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Fely J’s Kitchen : Delectable remembrances

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How does one pay tribute to a beloved? For centuries, men have combed their imagination to perform diverse acts of veneration to honor the objects of their affection. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, for one, built the splendid Taj Mahal, an enormous ivory-white marble mausoleum to house the tomb of his cherished wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

On the local front, the late Larry Cruz, the famed restaurateur, writer, publisher and bon vivant, established restaurants in memory of his equally celebrated parents. He created Abé, which features Kapampangan cuisine, in honor of his father, the journalist and artist E. Aguilar Cruz. His mother, the fictionist Felicidad de Jesus-Cruz and her zest for food and life, were the inspirations behind Fely J’s Kitchen.

Although Cruz passed away in 2008, shortly before the inauguration of the first Fely J’s Kitchen in Greenbelt 5, the restaurant bears the unmistakable stamp of Cruz – his passion for the arts, details (such as the black-and-white portraits of Fely J) that somehow conjure the warmth of home, the casual and welcoming ambience, the friendly and attentive service, and, above all, food that gratifies the appetite, indulges the senses, and invites pleasurable dining.

Surely, the presence of the newest outlet of Fely J’s Kitchen at the 2nd floor of Uptown Mall at the BGC adds further excitement to the dining landscape of the burgeoning leisure and commercial hub. It carries on the signature attributes of the restaurants bearing the LJC brand that Cruz had pioneered: warm service, convivial ambience and sparkling flavors.

“My father was a perfectionist!” exclaims Lorna Ambas, Cruz’s eldest daughter. Ambas courageously took over the reins of managing the LJC Restaurant Group when her father passed on. “He would not settle for anything mediocre and would always seek excellence. He was especially exacting when it came to food,” she recounts.

Although her father was unanimously regarded as the pioneer in creating concept restaurants, Ambas says that his passion to build innovative dining brands came not solely from a desire to expand his influence or create a new business venture: “His restaurants were more than commercial endeavors to make money. He has always been motivated by his eagerness to tell a story.”

Ambas continues, “So Fely J’s Kitchen is his way of communicating his mother’s story – her love for life, and her passion for cooking and good food. There was a time when she would go to Cafe Adriatico everyday to sample every dish in the kitchen and give her critique.” Being a Kapampangan, Fely J was also a cook of superb talent. Her expertise came from her homegrown knowledge of cooking, from her own mother and grandmother. This was further enhanced by the experiences she gained from traveling.

Fely J also approached dining with unusual gusto. “She derived pleasure even from the simplest meal,” discloses Ambas. “She used to take a plateful of rice, drench it in fresh carabao’s milk and season the mixture with a pinch of salt. She would partake of this with so much enjoyment – as if it were the most delicious meal ever made!”

Not surprisingly, the menu of Fely J’s Kitchen reflects its namesake’s penchant for good, uncomplicated food. Featuring Filipino and Asian dishes, it offers flavors that are familiar (with a few witty twists here and there), the freshness of produce, and artful presentations that highlight the color and textures of the ingredients.

“Larry and I developed the menu at Fely J’s Kitchen based, in part, on the favorites and specialties of Fely J herself,” Chef George Lizares relates. Some of these include the now popular Lola Ising’s Adobo, which is crisp pork adobo smothered in garlic, and the Crispy Patang Bawang – deep-fried pork leg served with a special dipping sauce.

“The restaurant’s menu is based on the freshness of ingredients and simple cooking techniques because these are the basis of good food. And here at Fely J’s Kitchen, we work to retain the integrity of ingredients. The items in the menu basically represents the flavors of good home cooking – which is what Fely J loved,” he adds.

But make no mistake. At Fely J’s Kitchen, the quotidian is elevated in the hands of well-trained chefs. Here, something as staple as rice is transformed into a memorable repast. Although we passed up on the famous Dilis Rice, we were given a heaping serving of Piña Rice. A far cry from your average fried rice, this version is flavorsome, enlivened with chorizo and tapa slices, slivers of chicken and pineapple chunks. Making the dish even tastier was the rich flavor of hibe, flakes of dried shrimps, sprinkled on top.

How many ways can one cook tilapia? At Fely J’s Kitchen, the well-loved fare is butterflied, deeply fried, and bathed in velvety plum sauce. “It’s our concession to the popular sweet and sour fish,” says Chef Lizares, “but we’ve put in our own twist.” Fely J’s version does away with the ubiquitous pineapple chunks and uses split lychees instead. The caramelized fruit imparts a subtly fruity and Asian flavor to the classic dish.

Fely J’s menu has a special section dedicated to crabs. Crabs, it seems, was one of her passions – plus, the crustacean suits the restaurant’s Filipino-Asian theme just fine. Although the Rickshaw Crab (braised crab with slivers of ginger and scallions) has gained a loyal following among Fely J’s regular patrons, the Temple Crab is another sought-after delicacy. What it is a sizeable alimango, deep fried until the shell has become crisp and brittle. It is perched on a mound of fried rice and covered with a generous sprinkling of toasted garlic. At this instance, Chef Lizares pried the shell open to reveal the red fat (aligue) clinging to the shell’s crevices. He asked the waiter to remove the fat and had the cook slightly fry it with rice. He then topped it with finely sliced chili pepper for a dish that is flagrantly hot but richly tasting of crab fat.

While adobo is considered “the” national dish, sinigang ranks popularly as a close second. For many, the hot soup and backyard vegetables offer the familiar flavors of home, while the zest of the souring ingredient rouses the appetite. At Fely J’s Kitchen, the chef again revolutionizes the classic to make it fresh and exciting. For the Sugpo sa Kamias, plump prawns were slightly curried, then stewed in tomatoes and kamias. The sweet meat of the prawns, the stimulating aroma of curry, and the tang of kamias create a savory ensemble of flavors.

Self-confessed carnivores will delight in the menu’s meat selection. One can take his pick from succulent entrees like Lechon Kawali (crispy pork belly), Lamb Kaldereta (lamb stewed in onions, capsicum and olives), Beef Mechado (beef roulade with inserts of pork fat), and the famous Lola Ising’s Adobo.

This time, Chef Lizares served us Bistek Tagalog ng Kano, a generous serving of US Black Angus sirloin, sliced thinly and stewed in the traditional Filipino “bistek” way – that is, pan fried, simmered slowly in calamansi juice and soy sauce, and topped with toasted garlic and onion rings. The American Black Angus sirloin is suffused in a tangy sauce to make a rich and tasty viand.

“And what are Beef Smoores?” I asked. To answer, Chef Lizares smilingly offered me a stew of beef in a creamy flavorful sauce with a provocative aroma of spices. Smoores, he explains, is a pot roast of American beef cooked Sri Lankan style – poached in coconut milk and seasoned with curry. For fans of Asian cuisine, this dish with a rich Oriental taste and texture would be an enchanting treat.

To wash this savory feast down and cap dinner with a sweet something, I settled for a tall glass of Felyjini. This punch, a concoction of fruit cocktail washed in fruit juice and topped with bits of ubod (the soft and tender-tasting coconut pith), is, I presume, a sincere and vivid toast to the essence of Fely J – sweet, distinctive and totally refreshing.

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