Tuesday, March 11, 2014

12 Lent-Friendly Restaurants in Metro Manila

As most of this predominantly Catholic country starts to observe the Lenten Season, people also get incredibly choosy when it comes to restaurants they dine in that don't have Lenten Specials. But Lenten Spaials aside, most restaurants here already have vegetarian and pescetarian options, and they hardly taste as boring and bland as most carnivores imagine them to be. At the very least, they all look a lot more appetizing than Jollibee's Tuna Pie!

Take Pink Panda's beautifully plated Prawn Toasties and Tom Yum Shots (P285) for instance - crispy shrimp toast canapés are paired with a red curry shrimp paste sour prawn and mushroom broth, with a plump prawn half-dunked into the broth. Take a bite of the toast, a sip of the broth, and a bite of the shrimp. It's like a Lent-friendly Asian tequila shot! And it looks so puuuuuurdy!

Here's a list of my top 12 Lent-friendly restaurants in Metro Manila in no particular order:

1. Black Olive Cerveceria
One of the hottest and posh watering holes right now is the gorgeous Black Olive by Chef Carlo Miguel. Situated at the hipster district of Capital Commons, the food ranges from innovative small plates (a.k.a. tapas) to delicious entrées - just hold out on the alcohol and stick to the mocktails this Lenten season.

I highly recommend their Risotto Verde (P605) - a bed of silky green risotto with a generous chunk of crispy salmon fillet on top with a splodge of salmon tartare to bring the dish together. The tartare is light and fluffy and goes amazingly well when folded in with the risotto. The salmon was just a little underdone, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, just the way it should always be served.

For the not-so-small plates, the Squid Ink Battered Prawns with Honey Aioli (P390) is a favorite among guest. Both crunchy and soft, it is just beautiful to look at with the inky black batter covering each fat, juicy prawn with only the bright orange tail giving the contents of the puffy parcel away. The honey aioli gives the tempura and sweetness that lingers on the tongue, making you want to go back for another battered prawn, and then another, and another... This is one sexy looking tapas.

2. Pino Resto Bar
If you didn't already know, Chef Ed Bugia's Pino Resto Bar rolled out a few new dishes last year, all of them being his interpretation of a classic Filipino dish, or recipes he learned from his sweet grammy.

The Steamed Lapu-Lapu (P495) is Chef Ed's take on a childhood favorite of mine - Maya Maya Mayonasa. A whole Grouper fish is steamed in lemongrass and leeks, and topped with pineapple aioli, salted egg, bell pepper, pickle relish, cheddar cheese, scallions, and garlic chips. I was apprehensive at first of whether or not the combination of toppings on the Lapu-Lapu would work, but it did! You've got your salty, sweet, cheesy, and garlicky all in one mouthful, provided that you get a bit of everything and mix it up.

Nilasing na Tahong (P275), on the other hand, is Pino's version of the French moules marinière. The mussels are cooked in San Miguel beer and lime soda and chili. After dousing each shell with lemon juice, open each clam up one-by-one, scooping out the meat and using the shell to ladle out the spicy broth. Mmm... extra rice, please.

3. Hatch 22 Bakery + Cafe
Erwan and Solenn Heussaff's Hatch 22 Bakery + Cafe serves up some pretty awesome breakfast fare, and for those of you who opt not to eat meat, there have some mouth-watering pescetarian options that'll keep you full right through to dinner! They also serve some pretty potent cocktails, but stick to coffee, tea, or their fresh pressed juices for now.

Hatch 22's Croque Maserati (P580) looks quite posh, with the open-faced brioche toast balancing big chunks of seared salmon fillet covered with a hollandaise and shrimp bisque sauce, lemon thyme oil and black caviar. The decadent brunch item is also served with a sous vide egg. The brioche toast soaks up the flavors of everything around it, leaving you with a moist piece of hollandaise-shrimp-salmon bread. Delish.

My personal favorite is the Slum Dog Millionaire (P620)! The pretty looking frittata has chunks of Black Tiger Prawns, pineapple, kaffir lime, peppers, and red coconut curry with a splodge of sweet chutney on the side, served with poppadum crisps and grilled naan bread.

4. Huat Pot
Derived from the Hokkien greeting, "Huat ah!" which means, "to wish for prosperity," you can find Huat Pot along P. Guevarra, at the Metropoint Center (where Rustan's Fresh is) right opposite Pegi Waffles. Parking can be a pain in the butt, but the hotpot restaurant owned by Jonas Ng and Mike Tayag is worth fighting over parking for. Just stay away from the meat locker, and you should be fine this Lenten season.

The Hotpot Eat All You Can (P688) has an assortment of lobster balls, kikiam, egg dumplings, fish with coriander balls, and fish tofu, along with a Taiwanese fish rolls and pork rolls that they import from Taiwan. There are also pieces of crab, shrimp, and fish that also help to add flavor your soup of choice.

Take your pick from four soup flavors: Huat Pot Special (Original), Sate (BBQ), Oden (Veggie), and Mala (Spicy). There is absolutely no MSG that goes into the broths, so flavor this with the fresh seafood and vegetables of your choosing.

Before everything cooks through, put together your special dipping sauce to give everything even more oomph before it goes in your gob.

The seafood options are so good, you'll almost forget about the locker full of meat. If you find that it still haunts you everytime you pass by for another hotpot round, the confort of the unlimited Magnum fridge and taho station should give you comfort and joy.

5. Speakeasy
Chef Mike Santos, who worked under the great chef Cyrille Cicou, has put up his own comfort food haven at the new Alphaland in Makati. Putting a spin on classic European dishes, his dishes give me the warm and fuzzies every single time. And look, no meat (almost)!

Speakeasy's Gambas (P260) - generous servings of big shrimp and zucchini are sautéed with garlic in white wine, olive oil, and spices and served with slices of buttered bread. This usually comes with slivers of chorizo, but you can ask your server to do without it. You can order the original, mildly spiced gambas, or the extra hot spicy version that comes with red chilis.

I cannot get enough of the Speakeasy Gnocchi (P260), and had quite a lot of this the last time I was there, too. Fluffy pillows of potato-based pasta were blanketed in a creamy truffle sauce with just a hint of citrus.

6. Solace Wine & Dine
Situated a stones throw away from Greenbelt 2 is the date place, Solace Wine & Dine. Exchange your usual glass of wine for a Mango-Basil Smoothie, stick with the seafood items on the menu, and you can have a good time with your significant other without breaking your Lenten promise. 

Start your meals with their Warm Salad of Salt and Pepper Squid (P275) sans the spicy chorizo it usually comes with. The pepper squid is chewy and soft, and the vinaigrette brings the simple salad to life.

A classic at Solace is the Beer Battered Fish and Chips (P385). The huge piece of fish is dory, so it was creamy and soft. I wish they had used a firmer kind of meat, like snapper or halibut, but at least everything wasn't covered in a stodge of grease, so this makes for a good Lenten option

 7. Ogetsu Hime
The newest venture from the guys behind Dad's and Saisaki, Ogestu Hime at SM Aura Premier show us how Japanese food is supposed to be done - using only the freshest ingredients and the knife skills of an adorably old sushi master! Since most of the Japanese diet consists of whatever it is they catch fresh out of the ocean, you have a wide array of seafood choices to pick from.

The colorful Rainbow Batera consists of batera-molded sushi rolls topped with tuna, salmon, ika, kani, shime saba, and ebi, flavored with an assortment of Ogetsu Hime sauces. It's like little pieces of art framed on rectangular molds of Japanese rice and is almost too pretty to eat! Enjoy all the different textures, tastes, and pieces of seafood each batera has to offer.

If you plan on going the teriyaki route, the Gindara is a must. A soft-textured fish whose meat almost melts in your mouth, this is really, really good, with the broiled Japanese Silver Cod giving having a smokey undertone with each bite. No wonder we consider this to be a delicacy.

8. Sentro 1771
Popular for the amazing Corned Beef Sinigang, Sentro 1771 isn't the first restaurant that comes to mind when you're on a Lenten fast. But the place will surprise you, as they have a good selection of vegetarian and pescatarian dishes that leave you full and happy!

Enjoy sisig without the guilt (and oil!) with Sentro 1771's Sizzling Tofu (P250). The diced tofu is dressed in a special soy and mayo dressing and served on a sizzling plate. The tiny cubes of tofu are fried to perfection - crunchy on the outside while still being soft and silky on the inside - along with the onions and a handful of scallions, gives an almost inaudible crunch with every bite, sans the sisig's artey-clogging oil. This was really, really good!

I rarely enjoy hito nowadays, other than in it's flaked form in a Thai catfish salad. So discovering Catfish Sentro Style (Solo - P350, Sharing - P680) was a revelation! Sentro's fillet of catfish is served with a Japanese Ponzu sauce, which added a nice sweet finish to the smokey fish. Squeeze the grilled lemon on top for another layer of flavor, so the acid cuts through the sweetness of the ponzu, elevating the dish to a whole other level of delicious.

9. TGIFriday's
I know, I know. TGIFriday's is Lent-friendly? Aside from the burgers, the ribs, the chicken tenders, and the pork chops. But surprisingly, they also have some salmon dishes that are just super good - I keep coming back for them, Lent or no.

The Smoked Salmon Quesadilla (P345) makes for a great appetizer or midday snack. The crisp tortilla hides generous flakes of smoked salmon, tart apples, and Monterey Jack cheese topped with pico de gallo and served with a mango-lemon slaw. It is surprisingly light on the tummy, too.

My favorite entrée at TGIFriday's is the Jack Daniel's Salmon (Lunch - P595; Dinner - P795). The beautiful piece of North Atlantic salmon fillet is chargrilled and basted with TGIFriday's sweet Jack Daniel's glaze and served with seasonal vegetables and your choice of cheese mashed potatoes or a rice pilaf. Dip a piece of salmon into the JD sauce of just pour the glaze on, savoring each bite. And don't worry, the alcohol has evaporated by the time they serve this to you, so you aren't breaking any rules.

10. Silk Road Thai Bistro
The absolute best Thai restaurant in Metro Manila, the chef in stilettos, Cecille Chang, shares her love of innovative Thai cuisine by using the freshest ingredients and recipes that let you enjoy your food without having to worry about running that extra mile to burn it all off. She also has a new vegetarian menu out, which is another reason to visit her restaurant in BGC!

Lent is a great excuse for you to enjoy Silk Road's Fresh Prawn Rolls (P330) - rice noodles and shredded vegetables are rolled up in thin rice paper, and covered with a mustard leaf and a juicy, plump prawn. Pick it up with your hands, dunk it in the light dipping sauce, and take a big bite! Repeat.

Everyone I've been to Silk Road with swears on the Crispy Tipalia with Tamarind Puree (P75/100g)! Chunks of Tilapia fillets are seasoned, floured, and subsequently fried 'til golden, before being tossed in a sweet and sticky tamarind puree and then served for everyone to fight over. Chef Cecille loves picking through the fish head! Imagine that? If tilapia is not your thing, they also serve this using Sea Bass.

11. Osaka Ohsho
Known for being the No. 1 gyoza place in Japan, Osaka Ohsho also has other items on their menu that's just as good as the gyoza's they're popular for.

The Special Fuwatoro Tenshin Han (P310) is a super fluffy egg omelette with a miso sauce, covering a small mound of Koshihikari rice - the crown jewel of Japanese rice, noted for its sweet, nutty taste and slight stickiness. This is simple yet delicious and is apparently a huge hit in Japan, with fuwatoro stalls selling this with all kinds of toppings - their version of pares, I'd like to think.

I suggest you pair your fuwatoro with Osaka Ohsho's Ebi Chili (P375) - prawns covered in batter and deep-fried until puffy, before being tossed in a light chili sauce and served with diamonds of crispy crackling. I appreciate how the sauces are just enough for you to taste the spice without overpowering the flavor of the fresh prawns.

12. Pink Panda
The newest restaurant of Erwan Heussaff, Raymond Magdaluyo, Stephen Ku, and Chef Peter Ayson, this innovative restaurant brings together the best that Southeast Asia has to offer - with a cheeky twist. I have to say, you won't even be thinking of Lent being a sacrifice when you dine here. I'm just not quite sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

I confess to love Pink Panda's Mango and Papaya Catfish (P360) more than legally necessary I want to do bad, bad things to this beautifully plated salad. This had a trio of mangoes (ripe, green,and chewy?), green papaya, pomelo, crushed peanuts, shredded catfish, golden shallots, and fried banana flowers with a chili lime dressing.

If you're looking for something different, there's the Sambal Stingray (P345). I've never had stingray before, and this meaty beauty was char-grilled with a honey-sambal oelek, lemon grass and lime glaze. I initially assumed it would be really bony, but it was quite the opposite, and the spice of the sambal covered everything with a spicy hum. I heard they might be taking this off the menu soon, so you had better come by and order it while it's still there!

When mucking around Manila during Lent, cutting back on meat isn't too much of a sacrifice once you know where you can park your butt and enjoy a good meat-free meal. I have a 13th restaurant recommendation, which is Wildflour Bakery + Café, but I have yet to try Chef Allen Buhay's delectable looking Lobster Rolls!

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