I’m back! And no, I wasn’t cocooned inside Noma’s Nordic Food Lab trying to make edible moss or permanently ensconced as family butler in the Dustin Lance Black-Tom Daley household for the past few weeks. I was jaunting around Asia visiting family and friends, and sampling, as always, some of the best food you can have on the planet (stay tuned for my soon to drop Best Dining of 2014 to read about some of my Asia culinary adventures). I was particularly intrigued by what I was hearing from both friends in the Philippines and Pinoys passing through Chicago that my hometown of Manila has started to see a burgeoning chef-driven restaurant scene. Don’t get me wrong, Manila has always offered an abundance of culinary pleasures (as Anthony Bourdain wisely sampled) , but in my annual trips over the past five years, I’ve always been to restaurants that served hearty, rustic Filipino food, either traditionally or with slight, modern twists to them. Unlike Hong Kong and Singapore, and now increasingly Bangkok, Manila’s thriving, energetic restaurant scene hasn’t always been known to contain many bright examples of places driven by a single chef’s vision, ambition, or drive. But with the Philippines experiencing impressive GDP growth averaging around 7% annually, second only to China in the region of the world that economists, wealth managers, and savvy businessmen have anointed as defining the 21st century, it would logically follow though that more disposable income and a more affluent professional class would exist in the country’s capital city. And that Filipinos who have studied, lived, and cooked in the US, Europe, and developed Asia, would come back to a booming, ambitious, opportunity-filled metropolis and open their restaurants. I managed to visit a couple of them during my Manila trip, but Mecha Uma which presented the unique cuisine of 25 year old wunderkind Chef Bruce Ricketts (the closest I can describe it as is Filipino-Japanese-global) gave me one of my most memorable meals of the year, blowing away without a doubt some of the meals I’ve had in Chicago.
Mecha Uma is a tiny place, with probably only around 20 seats, 10 of them located in the intimate Chef’s Counter, where you get to see Chef Bruce and his sous chefs (and there were several of them squeezed in a space smaller than my guest bathroom) prepare an ingredient-driven 10 course tasting menu. Living in Michelin-star-studded Chicago, I take” ingredient-driven”, “tasting menu”, and “chef’s counter” for granted (and sometimes with skepticism) since there are so many restaurants bandying those words about around here. But in Manila, they were a big surprise. Chef Ricketts never went to cooking school, cooked on the line at several hotel restaurants in San Diego, and very humbly told me that in his teens he was a lowly dishwasher at French Laundry when Corey Lee was Executive Chef. Well, Corey Lee should probably start making his way to Manila to see what his dishwasher has accomplished.
My first ever bite at Mecha Uma, a bold amuse bouche of grilled potato bread topped with shirako (cod sperm) glazed with oyster fat, a shiso leaf, and fresh uni was a showstopper, packed with unusual, unruly, decadent, but ultimately complementary flavors. I turned to BFF Andrew, my dining companion, and asked, if this was the amuse bouche, what would the rest of the meal be like? Well the meal was indeed bold, heady, enthralling. And there were many highlights in Chef Ricketts’ menu: a stunningly delicious reimagining of the humble Filipino mongo (mung bean) guisado dish, often served with smoked fish and chicharon bits, for one, this time presented as a composed dish of perfectly grilled mackerel with the crispiest skin imaginable and succulent Iberico pork cheeks served on top of mung bean puree, keeping the enveloping, comfortable warmth of the original dish but unabashedly transforming it. There was an intricate dish of crab meat with dried cauliflower, dried kale, sake jelly, and a puree of kale and crab broth, served with an egg yolk whipped into a jam to represent both the look and taste of hardened crab fat or aligue, the one part of the shellfish that Filipinos passionately love. It was a startling, innovative dish, uniquely Filipino in perspective. There was a perfectly melt-in-your mouth Matsusaka wagyu beef, flown in from Japan, simply charcoal grilled, and served with grated radish, grated fresh wasabi, and a breathtakingly light gravy of sake, soy sauce, and Cabrales cheese, the beef’s superb taste and texture gently rocked by this astounding concoction that melded liquor and dairy, Asia and Europe, delicacy and assertiveness, together. The single dessert course was a stunner as well: buttermilk canele with roasted pineapple, cocoa bits, and a sophisticated take on Filipino street food: taho, sweetened silky tofu usually served in a paper cup ladled from a metal bucket plied around on the shoulders of aged vendors, this time mixed with white chocolate and pink peppercorns resulting in deliriously unique tastes and textures, but yet evocative of the original dish. My favorite dish though came halfway through the tasting menu and seemed simple at first glance: rice slow cooked in dashi, and constantly stirred like a risotto which surprisingly evoking the pleasures and comforts of the taste of Filipino arroz caldo, served with layers of scallop sashimi and topped with a lively burst of sake-marinated fresh ikura or fish roe. Straightforward yet sophisticated, meticulously focused, it was a dish that brought together in seamless fashion Western technique with Japanese ingredients and Filipino remembrances and associations, a dish that was both passport-spanning, and yet uniquely, definitively Asian.
There were some areas for improvement in Chef Bruce’s menu: I thought the ambitious slow-roasted lamb dish, although perfectly cooked, was marred by a complicated bevy of ingredients that included burnt hazelnut yogurt, fermented beets, and oatmeal cooked in lamb broth. Although the sashimi course was delightful, the luscious pieces of toro, flounder, and blow-torched red snapper was somewhat sideswiped by an intriguing sauce of parsley, fish bones broth, and tapioca balls. These dishes felt to this diner like the inventiveness of a brazen and ambitious chef still entangled in the bungee-jumping exhilaration of young adulthood. This was food that I would never have expected in Manila, despite how much I love the city of my youth and love returning to it, where Filipino cooking is all about legacy and tradition and communal preparation and rarely about a single chef’s experiences, ideas, verve, and aspirations. Yet this is a great thing, and something that should create pride in diners and inspiration in other Filipino chefs. In a city where ingredient quality can still be less-than-satisfactory, and where restaurants mostly follow tested and proven templates, and where diners can sometimes seek only the familiar, Chef Bruce Ricketts and Mecha Uma is powerfully, patiently driving Manila to be on par with the other dining cities of the region, and hopefully, eventually, the world.
The amuse bouche of potato bread with shirako (cod sperm) glazed with oyster fat, shiso leaf, and fresh Hokkaido uni.
The singular crab dish: crab with dried cauliflower, dried kale, sake jelly, and a puree of kale and crab broth, egg yolk jam.
My favorite dish in the ten course tasting menu: Rice slow cooked in dashi, and continuously stirred like a risotto, layered with scallop sashimi and then topped with sake marinated fresh ikura.
A terrific dessert: Buttermilk canele with roasted pineapple, cocoa bits, and the star of the plate: white chocolate taho (silky tofu) with pink peppercorn.
For the complete set of my Mecha Uma 10 course tasting menu, check me out on Instagram: http://instagram.com/francissadac/
Mecha Uma is located at 25th street, between 5th & 6th Avenue, RCBC Savings Bank Corporate Center, Bonifacio South, Fort Bonifacio, Taguig,Metro Manila, Philippines. Check out their website for reservation information.