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A yawning ceiling with steel fans cools posh patrons munching grilled goodies lounging on crocodile skin leatherette couches. the onyx bar forms a contrast between the ceramic white tiled floors as i pass through the glass wall lined with elegant curtains that flow like emerald waterfalls.
Onion-shaped incandescent lights line the area side by side with intricately carved arabesque lanterns, both softly giving the massive framed Thai dragon etchings suspended on the wall a haunting, arcane glow. Sitting up on a loft above the throng of A-listers, business moguls, party people and the occasional expat, guitar hero Noli Aurillo plucks and strums an artfully impossibly complex rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody, while in the immaculate show kitchen underneath him toil chefs and cooks in spotless coats and cheerful faces devising delectable dishes both wondrous and sublime.
Mango Tree in Bonifacio Global City is a feast for all the senses: the ambiance electric yet strangely familiar (it’s the Sixties interior of the place and all done on purpose to evoke that subtle nostalgia), the live music catchy and cool yet not obtrusive enough to ruin conversation and the food uncomplicated yet evocative. To kick off the evening, I tried out a potent potable put together by one of the owners (see sidebar), a Chili Mojito – a regular mojito with rum, mint leaves and soda, but with chili peppers the length of a vampire fang, and just as spicy– guaranteed to be fi ve times more effective than coffee and ten times more fun. It gave a whole new perspective into what was coming next, the Nam Tok Nua or steak salad. It was a nontraditional dish as the Thai don’t eat a lot of beef, but it had a sprightly, piquant combination of onions, chili pepper, basil, shrimp, cilantro, kaffi r lime and arugula that was unmistakably Siamese. A small basket containing some hot sticky rice arrived and I was told to roll some into a ball and dip it into the Nam Tok Nua’s sauce. It’s amazing how something so basic could induce so much pleasure.
Humble but toothsome Tod Mun Pla (Fish Cakes) arrived shortly after, served with sweet and sour sauce thickened with bits of cucumber, onion and shallots. The Miang Kham followed, a delightful collection of little bowls with betel and sesame leaves, tamarind sauce, dried shrimp, chili slices, dry coconut flakes, peanuts and chunks of ginger lime. The trick with the Miang Kham was to take the sesame leaves and form a cup out of them, then scooping dainty portions of the shrimp, chili, peanuts, lime and everything else. Finally, the whole mix is popped into one’s mouth and the whole bit explodes with a riot of flavor. I’m used to my lamb having mint sauce, so I wasn’t prepared for the Kae Yang, a charcoal grilled lamb marinated in Thai herbs and served with Isan (Northeastern Thailand) chili sauce. The Isan chili counters the normally gamey taste of lamb with a distinctive cornucopia of scents that is elegant, yet simple in its execution.
No southeast Asian meal is complete without noodles and the Pad See Iw Goong brought to remedy that predicament. The flat noodles were topped with crunchy fried egg floss and tiger prawns and had a distinct soy sauce essence that was a marvel in the mouth. I alternated that with generous portions of Goong Phad Phong Ka Ree or crab curry, a hodgepodge of sweet stir-fried fresh mud crab with onion and cilantro. But the best dish was also the most straightforward, a Kai Jiew Gai or chicken omelet, an unforgettably tasty mélange of chopped chicken chunks, onions, shallots and coriander that you won’t be able to resist.
As a fitting end to an otherwise exemplary meal, some Mun Cheum and Tub Tim Grob were placed before me. The former were boiled cassava tubers with coconut cream and sesame seeds, while the latter was a concoction of red ruby chestnuts, coconut ice cream and strips of jackfruit. Both desserts were a divinely balanced combination of sweet and salty, like sea salt caramel ice cream, only with a Siamese flair. With that, I was free to indulge my appetite for great music as Noli Aurillo continued to entertain us with his virtuosity, myself sated, lounging the gorgeous night away.
Interview with Eric Teng, marketing director of Mango Tree Philippines
Fortune smiles on Eric Teng and he is grateful for it. In spite of having the fabulously successful Maldita and Mental fashion boutiques, this enterprising entrepreneur has decided to try his hand at the restaurant business. Teng may be new in the food industry, but he isn’t a novice at going against the grain.
“People told me not to call my stores Maldita or Mental. They were worried about the negative connotations those words bring. What can I say? I did it anyway and look where they are now.” His easygoing nature offers a glimpse into the happy happenstance that got him into the Mango Tree franchise. “It was really an accident,” he reminisces.
“The Mango Tree company called my office looking for a friend of mine, offering her a chance to be part of the business. They see great potential in the Philippine market. However, she wasn’t interested. I was curious about it so I discussed it further with them and before I knew it, I was looking at Bonifacio Global City for a place to put the restaurant.”
So how does he find the whole experience? “Honestly, I expected it to be worse. Instead, here I am, having a great time with this. I love concepts and I love to make them work,” he explains. “I love to create things – I even had a hand in deciding how this branch would look.”
The opportunity to work with Mango Tree touched something in Teng. “Actually, my mom is from Thailand. She’s seventy but she’s still pretty strong and she still cooks. I want to make Mango Tree my tribute to her, and to be a way to show my Thai roots.” Advocacies are quite important to Teng.
“I see this as a growth opportunity and a way to pay it forward. For example, the executive chef is there but all he does is keep an eye out for things. The people preparing the meals are all Filipino and he’s training them so I can eventually send them abroad to other Mango Tree restaurants like Saudi Arabia. I must say, I’m proud of our Filipino staff. We’ve got a lot of good people and it’s wonderful to see them shine. All they need is a chance to do so.”
His staff isn’t the only thing Teng is proud of. “I don’t compromise on authenticity when it comes to our dishes. But I always try to source ingredients locally when I can. We work with local small farmers who give us our fresh produce.” Teng stands by the true nature of his food. “I don’t like it when people call Mango Tree fusion cuisine. We’re traditional Thai cuisine, just more modern, but at its core, our food is really quite simple. It’s just done really, really well.”