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Hotel Luna: A bite at the museum

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The sight of its facade gleaming under the Vigan sun presents a welcome relief from the punishing humidity of the afternoon. Outside, capiz windows lining the whole length of the hotel and the ventanillas enclosed in wooden balusters immediately brought me back to another era. Amid the other stately Spanish colonial houses surrounding it, Luna Hotel stands like an august queen in the midst of her royal courtiers

“Hotel Luna was formerly a two-storey house owned by Don Jose Florentino. It was built sometime in 1882 as Don Florentino’s wedding gift to his daughter, Doña Carmen Florentino, when she married Don Honorato Romero Encarnacion,” shared Hotel Luna’s affable general manager, Mark Tandoc.

Today, its doors open to welcome guests into a haven of glittering chandeliers, graceful hardwood furniture from bygone eras and a prodigious collection of art by old and contemporary Filipino masters, hanging on the handsome brick walls.

Installed in the ceiling of the main hall is a sunburst with rays fashioned from intricately carved wood. The creation by Mulawin Abueva trains the eye to the elegant interior and somehow gives credence to the claim that this is the only “museum hotel” in the country.

But in this distinguished hotel, the encounter with culture happens not just from viewing the art or marveling at the ornate details and decor. Here, my taste buds got a brush with culture through the chef’s mouthwatering innovations on revered traditional Ilocano food.

Ilocano flavors: Exquisite and Intriguing

At Hotel Luna, foodies need not travel far to sample the delights that the skillful cooks of this northern region have been masterfully concocting for generations. The hotel has three food and beverage outlets to satisfy any gourmand’s food cravings. Comedor, the elegant main dining hall, has an extensive list of Ilocano and Filipino cuisines with distinct Spanish influences.

The cozy Chula Saloon Bar offers Vigan-inspired tapas and canapés to accompany the cellar’s collection of premium wines. It also serves a variety of liquors and craft beer. On certain nights, the bartender might turn creative and mix a cocktail spiked with basi (liquor from fermented sugar cane) or bugnay wine (from bugnay berries). Chula got its name from the series of paintings by Juan Luna, depicting the working women of Madrid in his day.

Azotea, on the hotel’s roof deck, is an al fresco lounge that offers a view of Vigan City’s skyline and landscape. Surrounded by centuries-old edifices, one can while the night away sipping a cocktail or mocktail, nibbling on pica-pica, tapas or an assortment of cheeses.

“Even before creating the menu, chef Robby Goco (the hotel’s corporate chef) and I went around Vigan’s markets to find out what’s available. We wanted to anchor the menu on ingredients that are fresh and readily available,” tells chef Raymund. Since the beginning, he asserts that their objective was to source from the local market to assure the first-rate quality of the flavor, color and texture of the food at Hotel Luna. He adds, “It is also our small way of supporting the local farmers, livestock keepers and fishermen.”

The menu features all-time favorites like pinakbet and dinengdeng that get their flavor from the region’s famous bagoong isda (fermented fish sauce). Chef Raymund, however, also uses the vegetables in pinakbetampalaya, eggplants, kalabasa fruit and blossoms, and katuray petals (which lent a slightly minty flavor to the rice)—as the main ingredients for the quaint Paella Ilocano.

Hotel Luna’s bagnet is delightfully crispy outside but tender on the inside. The pork’s sweet juices oozed out as I took a bite—the combination of crunch and softness surprising the palate. The twice-fried pork, which started as the Ilocano cook’s way to prevent leftover meat from spoiling easily, has since become a favorite and a multi-million-peso industry.

And what is a food trip to Ilocos without partaking of Vigan longganisa, those finger-sized morsels of a distinct smoky flavor and the bite of garlic? Apart from being a favorite breakfast fare, the tasty native sausage also finds its way in chef Raymund’s Linguini Vigan Longganisa and the Paella All-Meat alongside the bagnet.

Lovers of savory pastry will find themselves grinning from ear to ear when they get a bite of Chef Raymund’s Luna Tarts topped with gambas, calamari and—what else?—Vigan longganisa. Looking very much like a square pizza, the tart makes use of puff pastry that brings a layered texture and more bite to the dough.

He also served us an appetizer of crunchy baguette slices accompanied by three creamy spreads, inspired by traditional Ilocano recipes: sapsaporiket (chicken bits stewed in pig’s blood), dinakdakan (a mix of boiled pork brain, and grilled pig’s cheeks and ears bathed in vinegar), and poque poque (grilled eggplant omelet). The trio made for tasty, filling starters.

Another feature that sets Ilocano culinary arts apart is the use of ingredients not commonly found in other areas of the country. For example, chef Raymund stuffed his Lechon Manok Iloco with karimbuaya (or carimbuaya) leaves, normally grown as an ornamental plant. The leaves imparted a nutty aroma and a slightly tangy flavor to the meat.

He made us sample a popular breakfast and merienda fare, a type of rice porridge called pipian. It is of Mexican origin and makes use of the serrated pasotes leaves (which has a rich peppery flavor) and achuete that gives the dish its bright orange color. Cooked with chicken parts, the Filipino version makes use of toasted ground rice or peanuts in lieu of pumpkin seeds. This flavorsome dish makes for a hearty and filling snack.

Of course every dish, be it meat, fish or vegetables, is dunked in either the extremely tangy sukang Iloco (cane vinegar) or a bowl of KBL, which is an ubiquitous dip made from kamatis, bagoong and lasona (shallots).

“We use many indigenous vegetables and herbs, as well as serve traditional Ilocano dishes, because we want our foreign guests to discover the authentic flavors of the province and the country. It’s our way of subtly proclaiming the world-class flavors of Ilocano and Filipino cuisine,” tells chef Raymund.

Living with art

Since Vigan is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, edifices in the city strictly follow a building and renovating code where the design of architecture should go along with the Spanish colonial style. Hotel Luna goes even further by taking the initiative to preserve the works of both old and contemporary Filipino artists.

“The owners are so passionate about Filipino art and artists that they transformed the mansion’s grand sala into a museum. This is their way of promoting and showcasing the superior creativity of Filipino artists to the hotel’s foreign guests,” explains GM Tandoc.

At the far end of the lobby, the wide mahogany main staircase or escalera leads to the grand sala. With wide kamagong floors, a ceiling decorated by wooden medallions skillfully carved by artisans from Betis, Pampanga, and elaborate covings, the room must have been the elegant setting for many formal soirees in those colonial years.

Today, it’s a quiet sanctuary of art. On the walls and along the adjoining hall hang the works of national artists like Fernando Amorsolo, Vicente Manansala, Cesar Legaspi, Jose Joya, Arturo Luz, Federico Alcuaz and BenCab, among others.

Also on display are impeccable works of other prolific painters such as Romulo Olazo, Romulo Galicano and Mauro Malang Santos. Perched on pedestals are masterpieces by celebrated sculptors Guillermo Tolentino, Napoleon Abueva, Abdulmari Asia Imao, Ramon Orlina and Daniel dela Cruz. In one corner, guarded by stanchions, hangs the “La Mandolinera” by the great Juan Luna.

While the boardroom is normally off limits to guests, the tour guide let us into the cool private room and allowed us a peek into Hotel Luna’s other artistic treasures. On a wall, enclosed in glass, is a collection of religious icons made of ivory, some dating back to the 16th century. On the opposite wall are ceramic pottery and porcelain jars from the Tang and Ming dynasties. A lone painting of a crucified Christ with splatters of red hangs in the wall.

“The painting is called ‘The Final Sacrifice’ by Jerry Cortez,” our guide pointed out. “The boardroom has to be kept cool to preserve the antique sculpture and ceramics, and also to keep the blood of Christ in the painting from running. The artist used his own blood mixed with paint in creating the red splatters. If the temperature goes up, the blood might darken and melt, and destroy the artwork.”

Impeccable accommodation

Hotel Luna opened on February 8, 2014 on a 700-square meter property. “What used to be the garden has become the new wing, which houses the hotel’s 44 De Luxe and Double Queen De Luxe rooms,” informs GM Tandoc. The nine stately executive suites are located in the old mansion, adjoining the grand sala. Some are equipped with four poster beds with soft, flimsy nets cascading to the floor.

The design of the rooms represents a pleasant mingling of old and new. Guests will surely enjoy amenities like the smart TV with cable, minibar, tea and coffee service, the IR electronic lockset system, and the fully-automated bidet and toilet. But the accents, such as the hardwood tables, carved cabinet doors, and antique style lamp, provide a colonial charm.

Outside, the scenic elevator affords guests an attractive view of the arched corridors with ornate iron railings forming an amphitheater around the pool. The serenity and grace of Luna Hotel are, quite simply, a fine prelude to the spectacular pleasures of Vigan.

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