts sitting on a bed of mashed potato and a lightly sautéed serving of purple cabbage. The rich foie gras provides the perfect foil to the flakey sea bass fillet, giving it that smooth consistency that blends with the sweetness of the seared scallop. “You have to get a little of everything,” Chef Florabel insists as we dig in. By itself, Angus beef has established itself as among the best of the best beef with the rich flavor and soft tissue. The Angus beef steaks prepared Filipino bistik style with the monicker “Marcelino” was simply an exercise in subtlety. The calamansi (calamondin), with its sour tart juice, provides a mild citrusy elegance deserving of the Angus beef that we taste here today.
At the Felix, there’s always some kind of “play” on what is familiar, trendy or downright flavor of the month. How could anyone go wrong with a Wagyu beef burger? Or more precisely, how much more can you upgrade what is simply the highest grade available? Balancing deftly on a plate is your bun, the patty and what appears to be a hash brown. “It’s Mozzarella” quips Chef Florabel, and we understand how this plays out. The relatively subtle flavor of the cheese serves to magnify the beefy goodness of the world’s best beef and it certainly does not disappoint.
As if that weren’t enough, some revelers subtly ogle through the Felix’s large picture windows, and slyly slip into the restaurant and take their places amongst the available tables, just in time as the cavalcade of desserts starts rolling in.
Suman latik (glutinous rice cake cooked in coconut milk) served in shot glasses half filled with melted chocolate is typical of the comfort food in Lipa, a city that, at an elevation a shade over 1,000 feet, has its share of fog and cool misty weather year round. Aptly named after the city, this dessert brings a new dimension to the assortment of dishes we’ve had so far. Add to that the familiar Crème brûlée; its crusty goodness sprinkled with powdered sugar, beckoning us to partake a spoonful, which we willingly oblige. It’s an adventure filled with the familiar with that all so subtle twist.
“Chocnut (Filipino crushed peanut and chocolate candy bar),” I ask, and “yes” says Chef Florabel of the dessert named Julia, which is the Choco Mani cake. There is a jar at the entrance with these popular Filipino comfort food, and the cake is the high octane version. A flood of memories washes over us with each bite. The chef enthuses, “It’s really the food that I like, and that my friends like.” We wouldn’t argue with the Isamu or crepe samurai in that regard, with its fillings redolent of ripe mangoes and crème; and much less bother to make my own Marion—a torte lavished with mangoes and cream. I relish the thought of going back to Felix, if only to savor these dishes all over again. I now know them personally by name.