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Lemuria: Lost Horizons

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Once again, I thought my Waze app was playing tricks on me and decided to get me lost. I was in the middle of Horseshoe Village in Quezon City searching for Lemuria Restaurant. What loomed in front of me was a stately, hedge-rimmed gate leading to what appeared to be the driveway of a private home. But wait, I thought. The main road that ultimately takes you to Boni Serrano was one I had taken hundreds of times before. There were signs pointing to Lemuria that lead here, into this hidden side street that I had never seen before. Indeed, there was one such sign to the left of the gate. Maybe this really was the place.

A squat, beefy attendant in a severely cut jacket appeared and assured me I had reached my destination. As he took me beyond the driveway, a sprawling terra cotta mansion with a clay-tiled roof, and a small but neatly riotous garden filled with tropical potted plants were there to welcome my arrival. A closer inspection of the garden revealed a shallow pond teeming with fat and lazy koi fish. Further down was a charming building reminiscent of the sleepy villas of Patmos in Greece.

Cecile Mauricio, sommelier extraordinaire and the newly minted food and beverage director of this Quezon City version of Nanda Parbat met up with me and took me on a grand tour of the area. We took in the sumptuous dining areas, the hanging gardens and the cunningly placed waterfalls. Every now and then, she would point out a detail or two.

“See this map?” she gestured towards a framed lithograph, yellowed with age. “It’s the real thing, a genuine antique that’s at least a few hundred years old.” She ran her fingers through placemats on the dining tables. “They’re hand embroidered, from Germany. Mrs. Schroeder, the owner, has an amazing sense of style. Everything is so understated and so incredibly elegant.” Mauricio saved the best for last – under the villa-cum-restaurant is Lemuria’s wine cellar, one of the largest I’ve ever seen in the country. Inside, we ooh-ed and ahh-ed at exquisite potables from Germany, France, South America and their signature items, wines from Eastern European countries such as Romania and Uzbekistan.

It isn’t hard to see why this gem of an enchanted garden was named after an ancient magical continent considered to be the sister of Atlantis. The brainchild of veteran wine importers Marina and Klaus Schroeder, Lemuria is truly a secret paradise – I could scarcely believe I was still in the heart of Quezon City, less than a hundred meters away from snarling traffic and the frenetic chaos of the metropolis.

After our tour, Mauricio took me to meet Kevin Endaya, Lemuria’s youthful-looking executive chef (Turns out he’s my age. How does he do it?!). “Our fare is largely influenced by French cuisine but I don’t wanna put a label on it because we do lots of things,” he opened, when asked about Lemuria’s offerings. “Other people call it Global Cuisine but what we have is highly French and Mediterranean-inspired. It’s evident in the emphasis on details when we prepare the food – making ingredients from scratch to the plating.”

“We try to use a lot of local fruits and vegetables, whether they’re grown from our own backyard, or from local farmers. I think that’s every chef’s goal – to help the community promote local produce. It’s the best produce that you can get. If you import all your ingredients, inevitably, some of these foods will lose their quality over time. Still, you can’t have everything local, for sure. If you want French-Mediterranean food, you have to source outside the country for certain things.”

Lemuria’s menu draws from Chef Kevin’s own life’s story. “It’s experience and nostalgia. When I create a set menu for spring, I think of the things I had when I was abroad in countries which have spring – nice vegetables like asparagus, certain flowers and fruits only available from that area and season.” These sojourns into memory lane became a quest for authenticity in French cuisine that goes above and beyond the call of duty. “I’ve gone abroad to try out authentic French dishes such as beef bourguignon. If I know how a dish is supposed to taste like, now that I’m the head of a French restaurant, when our diners ask, ‘Is this really French?’ I can honestly say, ‘Go to France. That’s exactly what you’ll get.’ When people ask, ‘Do you ‘Filipinize’ your dishes so people here will be more comfortable with the flavors?’ I tell them, ‘No. You went to a French restaurant for real French food. It’s like going to a Japanese restaurant and complaining that you don’t like raw fish.’ Ultimately, French cuisine is three things – their attention to detail, the quality of their ingredients and their choice to avoid cutting corners with the ingredients or the process of making the food – no instant solutions.”

No cutting corners with a dish like the Foie Gras Trio, Chef Kevin’s opening act for the evening’s meal. As the name implies, the Trio is Spanish-sourced foie gras prepared three ways – ballotine (done similar to a sausage wrapped in jamon serrano and paired with apricot compote), mousse (on a crust of bread with succulent strawberry slices), and classic pan seared atop a chunk of juicy watermelon. Pure heaven.

Next came the Prawns with Feta Cheese and Tomato Carpaccio, sautéed prawns on top of paper-thin hydroponically grown tomatoes drizzled with olive oil. For such a simple dish, it’s devilishly challenging to execute, requiring fresh ingredients and a steady hand. The prawns were sweet, the tomato luscious. Following shortly after was some Soft-Shell Crab, polenta-covered and paired with goat’s cheese and arugula, mango slivers and cherry tomatoes. You could really tell how much mileage Lemuria was getting out of their backyard garden – the goods don’t get fresher than that.

Marina Schroeder bade me try an Argentine wine, a 2013 Crios de Susana Balbo Limited Edition. This vibrant and feisty red was made from a grape variety called tannat – my first time to ever here of, or much less, try a wine of that sort. Its strawberry notes and bright finish worked nicely with everything we were eating, even the soft-shelled crab.

What was to utterly floor me was Lemuria’s signature dish, Bone Marrow Risotto – luscious pan-grilled bone marrow in a red wine risotto, with slivers of pan-seared foie gras and scallions. This Chef Kevin original is so irresistible I’m surprised that raving-mad foodies don’t come here to demand the stuff at gunpoint. It went smashingly with the Beef Bourguignon, that classic French dish of U.S. short ribs braised in wine for eight hours with shallots, carrots, lardoons (cubes of pork fat) and creamy mashed potato. I couldn’t be happier.

For dessert, Chef Kevin unveiled his latest creation, Fresh Flowers of Spring, a delightful tableau of lavender ice cream, homemade honeycomb, blueberry mousse and local strawberry compote. Every morsel felt suffused with sunshine.

Lemuria certainly lives up to its name in every sense of the word – the whole hidden paradise thing, and the sheer wizardry of its cuisine.

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