The highlands of Tagaytay are called home by a creative breed of prospector, one who, instead of digging gold and gems from deep within the mountainsides, seeks to carve out a different sort of niche. Many are those who turn their vacation houses into permanent residences and businesses, and in turn, into their own personal playgrounds where forever reigns Halloween, Christmas or Salvador Dali’s birthday; perhaps the air up there or the stunning views of the valleys and islands in Taal Lake have a euphoric distillate that wakens the muse in these people, spurring them on to turn a spark of creativity into a raging inferno.
Such is the case of the stately restaurant called The Domaine, a whitewashed two-story manor that evokes images of a modern-day country house, complete with wide, naked gardens and a bleached stone path leading up to its front door. Inside, tiny, festively eclectic displays of matryoshka dolls, wooden automobiles, men made of nuts and bolts, mesmerizing oil paintings, chef moppets and tribal tapestries hang suspended, almost coquettishly vying for your attention like handmaidens at a ball as they contrast with the starkness of the alabaster walls.
No less colorful or fascinating is the story of The Domaine’s master, Chef de Cuisine Robbie Ripalda. “After I finished my degree in De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde’s School of Hotel, Restaurant and Institution Management, I went to the Mandarin Oriental and I spent two years working for The Tivoli.” It was a bittersweet period as sometime after, Ripalda’s beloved mother, Dory, passed away. “It was really tough,” he recalls. “I needed to work through the grief, and my dad told me to go see the world and not to get tied down to one place, not while I was still young. I stayed for a bit at The Tivoli then I made my way to Paris where I took further studies at Le Cordon Bleu.” The venerable and prestigious culinary academy opened Ripalda’s eyes to a world of ideas and flavors he had never even dreamt of. “It was amazing how they had access to the best ingredients, all this fresh food – it was so cool!” Upon completing his training, Ripalda’s real adventures began. “At around 2010, I started work with Chef Frederic Lesourde and he offered me a slot at Hotel Le Crillon which has two stars from the Michelin Guide. Wow, it was really Hell’s Kitchen! Just imagine – we had 108 bookings on February 14, and I was there from 1am to 4am on February 15! But I learned so much nonetheless. It was such an incredible opportunity.” Regrettably, he could only remain for three months. “Europe was undergoing a lot of difficulties due to the economic climate there,” he laments. “Chef Frederick told me that as much as he wanted to keep me, he couldn’t afford it.” That situation was to repeat itself for the next two years with Ripalda getting brief stints at the Chateau les Crayéres in Champagne and Pierre Hermé’s pastry shop. He even sought work in Singapore, to no avail.
It was then that Ripalda’s father suggested that he use a plot of land in Tagaytay that he had been saving for his retirement. Ripalda returned home and spent the next several months busily building what would eventually become The Domaine. “I dedicated The Domaine to my family, especially my mom. She told me to follow this,” he says, pointing to his heart, “But be guided by this,” he continues, tapping his head, right on the temple. “That’s the idea, family and home. This is our domain and we want it to be your domain as well. It’s also behind our philosophy. The Domaine is all about organic, sustainable food – most of our ingredients are from all over Tagaytay. My background may be French cuisine, but it’s using mostly Filipino resources to create something distinct.”
Where distinction is concerned, Chef Robbie is in a class all on his own as his food is perhaps the most fragrant I have ever tried. His Burgundy-style Gougères, cheese puffs with a hint of Gruyère, were light, fluffy and complemented the sparkling wine cocktails we were served at the beginning of the evening – most appropriate considering that gougères are the traditional snack offered at French wine tastings.
Rustic Rolls of wheat bread were offered next, along with a plethora of seasonings such as butter, olive oil, Himalayan pink sea salt and duqqa, a dipping powder made with coriander, star anise, sesame, rosemary, thyme, bay leaf and several other spices with a base of cashew nuts to hold it together and give it texture. Unlike most appetizers, these seasonings were made available for the rest of the evening for us to enjoy with everything we ate, to add a unique twist to the dishes in a customizable way. A Bisque of Sea Urchin and Baby Leeks Infused with Fresh Bay Leaf and Kaffir Lime arrived shortly after, an aromatic jade-green soup that was served with the leeks and sea urchin separate from the broth. As the broth was poured onto the veggies, the whole thing came alive and changed character depending on whether we sprinkled a bit of the pink salt or the duqqa. Not too far behind was the Farm Raised Duck Ravioli Crusted with Honey and Pommery Mustard served with Mango Radish Salad, delightfully presented as tiny taquitos with the duck alternating with tiny diced mounds of the salad.
The main event was the Smoked Tender Pork Belly with Ratatouille a la Provincial, a dish inspired by the Pixar film Ratatouille. Ripalda himself loves the movie and made the vegetable dish (sliced as medallions and served in a tight circle like toppled dominoes) look similar to the one Remy the rat serves to food critic Anton Ego, except with a slab of Silang-grown pork belly on top. Indeed, more than a few of us found the resemblance quite enchanting and there was a life-imitates-art moment with me recalling the movie as I ate the dish (Anton Ego remembers his childhood in a flashback as he samples the ratatouille).
Giving closure to the evening were Fresh Strawberries in Vanilla with Sampaguita Syrup and Bleu de Bresse Cheese, another Ratatouille-influenced dish (Remy bites into a wedge of cheese followed by a mouthful of strawberry to combine the flavors). I could see why Remy’s creative juices went on overdrive after sampling the two foods together – strawberries and blue cheese transform into something almost like cheesecake when eaten simultaneously. The moldy scent I normally find unappetizing in blue cheese lost its edge – the vanilla and the sampaguita replaced it nicely. Finally, the Dark Chocolate Mousse ended our evening, served with a Homemade Gingerbread Biscuit – a sweet adieu for the captivating evening we had.