French cuisine is truly a delight to behold, not only when your dish arrives at your table but before that, too, in that laboratory of eldritch sorcery that is the kitchen. In one station, a cook diligently chops salad greens then carefully parts each stalk in the middle, before neatly adding them to a pile on his right. On a marble countertop, another cook scoops mounds of gooey dough from a huge steel bowl, shaping them into painstakingly identical teardrops on a wax paper-covered tray. Next to his station was another marble countertop with copper lamps descending from the ceiling not unlike an operating table. There, sous chef Bobby Nunez artfully squirts droplets of chocolate, raspberry sauce and lemon crème in fanciful dots on a dessert plate that he then carefully garnishes with roseate flower petals.
Behind them all nonchalantly works a cook on a grill, roasting a slice of porterhouse steak. The flames madly rush towards his head in an elemental cloud of fury, which he doesn’t even bother avoiding. Indeed, the orange and yellow blossom ends but an inch or two from his face, and he doesn’t break a sweat or singe an eyebrow, as he continues to cook the beef to perfection with professional precision.
This is just another day at Aubergine in Bonifacio Global City, the brainchild founded by Chef Hansjorg Schallenberg, or Chef Hans as he was known to his friends and associates. Having first opened its doors in 2007, Aubergine was making a reputation as a bastion of gastronomic excellence, to the delight of Francophiles and gourmands in the city. Less than a decade later, a heart attack tragically felled Chef Hans, but fortunately, his vision did not perish with him. Celebrated couturier Cesar Gaupo and some industrial partners purchased the restaurant and have since redesigned its look while maintaining its standards of quality and class.
“It has always been the objective of the owners to retain what Chef Hans envisioned – the idea that Aubergine would always serve classic French cuisine,” reiterates
Rico Manlangit, Aubergine’s restaurant manager. “Chef Hans built Aubergine’s reputation, making it a well-known French fine dining establishment in the city. It’s our responsibility to keep to that tradition.”
The Gaul of it all
“It’s pure French cuisine here, nothing else,” affirms Chef Bobby. “Mr. Gaupo may have added some Modern Chinoiserie design elements into the look of Aubergine such as that trio of larger-than-life Chinese vase prints, but the food remain[s] unmistakably Gallic.” Their being rooted in tradition and the strong loyalties the pair have were evident to me. I learned later on that Chef Bobby and Manlangit worked for a number of years under Chef Hans, when they were all part of the Shangri-la Hotel in Makati City.
“We maintain high standards when it comes to the freshness of our ingredients,” continues Manlangit. “We also make it a point to listen to our clients carefully and it pays off – our average score with regards to diner feedback is around 97 percent. I can humbly say that to you.”
“Our chefs also take great pains to make sure our food looks good,” attests the restaurant manager. This bit comes as no surprise as classic French cuisine practically invented the genre of artful presentation in Europe. “We know our guests love it. Right before we serve the food, out come their phones and they’re taking pictures right and left.”
“Another selling point we have is our service,” adds Esrom Rosales, the chef de partie. “We’re always on point, making sure our guests never want for anything. It’s all about personalized service.”
“To test some new dishes, we try them out in our Chef’s Specials of the Day, the Business Lunch and the Degustation menus,” reveals Chef Bobby. “For the items in the Business Lunch menu, they’ll see changes from Monday to Friday. The Degustation menu gets revamped every two weeks. If a dish gets more and more requests, it becomes a permanent addition to the regular menu.”
Nothing beats Aubergine’s tried-and-tested favorites though. “Rack of Lamb is a popular item, says Manlangit. We’ve got guests coming all the way from Alabang for it.”
I could see why folks in the South would brave hours of traffic and lines of eighteen wheelers for Aubergine. We started off with some Roasted Quinoa Salad with feta cheese, cucumber and Asian dressing. Delightfully on display as a quinoa patty, the arugula and lettuce salad on top look like a floral arrangement, complete with petals here and there. Beside the salad are feta cubes and tomato oblongs placed in strategic points around it – the effect made the dish resemble one of those fancy music boxes with the ballerina on top. For something so dainty, it actually was quite filling, thanks to the quinoa.
Next came the Yellow Fin Tuna Variety, a trio of tuna tartar, a pepper crusted tuna cube and tuna carpaccio served with mango papaya relish, avocado, marinated shiitake mushrooms and salad greens drizzled with sesame ginger dressing. None of these ingredients are simply lumped together in one big Cajun bowl, oh no. The mango papaya relish and avocado are carefully placed together as a layer cake of yellow, orange and lime green over the tuna patty, which in turn sits on a wafer-thin sheet of tuna carpaccio. Pesceterians may now rejoice!
The magnum opus of the meal however was the L’Aubergine Surf and Turf, a hearty plate of grilled tiger prawns, roasted Australian Mulwarra beef tenderloin, pan seared duck foie gras, wild mushroom risotto, glazed vegetables, Madeira jus and Béarnaise sauce. Not only does this wondrous assortment of delectables look good, their flavors are nothing short of divine. The fatty yet deftly seared foie gras was symphonic in its goodness and sinfulness, the mushroom risotto creamy and heady. The Mulwarra beef had that distinct liver-y taste I recognize in cows from Down Under, but with a juicy tenderness done in classic French style. The tiger prawns were so sweet and fresh that I mistook them for lobster, but the gloriously roasted aftertaste they left was positively ambrosial.
Dessert was no less an event with the arrival of the Vanilla and Strawberry Muille Fuille with devil’s sponge cake, vanilla ice cream and dark streusel, topped with fresh strawberries, white chocolate sheets and strawberry meringue droplets. This merry mélange that Chef Bobby was working on while I was watching him earlier was every bit as heavenly as it looked. Paired with the Aubergine Soufflé – vanilla, Grand Marnier with coffee ice cream on a woven toffee candy cookie – made the meal truly one I would never forget.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Chef Hans still watches over his baby from beyond the ether. I’m sure he’d be proud of it and of his people, whose gustatory handiworks continue to bring heaven on earth.