The bowl of mussels arrives and the jocular Chef Martin Kaspar begins with a perfunctory set of instructions. “This is moules-frites,” he explains in a brisk, freshly-pressed-shirt-crisp tone. “Mussels and French fries – sure, you can eat it any way you like, but I will teach you how the Swiss eat it.” He takes a mussel between his thumb, index and middle finger like a tiny, organic pair of tongs. He then uses it to take a few shells and puts them on his plate. Once done, he takes another with his free hand and uses his makeshift shell tongs to lightly pinch and pry the tasty orange flesh of the mollusk from its former home. He then pops the mussel morsel in his mouth, smiling all the way. After following it up with a crispy golden French fry strand, he continues. “The best part is the sauce. You want to scoop it up onto your moules and your frites like this.” He breaks open the empty mussel shell into two halves and uses one as a miniscule scoop, spooning the rich butter and white wine sauce onto the victuals on his plate, happy as a clam, so to speak.
Sounds like fun, no?
Fun is what you can expect at L’Entrecôte, Chef Martin’s labor of love for the last five years now. The bistro is practically engineered to be informal and cozy, from its café overlooking-the-street façade to its bold adobe sunset walls. L’Entrecôte’s specials are painted as signage on the windowpanes like 1950s diners – “It’s part of the whole ambience,” he clarifies. “If you go to Geneva or Paris, restaurants there have the whole menu written on the window. At least when you pass by, you know a little about what it is they have.” Inside, the walls are lined with festive quasi-Impressionistic illustrations of Europe, from the seaside to idyllic farmlands. “The paintings we have, it’s a Filipino named Carlos Rocha who paints them. The pictures are alive and the colors are very vibrant. We want to feel alive, to look alive, to be alive. That’s the whole important thing.”
As to the name, the little bistro actually has a fairly venerable history. “We’re not a fine-dining place. L’Entrecôte is a Swiss-French concept which started in the 1940s in Geneva,” he begins. “It’s the idea of the steak-frites or steak and fries.” The concept was all the rage in Europe and eventually, Chef Martin brought the concept to Philippine shores. “That’s how we started five years ago, with only one menu. Over the years, we’ve since made a wider menu with different specialties such as risotto, spaghetti, more steaks, more picapicas. We really expanded quite a bit for the needs of our clientele, who come regularly. Our steak-frites is still one of the best sellers. It’s our signature dish.”
“We serve fresh, good, honest food,” affirms L’Entrecôte’s chef patron. “We don’t pretend. What you order is what you get.”
It took some effort and patience to get people to notice the little bistro. “We celebrated our fifth year anniversary just last September,” he states. “It takes time to establish, to be noticed. We’re still around and doing better than ever actually, but every good business takes time.”
Having the perseverance to work on something worthwhile is something Chef Martin is no stranger to. “Although I’m from near Zurich, I’ve lived here for almost 20 years,” he recounts. “I arrived here in 1986 and I worked in different hotels as an executive chef and food and beverage manager. Later, I left in ’99 to join the Swissotel chain. I came back again in ’09 to put up this restaurant, making the transition to a private business and I’ve been here since.” That great depth of experience and knowhow is something he wishes to share with the denizens of his home of two decades. “In the morning, I teach in Enderun College, which is very rewarding. I’ve been there for three years now. It’s been fun teaching the kids, to give back, which is important.”
What he gives his kids is the opportunity to share some of his culinary wizardry. I get to experience this gastronomic sorcery first-hand with his aforementioned moules-frites. His Big Adlez Nicoise Salad (named after a beloved relative) arrives at the same time, a healthy garden potpourri of soft-boiled egg, grilled zucchini, tomato, potato, cucumber, olives, anchovies and salmon on mixed greens tossed in white wine, Dijon mustard and drizzled lemon and olive oil.
For some, the combination of fries (unlimited, take note), mussels and salad would be more than adequate, but in my case, more is still to come. Pan Fried Foie Gras on roasted potato with The Fruit Gardens (bourbon, calamansi and berry) follows, and the sweet, salty, sour meaty, fatty medley is music to my mouth.
Chef Martin’s adroit cooks aren’t done tickling my taste buds. Lamb Merguez Sausage Risotto comes after. The merguez sausage was grilled and served with creamed blue cheese risotto with spinach, a crispy gruyere chip and a sweet and spicy tomato chutney. Chef Martin gestures to it and says, “Okay, the best way to enjoy this is to take a bit of the merguez, a bit of the risotto and some of the chutney together in one bite. You’ll get all the flavors blending together nicely.” Obediently, I oblige and what follows is a surprisingly delightful dance of flavors and aromas on my palate. My own take is to partake of the merguez’s spicy saltiness and the blue cheesy goodness of the risotto sans chutney, as I’m not too crazy of sweet in my meats.
The main event is the L’Entrecôte Double, a 12 oz. twenty-eight day-aged, certified Angus beef sirloin steak topped with their ultra-secret herb and butter sauce (only Chef Martin knows the recipe and he comes in after hours to prepare it, away from prying eyes), served with a tossed salad of mixed greens drizzled with the house dressing and unlimited French fries. It’s a meal like this that makes me grateful for not being vegetarian. To herbivores out there, my sincere regrets, as you have no idea what you’re missing out on in L’Entrecôte.
Ending the surprisingly just-right-and-not-food-coma-inducing feast is the Eiffel Tower, an alternating layered indulgence of vanilla ice cream, strawberries, whipped cream and freshly baked meringue sprinkled with almond slivers and drizzled with chocolate syrup. To enjoy, simply tear the pretty thing apart with your spoon and devour it like Godzilla would a nice, crunchy skyscraper. The meal ends as it began: with sheer fun.
Curiously Reasonable Wines
L’Entrecôte has a rather substantial wine list with over 50 different labels to choose from. Most of these are between the P1,400-P4,000 price range, and several come rated 88 to 90 points by Wine Spectator, but two humble wines stand out and no, they won’t break the bank:
Ventisquero Clasico 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon – Since they first opened, L’Entrecôte has been serving this as a house wine and it fails to disappoint. Its behavior and characteristics, from its cherry, berry sweetish taste and aroma to its full body make it more like a wine at least three times its actual price. Value for money – you can’t go wrong with this lovely little Chilean red.
The Beach House 2013 Douglas Green Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon – South Africa has as of late been producing surprisingly amiable wines, and this Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon combo is no exception. The Semillon grape’s sweet, fruity and refreshing character serves to balance the Sauvignon Blanc’s otherwise dry crispness.