Werdenberg: Lost in the company of Food

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When Swiss chef and gourmet Mr. Werner Berger came to the Philippines more than 30 years ago to build his gastronomic empire, it came as no surprise that he set up shop along a humble stretch in the then-developing city of Makati. With a stockpile of prime goods, a bucketload of ideas and a good sense of taste, he redefined Yakal Street as a culinary destination with Säntis Delicatessen, which offers the best in foreign produce such as meats and cheeses, while his wine bar, Cave Werdenberg, and his events place, The Deck, host multitudes of gatherings for the discerning palate of the city.

Steadfast in his goal to “serve nothing but the best of the world to the Filipino,” Mr. Berger also built a trio of specialty restaurants to serve the growing number of local and foreign gourmands, banking on authenticity and a hint of ambience for that extra kick. There, at Yakal, under the cover of towering office buildings and amid the incessant hustle and bustle of the city, the three restaurants promised to pierce my bubble like a powerful trident, and introduce me to three symphonies of the stomach, a journey throughout the globe in a matter of hours.

Out of the pan and into the grill

The warm glow of the noon sun, the gentle lamps and the white linens brightened the lunch hour at I’m Angus steak house as I sat upon a cozy corner of the steakhouse, ready to engulf on servings of beef. Inspired by an American staple and the Filipinos’ love for good beef, I’m Angus proudly boasts of a menu of the finest certified angus steaks, poultry, lamb and seafood as well as a varied selection of wines from around the world.

To start the meal, Lobster Bisque can be served with fresh home-baked rolls along with either a bowl of I’m Angus’ Special Salad, or Gravlaks, cured Norwegian salmon with dill sauce and fresh salad greens. For those with choice in mind, the Appetizer Sampler features servings of prawn cakes, homemade chorizo and seared mahi tuna piri piri to share among friends. Meanwhile, I had Seared Duck Liver for starters, which you can have with brioche or a confit of apricot. The creamy and heavy fl avors of the liver, with a delicate crunch on its edge, was kept at bay with the sweet, unyielding flavors of the sides–a marriage of sorts in cookery.

I was introduced to the head of all the kitchens of the Werdenberg restaurants, Chef Leo Marquez, who took me for a peek into the glass-paneled kitchen where a huge 30-ounce Tomahawk Steak was grilling on open fi re, crisscross marks slowly appearing on its surface. I made my way back to my cozy corner to bite into my own steak – a round slab of Certifi ed Angus Rib-Eye, cooked to a juicy medium-rare, all those meaty goodness enclosed in a grilled exterior. It was paired with a glass of Rib Shack Red, a spicy South African wine that refreshes the palate just in time for another forkful of meat. If you fi nd yourself favoring other entrées, though, the USDuroc Pork Chop (the “Black Angus of pork”), the Chilean Sea Bass, and the Maine Lobster Tails are worthy contenders.

Over dessert samplings of The Cube (maracaibo chocolate mousse filled with caramelized black cherries), Panacomango (panacotta with mango jelly layers and raspberry foam) and Red Philosophy (mascarpone mousse with strawberry filling), Restaurant Manager Ms. Gail Medel said the consumption of Angus Beef is attracting a following among Filipinos. A testament to this is the newly-formed I’m Angus Beef Club, where regular patrons, mostly Filipino, are afforded the privilege of their very own, engraved, steak knives for use in future visits. To attract more guests, the restaurant features month long lunch sets and Prime Rib Nights on Wednesdays and Saturdays for around $20 a meal, while parties and small business gatherings could enjoy munching on certifi ed Angus beef and other specials for as low as $600.

More to Switzerland than cheese

I was led then into the quaint, cottage-inspired bistro that is Chesa Bianca Swiss restaurant by Restaurant Manager Ms. Gail Medel, which was decorated with mementos of Swiss life that hang upon wooden beams and gilded lamps. According to her, the items on display were brought to the country by Mr. Berger from his mother’s countryside home in Switzerland as a constant reminder of his European heritage. But despite the seemingly snow-lined walls and the cold and winterly design of the restaurant, the warmth of Filipino hospitality echoed off the tables and floors with its staff of able and skilled cooks.

Authentic Swiss appetizers were a proper introduction to our meal, which included the Chesa Bianca Platter and a plateful of Chesa Bianca’s Salad. The platter contained rolled-up slices of salty and sumptuous meat delicacies air-dried atop the mountains of Switzerland, while the salad was a mix of vegetables and greens tossed with a sweet Swiss-style marinade. Another specialty of the restaurant is Corned Beef with Vegetables, tender US corned beef served with cabbage, carrots, celery and potatoes, which will definitely have Filipinos asking for more with its chewy and flavorful savor.

When one cannot get enough, though, the hankering for that missing main course can be sated in another seating as Chesa Bianca remains open throughout the afternoon. Choices include dishes of chicken, pork, lamb, fish, sausages, beef, and even veal, like the Zürcher Geschnetzeltes (sliced veal in mushroom cream sauce with a siding of crisp Swiss rösti potatoes). I, on the other hand, sank my knife into Schweins Cordon Bleu, a thin, boneless slice of pork stuffed with soft ham and gooey Gruyère cheese. Leave the dish behind for a few moments and the hidden helping of warmed cheese escapes from its tender prison, though you can easily scoop it up with your knife.

On the glass separator of the restaurant are frosted coats of arms of the numerous cantons of Switzerland, with Ms. Medel even pointing to that of the canton from which Berger came from. The good ol’ boss frequents the restaurant at lunch time for his usual Swiss fare, but at certain times, he orders a dish of a different cuisine, because Chesa Bianca also specializes in other European and continental cuisine. As we peered into the menu, we saw Spanish, German, Italian, and even Malaysian and Singaporean delicacies. Heading the list is Grilled Lamb Chops with Garlic Butter, served with vegetables and roasted potatoes, a superb continental dish from the grasslands of Europe, while Lamb Curry Kuantan and Traditional Laksa, which would not have ended up in the said menu if not for a Southeast Asian market and Mr. Berger’s travels abroad, finishes the list. Of course, weekly lunch sets of various European cuisine are also available for those who want to stick to the flavor spectrum.

But what brings guests into Chesa Bianca every week are little heaps of melted cheese served with choice sides and vegetables. The Wallisser Raclette is a traditional Swiss dish of raclette cheese melted by fire and served with marble potatoes, cocktail onions and gherkins, which you can enjoy served as an appetizer or thrice the size as a main course. Melted Emmental and Gruyère cheese, meanwhile, form the base of authentic Fondue, which is a favorite among families and friends for sharing over catch-up stories and news-of-the-day. Each month at the restaurant, Raclette & Fondue Nights are celebrated in complete fashion with fitting entertainment in the form of accordion players. Just make sure not to lose your bread in the fondue pool while they’re playing or you’ll end up paying the bill.

For dessert, my host made sure I tried their Meringue Glacé “Suchard.” In a perfect contrast between soft and crisp, and cold and hot, a scoop of rich vanilla ice cream is sandwiched by a couple of sweet white meringue, then topped off with a dollop of fresh whipped cream and drizzled twirls of warm chocolate sauce. Each spoonful goes well with a sip of just-brewed kaffee, a digestif or a spirit from the in-house bar.

Heaven on an earthly tabletop

I arrived just in time at Carpaccio Ristorante Italiano to see the candles newly lit and the linens neatly pressed for dinner, a nightly transformation orchestrated by Restaurant Manager Ms. Lina Fernandez. She remarked that of the three restaurants, Carpaccio is the only one that enjoys the 2nd floor space of the compound, the balcony, and the captivating view of the city’s skyline.

Undoubtedly, the specialty of the restaurant is its namesake, the humble Carpaccio, featuring the best of both land and sea with its fresh selection of beef and seafood. Heaven is brought down to earth when thin slices of fresh, lean beef are soaked in extra virgin olive oil, light greens, ground black pepper and parmesan shavings in Carpaccio alla Cipriani. The frantic seas, meanwhile, calm down in Carpaccio di Salmone e Branzino alla Marinara where raw salmon and sea bass swim in olive oil, paired with helpings of tomatoes, garlic, onion, basil and capers. According to Fernandez, week after week of regulars include both dishes on their dinner table as a perfect way to start a night of merriment.

And yet, anywhere in the world, a ristorante is judged aright with its treatment of pizzas and pastas, and Carpaccio is said to “offer the best in classical Italian dining.” A must-try is Pizza Quattro Stagioni, a healthy creation topped with tomatoes, mushroom, artichoke and olives, as well as various seafood and ham before being sprinkled with mozzarella and herbs, and baked into pure Italian goodness right in the open kitchen. A recommended pasta is Pasta alla Marinara, a melange of flavors from the sea including mussels, clams, prawns and squid cooked in garlic, herbs and tomato sugo. Throw these two in, plus a few dishes more, and you can host a party for 15 for less than $400.

Carpaccio also takes pride in their beef entrées, like the grilled Angus steaks in Bistecca alla Fiorentina (T-bone Steak with sea salt, crushed pepper and olive oil) and Bistecca di Manzo della Casa (Rib-Eye Steak with pizzaiolo sauce or forest mushroom topping), and the grilled lamb in Costoletta di Agnello con Rosmarino (grilled lamb chops with rosemary butter, red wine, herb gravy). The star of the carnes, however is Osso Bucco alla Milanese, a duo of slow braised veal shank and risotto ai funghi. The tender meat explodes with tangy flavors from the garlic and lemon zest before ending with a herby finish, while the mushroom risotto is neither light nor heavy and embraces the meat’s essences to the close.

For the sweet tooth, a definite option is the Tiramisu, whisking together the flavors of creamy mascarpone and the caffeine kick of Savioardi coffee, amaretto and coffee liqueur in delicate butter fingers. I, however, ended that summer night by the balcony with Mango Sherbet from the restaurants’ limited mango offerings for the season, along with a sip of the house iced tea, a creation by and known only to Fernandez herself. That night, the tabletop candles burned out like guiding lamps extinguished for the lost soul.

Mr. Berger did say, “the culinary industry has continued to improve on our cuisine without it losing its identity.” It was easy to lose myself in this gastronomic journey, maybe favoring one cuisine over another in an endless battle of the tastebuds. But while I lost track of time throughout the ‘adventure,’ I found myself embracing a brand new outlook on foreign cuisine, learning a great deal from the man through his food and their identities. After all, his long search for a culinary home, which brought him to different countries around the globe, did end three decades ago in the Philippines. Now, he is as Filipino as anyone who eats at Yakal, and they as Swiss as he is.

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