Mad for Garlic: Truly, Madly, Garlic

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There’s lots of humor (and garlic) in a restaurant called Mad for Garlic. The Italy-by-way-of-South-Korea import of Philippine restaurant franchise specialist Global Restaurant Concepts has been around since 2001, but made its Manila debut only in March 2013.

It is quite an odd concept, even for garlic-loving Filipinos, but don’t let the “fusion” notion fool you. Mad for Garlic is worth a try, and they’ll even give you complementary after-dinner mints so you won’t go friendless for the rest of the day.

Their typeface of choice for their signage is Old English, preferred by Gothic novelists and ancient taverns everywhere. The color scheme of its corporate branding is gold and black, and the somber theme continues into the dining area. There are garlands of garlic decorating the brick walls, and the overhead lamps are shaped liked garlic bulbs. Bottles of wine (there are about 50 different labels on offer) are displayed on wine racks lining the walls of the downstairs dining area, and the empties are perched on shelves and ledges. The dining area is well-lit, but the high-ceiling and warm tones do reinforce their declared “medieval-rustic” look with a modern twist.

Even the menu opens with their famous appetizer, the self-explanatory Dracula Killer. This is just basically soft garlic bread served with a dip of garlic cooked in olive oil and anchovies — a sure way to ward off bloodthirsty nocturnals and also a very addictive chow. Six pieces are hardly enough to satisfy both lovers and non-lovers of garlic, and you will find yourself fighting over the last piece, so prepare to order seconds.

To call this Korean-Italian mash-up of a bistro “quirky” is to do it a disservice. They take their garlic quite seriously here, and you only need to see what they have to go through in order to put garlic in more than 90 per cent of their dishes. Here, garlic is toasted, marinated, steamed, stirred into creamy sauces, served as whole bulbs, as cloves, even as sprouts.

Chef Winkee Chong, kitchen manager for Mad for Garlic’s Manila restaurant, said he had to go through several suppliers to get the right kind of garlic for their dishes. The restaurant goes through at least 500 kilos of garlic a month, and Chef Winkee says if they don’t have the right garlic for the dish, they simply don’t offer it to guests.

The garlic they use is processed before it meets the food. This is to tame and temper its notoriously pungent qualities to controllable levels in order to match the dishes it will join. To prove this, Chef Winkee brought out the raw processed garlic for me to taste. I must admit I did not look forward to having raw garlic in my mouth, but surprisingly, it tasted… bland.

Chef Winkee proceeded to explain that once this garlic is added to dishes, it regains its qualities, but in a controlled manner. This will not be garlic running amok, declaring its undeniable presence in everything it touches. This is why you either love or hate garlic, and at Mad for Garlic, you will come to love garlic.

Restaurant manager Mel Banguilan said most of their customers are young professionals. Some are already familiar with the franchise, while the others come with an open mind and at best a neutral opinion of garlic. Banguilan explained that Mad for Garlic is at its heart an Italian pizza and pasta restaurant. No surprise then that the pizza here is something first-timers must try.

The restaurant has a three-decker brick oven that allows them to serve pizzas within seven to eight minutes (and a bit longer when the restaurant is full). The dough is prepared fresh and prepped à la minute. They serve only thin-crust pizzas and the servings are good for two to three people.

Try the Garlic Snowing Pizza; this is one of the few times I actually liked pineapple on my pizza (I detest Hawaiian-style pizza) perhaps because its sweetness is balanced by the tartness of the garlic-mayo-lemon sauce, then given a smoky-sweet dimension with the addition of toasted garlic slices. A curious combination, but it works.

Now if your tastebuds are a bit more adventurous, you might want to try the Old Ham and Sausage Pizza, a creamy creation topped with sausage, ham, bacon and black pepper in a sauce made from steamed garlic. This is a bit spicy, but nothing compared to the Triple Garlic Pasta, which earns three chilies on the menu’s heat scale thanks to the garlic sauce, fried jalapeño and chili flakes toppings. That was to be for another visit, when I was feeling brave. For now, it is the Cheongyang Pasta, where Mad for Garlic’s Korean origins meet its Italian inspiration. Although registering only one chili on Mad for Garlic’s heat scale, it is nonetheless spicy, thanks to the sautéed green chili peppers making mincemeat of the accompanying mushrooms and marinated chicken strips.

For dessert, it’s still pizza, Banana Chocolate Pizza, that is. Still using Mad for Garlic’s freshly baked thin-crust pizza dough, this one is topped with Nutella spread, caramel sauce and almond flakes. It’s enjoyed with vanilla ice cream and, of course, garlic compote.

“You really have to open your mind here,” said Banguilan, and indeed, to fully appreciate the Mad for Garlic experience, you must let go of your prejudices against garlic and forgive everybody who gave the word “fusion cuisine” a bad name.

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