The lazily undulating mountain road finally came to a stop at the Summit Ridge, an expansive and towering hotel complex facing the Taal Crater. I went down from the van feeling like a partially folded Transformer toy and shook my legs to get my circulation going as a smartly dressed attendant came down and offered me a delicate flute of oxygenated and alkaline-d(!) lemongrass tea as a welcoming gesture. My party and I serenely ascended the floors in a see-mostly-all glass elevator and we ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the view – the graduated slope and glittering azure lake below us with Taal Volcano jutting away in the distance, all lonely and proud. After dropping our bags off in our rooms, we fought the urge to cannonball under the covers of our soft, snuggly beds and sleep ‘til next Easter, and with a tinge of regret, made our way back down.
All desire to hole up in our rooms dissipated like morning Tagaytay fog by the sight of our main stop, Sisterfields Restaurant, Summit Ridge’s main dining haunt. The brisk air, yawning hall and hand-painted frescoes of pineapples on the whitewashed ceiling were a delight, as were the sprawling wooden tables and the short, broad chairs. Our host, Chef Noel dela Rama, CCA chef and visiting chef of Sisterfields, bade us to get comfy as his staff prepped our repast. Visiting chef was an appropriate appellation as Chef Noel normally spends a lot of time out of town. “I’m based in New York where I’m a personal chef caterer,” he explained. Nonetheless, he found time to work out arrangements with getting the food of Sisterfields off the ground. “I worked on the primary menu of the restaurant, because the owners’ idea is that of a Tagaytay resort with families coming in – they want more communal food.” That basically means sharing portions or at the very least, the opportunity to try something new from your dining companion’s plate (if he or she is so inclined). Chef Noel gives a lot of incentive for this. “We have the luxury of great produce so the seasonality of goods for me is very important. So whatever’s available in the green market or stores, I work with. That’s how I really cook. The only difference is unfortunately in the Philippines, the seasonality is not as pronounced as abroad – if you go to the market, wherever you are, it’s the same produce.”
In spite of that, our host found himself at home with the situation and took advantage of what he had at his disposal. “This kind of cooking is very personal,” he admitted. “I like working with flatbreads for pizzas and the tawilis here.” The fluid nature of accessing specific ingredients and produce in the local market fits right in with Chef Noel’s work style. “I was asked to come back every few months to see what moves, then rehash the menu and introduce some new items. As such, the repertoire gets bigger and so I just play around with the menu. Every few months, food items will be replaced. The menu is a very forgiving – it’s not set in stone.”
That aspect makes Sisterfields a little challenging to pigeonhole. “We cannot say we’re an Italian or a French restaurant,” he pondered. “We’re a Continental restaurant with very different, very diverse influences. It depends on the mood of the chef or the availability of ingredients.”
With that, the first of our treats came marching in. The Tinapa Spring Rolls with Sweet Chili Sauce arrived first, light and crunchy with the salty dried fish making a flavorful contrast with the sweet chili sauce. Tapa empanadas were brought in next, stuffed with juicy beef jerky and dusted with paprika. The Crispy Tawilis with Kaffir Lime Aioli followed – I have a special place in my black heart for tawilis as this fish can only be found in the area of Lake Taal in Tagaytay and nowhere else in the world. That said, there are differences in tawilis, with some being not as tasty or as fresh as others, depending on where you get them, how they’re prepared or what restaurant is offering them. One bite of the Sisterfields Crispy Tawilis made me wish they served this in popcorn bags for me to take home to gobble up by the fistful while binge-watching Better Call Saul.
As guiltless as the tawilis was, the Chopped Salad with Green Goddess Dressing and Potato, Corn and Bacon Chowder were brought in to further balance my nutritional and gastronomic needs. Nothing like Tagaytay fresh greens and cherry tomatoes that taste like black cherries!
The main course, Sticky Barbeque with Coleslaw and Biscuit, was nice and hearty, with silky freshly mashed potatoes, a mound of crunchy coleslaw and scrumptious ribs smothered in their own house sauce. For dessert, I found the Mango Tres Leches Cake to be a wonderful surprise – I’m familiar with the Tres Leches cake concept, but this was a rather novel take in which the spongy cake was swimming in milk and topped with whipped cream and sprinkled with powdered pistachios.
As if we weren’t spoiled enough, dinner was just as lavish. Chef Noel Valentine’s Day Set Menu was on for testing and his victuals did not disappoint.
We began with Rosemary Gougères – warm and irresistible mini-cheese puffs that are a popular staple among France’s vintners. These little snacks serve to clear the palate in between glasses of wine. For more substance, a soup and salad one-two combo followed – the Cream of Roasted Tomato Soup with Crispy Kale and the Hearts of Palm Salad with Cucumbers, Tomatoes and Corn on Baby Greens and Green Goddess Dressing.
I was content enough with the roasted tomato soup and the hearts of palm salad, but Chef Noel and his crew weren’t done yet. A Surf and Turf of braised beef short ribs, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, a grilled giant prawn with herbed butter-sautéed haricots verts (French green beans) and grilled asparagus came out all prettied up and smashingly good. Saving the best for last, a Pineapple Soufflé with Tarragon Crème Anglaise was presented with little pomp as our host invited us to dig in quickly as the soufflé had to be eaten while still fluffy and airy. The fragrant, honey-sweet pineapple bits hidden in the soufflé were like hidden treasures, delighting both my nose and tongue.