MIGUEL’S SOJOURN

Friday, March 9, 2018.

An esteemed client of mine, coincidentally the namesake of my best friend Carlo Calma Lorenzana, invited me along with Aila Joson, my Administrative Manager at the Career Purveyors, to check out the finishing touches of his brand new project situated in the heart of Makati City.

I’d been staffing Carlo for the greater part of the last four years. I know him well. How we have become good friends from a mere client-supplier relationship is a whole different story.

My platonic love for this fellow simply cannot disguise my admiration for his demeanor, professionalism and more importantly, his foresight.

Carlo Calma Lorenzana

CARLO CALMA LORENZANA:  THE man from Davao. Heavy duty entrepreneur & a real gentleman!

Neatly embedded on the ground floor of a high rise building along San Agustin st., in Salcedo Village, Makati City Bar Pintxos – Tapas y Mas may not be very easy to find. Apparently, this may have been done intentionally. The original outlet in the Alabang area had that signature. Hide and go seek.

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Miguel Vecin with yours truly, visiting the third (SOON TO OPEN) outlet in Salcedo Village, Makati

Pretty hard to locate, but worth searching for!
It’s small, yet beautifully colorful inside.
The high ceiling is hardly noticeable as the walls are embellished with hand painted Basque inspired murals.

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Hand painted mural as playful as the food of Bar Pintxos -Tapas y Mas

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Playful and a real feast for the eyes.
You need to be freaking blind as a nocturnal animal in broad daylight to miss the art work!
It just really jumps at you.

The frontage

Still boarded up…construction workers on break

The place was hot as purgatory.
It was dusty, and stinky as vile stench could ever be.
The fresh paint and varnish reeked all over the place. It entered my nosetrils, and went straight out of my ears! (figuratively of course)  I mean…really, that bad!

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……getting there

Aila and I were dying to get the hell out of there!

As soon as Carlo arrived, he and I exchanged a few pleasantries. Shortly after, my driver, Cornelio, drove us to the second outlet, also his first joint venture with erstwhile client, friend and partner, Bobby Tenchavez with the original Bar Pintxos – Tapas y Mas group.

Bobby Tenchavez

A client for many years. Bob partnered with Carlo to bring in great Argentinian, Spanish & Italian wines. Together they formed what is known as “Boca Juan Filipinas, Inc”. On top of this, I’ve lost track of how many restaurants he owns and manages. This fellow is downright simple. Never ostentatious! What is there not to like about this guy? How would I describe him personally? Hmmmmm….that’s a tough one. Lemme just say that Bob is a COOL DUDE IN A LOOSE MOOD!

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Carlo & Bob in an event they put together a while back

There, I was treated to some superb pintxos. I really preferred to wash them down with a  robust  glass of Rioja, but owing to the heat, Miguel, Carlo & Bar Pintxos – Tapas y Mas GM Mr. Randy Libre offered me ice-cold Pilsner Urquell instead.

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You just can’t go wrong with ice cold cerveza to wash down all the pintxos on a hot, humid afternoon!

The second outlet located in a strikingly similar obscure location at The Fort, BGC CATAPULTED THE BRAND INTO THE LOCAL CULINARY ALL-STAR LEAGUE!

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Bar Pintxos Tapas y Mas @ the Fort, BGC

Much of this success could be easily attributed to the members of the new core team.

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All-star team, all smiles…with good reason. Hijos y hija. The lone woman in the team: MAGSY CONCEPCION, apparently a culinary whiz herself and pretty instrumental in bringing the BGC outlet to superstardom!

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MENU

I’ll tell you this: The ‘power of the pen’ is mighty.

But “the word of mouth” kicks the pen straight on the nib, knocking the hell out of it, till it breaks it into bits and pieces….coil, ink sac and all!  Therefore, there is nothing quite as convincing as a testimony.

It gathers steam and collectively passes on that heat to others faster than anything man has ever written!

This may well be the secret formula. That hide and go seek game is played, over and over till the obscurity of the location no longer matters.

If you want it, you’ll find it!

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Batman & Robin a.k.a. Miguel Vecin & Tinchu Gonzalez: The brains behind Bar Pintxos – Tapas y Mas

Miguel Vecin grew up in Barcelona, Spain where he went to school from his elementary days all the way to College.

Having grown up there, he loved the country style cuisine from the Basque region close to the border of France. Rustic, simple, fresh and flavorful.

This defined his style.

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His foray into the glamorous world of upscale casual bar and dining scene started back in 2004 when he decided to bring in authentic Spanish spices.

Shortly after, he started to produce authentic Spanish sausages. That was the beginning of greater things to come.

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The goooooood stuff!

My appetite whetted as Miguel began to describe his menu in the smallest details.

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Salmon honey goat cheese with tobiko roe & Stuffed pepper brie with jamon serrano. Ohhh, did I say Nirvana?

GM

Randy Libre: Designation, GM.  Long time buddy of Tinchu & Miguel, dating back to their spice and importation days. Highly trusted, runs a tight ship. Excellent management style from the back end.

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Fall-off-the-bone Beef Short Ribs with Romanescu & Chimichurri. Insanely good!

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Tinchu Gonzalez the guy up front. Talk to him….he’ll never steer you wrong! The operator, PR machine and the hands-on money man

Fresh anchovies

Cousin of Ms. Anchovy & Mr. Sardine. FRESH HERRING! Not the canned crap. Blanched, refreshed in cold water, tossed in EVOO, lightly salted and topped with crunchy garlic and scallions! Magnifico!

Pintxos beef

Ternera – Wagyu Tenderloin pintxos! That’s one heck of a bite right there….but hold on, you’ve gotta savor every single bite! The juices are going to coat your palate as the beef gently melts away

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House made chorizo frito with freshly baked bread……pour that Rioja, dammit!

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Skewered boquerones, pickled chili & green olives

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Crispy jamon, bed of fresh sea urchin sitting on crusty fresh baked baguette! Close your eyes, taste the damn thing. If this doesn’t blow your socks off, NOTHING WILL!

I cannot, in conscience speak highly, moreover, strongly endorse a product that falls short of excellent. Everything I had that day was immeasurably good to the last bite.

That’s a fact.

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Those crispy berejena (eggplant) almost resembled sweet bacon!

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Sea urchin  Tobiko lumpfish roe with uni & boquerones.   Minced Jamon serrano topped with garlicky aioli!  

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There are three Spanish things, that we here in Manila are fortunate enough to have with us.

They are as follows:  1) A nicely aged Manchego semi-curado,  2) a big, earthy bottle of Rioja at room temp. and  3) BAR PINTXOS – y  MAS!

Bar Pintxos – Tapas y Mas #3 San Agustin st., Salcedo Village, Makati.

It hasn’t opened yet, but it’s already caught flames!

Can’t wait for #4!

 

 

 

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Japan’s got talent

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I love my job.

I staff the local food and beverage industry.

As a support group for this industry, there’s nothing more gratifying than witnessing F&B operators grow their businesses from ground zero.

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Daniel Labudahon, Managing partner of the Teppan Okochi, started his career with the Rockwell land as a residential leasing officer.

As such, he was tasked to handle international business from the US, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan.

During his nine year stint with the Rockwell land, Daniel was promoted as head of Marketing and leasing of the Rockwell development office.

He’d been a big fan of Japanese culture and its cuisine since back then.

On the side, Daniel created his own interpretation of the famous Japanese dish Okonomiyaki, which he sold to office workers.

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As I recall, it was sometime towards the end of 2016 when Daniel walked into my office.

At that time, he explained to us, that he had just turned in his resignation from the Rockwell land to embark on a radical career change.

He laid out the plans that included restaurant concept, financial projections, time line and of course, staffing requirements.

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My knee jerk reaction back then was a bit negative.

In hindsight, I must admit that my scepticism was both shallow and completely baseless.

There are countless Japanese restaurants all over Metro Manila.

Therefore, a new one would  be just another one of the them! 

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But Daniel was so passionate with his presentation, that I slowly began to see where this was all headed.

His lack of restaurant experience was completely overshadowed by his drive and diligent behavior.

“This guy has great potential” I thought to myself.

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Things changed rather drastically when I first met Akihiro Okochi.

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A burly young man standing 5″11, he seemed rather intimidating in the outset.

He carried around with him, an Apple mini ipad that looked like an iphone on his palm! Yep, his hands were that huge.

From the very beginning, we had a big communication gap. His accent was so thick, that I ended up groping my way through our conversations.

Using an online translation app, he would read notes from English translated to Nihongo and vice versa. Problem was, the application translated much of our conversations too literally!

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Try to imagine the difficulty I had to endure.

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Trying to assemble a support team from scratch requires a thorough description of the ideal candidates.

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Sure, we may have one of the largest Food & Beverage database in the country.

But we needed someone to guide us in the selection process! Ideally, one who could explain their needs with crystal clarity.

Otherwise, it gets tedious.

Like the proverbial “looking for a needle in the haystack!”

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Once we got our act together, the synergy began to kick in.

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Aside of course from Chef Akihiro Okochi and Daniel Labudahon, his core team consisted of Kitchen, Administrative and Management personnel that were fluent in Nihongo.

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Trust me, those guys were not easy to find!

Okochi san had a knack for perfection.

Consequently, we had to deploy a larger than usual number of applicants per position to facilitate the selection process.

The pre-opening team had a period of roughly two and a half months to blend in and master the type of service and menu items necessary to bring in a predominantly Japanese expatriate following.

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I had many meetings with both Daniel & Okochi san prior to their soft opening at the Fort, BGC.

In the course of those meetings, it began to dawn upon me that these guys were hell bent on captivating the local dining scene with the very best that Japan had to offer.

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(In this short video clip, Master Chef Akihiro Okochi prepares a simple dish of mixed mushrooms imported from Japan.

Finished on a hot griddle, he deglazes the mushrooms with wine, seasons it with salt pepper and a small amount of lemon juice.

Tops it off with bonito flakes and serves it hot.)

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Being promoted to Chef de Cuisine at the age of 18 years old in no small feat.

You need to be gifted. You need to be passionate. You need to be smart.

And yes, you need to be damn good, if not the very best at what you do!

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Akihiro Okochi 38 is a Master Teppan Chef.

Make no mistake about that.

Two decades of working the line in Mangetsu, Osaka has given him both the confidence and technology to take Manila by storm!

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Ultimately, the bigger challenges would be relegated to two things:

  1.  Putting together a bunch of highly qualified individuals to form a perfect team and
  2.  Sourcing out the best ingredients (locally and from Japan) to provide customers with the best experience possible.

ZZZZI stay away from beef.

It’s probably my loss.

I heard that he serves up a great wagyu steak. But those that know me personally are fully aware that I try to keep my diet free from red meat. So, today Daniel and Chef Akihiro composed a private dinner that consisted of seafood and veggies.

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The opening salvo was a refreshing cold salad of allumette-cut radish with raw sea scallops and vine ripened tomatoes from Japan.

Exquisite!

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What a simple dish. All the components of a good salad were present.

Temperature, fresh ingredients, color contrast, textural contrast and of course, flavor.

I’ve never had a soy based dressing without oil or vinegar before.

There was no emulsifying agent added to give the sauce froth or body!

This one had ponzu, soy sauce and wasabi. HOLY CRAP!

That was pretty darned gooood! Much better than I’d imagined.

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I’m afraid to eat locally harvested oysters for fear of food poisoning.

Also, I usually go for lightly blanched oysters with horseradish and tabasco.

Today however, Okochi san prepared plump, succulent oysters flown in directly from Japan the via IQF (Individually quick frozen) method.

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He grilled those beauties on his flat top griddle and magically whipped up the best oyster omelet I’ve ever tasted!

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Then came the sea scallops in uni sauce and salmon roe.

I’ll tell you this:  It takes great skill to cook scallops (or any shellfish for that matter) this big without overcooking or undercooking it.

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From the moment it’s lifted away from the griddle and set on to your plate, we in the Culinary world understand the importance of timing vs carry over temperature.

To put it simply, the product continues to cook after it has been removed from the heat source.

In other words, this is all about timing!

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Alleluia! The timing and precision on this one got me singing praises.

The Culinary Demi-gods were smiling at me from Heaven!

I really savored every bite of it.

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By the time he brought out the main dishes,

I was already a happy camper.

Smiling from ear to ear.

The grilled mushrooms, lobster, grilled salmon, tiger prawns and Okonomiyaki were all pretty darned impressive.

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I have to say that everything they prepared were done so in seamless fashion.

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There’s no doubt in my mind.

Teppan Okochi is destined to succeed far beyond everyones expectations.

I dare say that this is quite simply, the most exciting restaurant to enter the Manila culinary scene so far this year.

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Thank you for coming to Manila, Okochi san.

Thank you Daniel, for bringing him over.

I’m loving every moment. Your success is our success.

I love my job.

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“We have only one life on this planet. Hug your loved ones, enjoy laughter, sip good wine and nourish your soul with great food”.

Chef Akihiro Okochi

一期一会を楽しもう 素晴らしい食事とワインを共に

大河内 章弘

Provençal calling

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It’s a hazy weekday afternoon.

I troop over to the Fairmont/ Raffles hotel, literally a stone’s throw away from the Career Purveyors head office.

The lobby is busier than I’d anticipated.

Businessmen clad in dark suits are all over the place.

Tourists are checking in and out with their baggage trolleys in tow.

On the 9th floor, I arrive at the Mireio restaurant and bar lounge.

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I am met by my most gracious host, Ms. Margaux Hontiveros the hotels Marketing-Communications Manager.

Rather than intimidating, the restaurant interior was strikingly elegant, bright and homely, owing to its transparent floor to ceiling glass surroundings that in effect, offered a commanding view of the Makati skyline.

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As Margaux engaged me in lively conversation about the inspiration of Mireio, I couldn’t help but enjoy the contemporary-rustic feel that this restaurant provided.

According to Margaux, the restaurant is named after Mireio, a celebrated poem by Nobel Laureate Frederic Mistral, a favourite son of Provence.

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Taking notes for the staff briefing

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Mireio is indeed a reflection of Mistral’s vision. The restaurant interiors are adorned with art works and elaborate floral arrangements that represent the atmosphere and “feel” of Southern France. Casual yet elegant in a homelike setting.

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Tables were set apart with ample spacing, giving diners legroom and privacy.

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I’d go on to say that even the most passive observer would readily appreciate the neatness of this environment. It’s clean… I mean, spic and freaking span from the drapes down to the last water goblet!

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The front prep area: My definition of neat!

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Private dining room with class!

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The look, the feel when darkness kicks in

A guided tour of the restaurant inadvertently led me to the kitchen.

The kitchen was great.

A bit tight, but had an efficient workflow layout that maximized the limited space. The environment really made me feel like jumping onto the hot line again.

Mise en place was readily accessible in neat bins.

It was well lit and properly ventilated.

Everything was accurately labelled to ensure first-in first-out, thereby underscoring the significance of freshness without compromise. Precisely what a perfect kitchen should be.

It was here where I got to finally meet Chef de cuisine Nicolas Cegretin.

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A light moment with Chef Nicolas

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After exchanging pleasantries, he readily agreed to prepare a quick, simple dish for Larawan.

Here’s what he prepared.

Click on the link below:

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The finished product was simple but delectable in every way!

Fresh vine ripened tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, herbs, snails and clams topped with shaved parmesan & baby rockets. A BULLSEYE!

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The main restaurant has a staircase that leads to an impressive indoor bar lounge with a separate entrance to a slightly higher, and equally impressive outdoor al fresco bar with retractable awnings.

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The private indoor lounge

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A little humor to loosen up the tie.  I chose Blue!

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Deep red slightly underneath the outdoor area

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Outdoor al fresco bar with retractable awning. A sweetened view of the Metropolis

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The perfect spot to savor duck foie gras, crusty bread, a glass of Sauternes and the golden sunset overlooking the Makati skyline!

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Casual, warm, understated outdoor elegance

I was deeply fascinated to learn that the average age of the entire staff was around 28 years old.

The Restaurant Manager, also a native of Southern France, Nicolas Bracq had the energy of a youthful idealist ready to conquer Manila.

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Restaurant Manager Nicolas Bracq together with Head Chef Nicolas Cegretin. They form quite a formidable team.

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Restaurant Manager Nicolas Bracq with Head Chef & namesake Nicolas Cegretin

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Nicolas & Nicolas

 

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Roasted foie gras with laced with freshly grated nutmeg, kosher salt & peppercorns

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Tartare of fresh & cold smoked salmon with shallots, chive and creme’ fraiche

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Plump, succulent mussels in a mustard-saffron broth

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Traditional puff pastry stuffed with chicken and foie gras

 

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There’s hardly any flaw on the lean menu.

Imagine the roasted foie gras with freshly baked crusty bread.

This was my absolute favorite!

Bursting with flavor, it had this nice long finish that really lingered in the palate. Alternating bites with sips of nicely chilled late harvest wine.

You just can’t go wrong.

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Sea bass seared with ratatouille cannelloni

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Guanaja chocolate mousse on a hazelnut crust

When the sun goes down and the traffic hits hardest, head on to the Fairmont / Raffles in the heart of Makati city.

Park at the basement.

Or better yet, use their valet service. Mireio is up on the 9th level.

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Heed the call of Provençal.

 

 

 

 

The Java Symphony

First a sonata.

A splendid, well thought out solo performance.

The execution was precise, harmonious and deeply engaging. The audience are captivated by a superb original take on a classic piece.

Hey, this was just a prelude.

And then…..the segue.

 

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Carlo Gordon-Lorenzana dishing out last minute instructions to the pre opening team

 

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The brain behind the concept

The pianist is joined by woodwinds, brass,  strings, percussion and bass in a hair raising full orchestra performance.

When we did a feature exactly a year ago entitled: “The Dissident Oasis”, I emphatically declared that the SINGLE ORIGIN would be “the hottest port of call in the Metro“.

Now, I’m not really in the habit of self aggrandisement. But please allow me to say this just once: I TOLD YOU SO!

Is a sequel to a previous article worth getting into?

Read on.

Aspiring chefs, budding restaurateurs, young businessmen, listen carefully to this outstanding performance.

The music is well composed, the execution flawless.

The triad of Carlo Gordon-Lorenzana, Chef Jj Saycon and Jackie Lorenzana have proven that a collaborative effort should always be founded on the premise that a team should compliment one another rather than dispute with one another on points of disagreement.

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Jackie & Carlo sharing a light moment with partner Don Barandiaran on the eve of “show time”

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A healthy discussion should be readily in place.

Give more than you receive.

Respect and you will be respected.

This is harmony in its purest form.

I openly praise this young team for their foresight. Their penchant for being original. Trend setters even.

Their collaborative effort is reminiscent of Sayka Shoji’s flawless rendition of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto in D major.

From where I stand, their coherence as a team is crystal clear.

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Head Chef JJ Saycon

The greatest reward of being ahead of the field is simple.

By the time every Tom, Dick and Pedro attempts to knock you off, you’ve already established yourself. You’re more than halfway there.

Together, they are a formidable team that possess this uncanny ability to roll out a unique concept,  investing large amounts of money based on good instincts, due diligence, perseverance and a spate of good luck.

 

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whipped-butter-cream

Undoubtedly the fluffiest pancake in town. Candied walnuts, dried prunes, maple syrup & whipped butter-cream….I’ll ask you this: What the heck’s not to like?

 

 

Greed is the sister of ambition.

It’s the greatest unseen danger that besets the new generation of food and beverage entrepreneurs.

When a restaurant or bar does fairly well, commercial developers start the obscene ritual of courtship.

That’s when temptation creeps in…and heck yea….greed!

Wanting more, and expanding your business is not bad by a long shot. But this has to be done systematically with a thorough plan of action, paying close attention to the business side of it.

The concept of SINGLE ORIGIN, was a risky undertaking since its inception a couple of years back, owing to the big and growing number of coffee shops all over the Philippines.

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When you’re up against a giant foreign franchise that has many years of proven track record, you really need to have an ace up your sleeve. You need to differentiate yourself in order to be competitive.

Moreover, choosing a location that best suits your product, is crucial to your success.

The rental structure, foot traffic, customer profile and overall convenience, need to match the merchandise and service.

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Now, speaking of location, the Rockwell land is where it’s all at. Borrowing from the lyrics of the classic broadway song, “New York, New York”, “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere”.

Rockwell is a tight community that is more than a notch ahead of its competitors.

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The foresight of Ambassador Manolo Lopez is simply incredible.

His foray into high end real estate development two decades ago, has caught everyone else flat footed.

Back then, the entry of the Rockwell land in the growing urban development may have seemed a bit too late.

Today however, what we’re seeing, is a world class facility that caters to the most discerning individuals. People with disposable income.

From a retailers standpoint, this is THE market that matters most.

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The last minute frenzied preparation for opening day

 

 

 

 

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Ultimately, the most accurate barometer of success in the food and beverage business is the timely distribution of dividends to its shareholders.

NOT the turn over.  NOT the popularity of the product either.

HELLLOOOO! Read my lips: DI  VI  DEND  DIS  TRI  BU  TION! That’s the bottom line.

The first outlet in BGC, High street is proof that creativity and innovation does work.

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And true, dividends have been distributed much earlier than anticipated, to the delight of its shareholders.

The big boys are watching on the sidelines, eating their hearts out with the finest vintage Bordeaux on a lazyboy.

Hell, it’s about time. They’ve been spending too much time raking in all that royalty on exorbitant franchise agreements.

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I’ve found religion in the SINGLE ORIGIN concept.

It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darned close.

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Slowly but surely coming together!

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Pasta Tartufo with poached egg and shaved parmigiano

 

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You’ve gotta love it sweet and hot!  The Single Origin Choco-Chili cheesecake

 

the-spread

The spread that ultimately defines SINGLE ORIGIN: Breakfast, Lunch, Happy hour and Dinner!

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Salted Caramel latte’

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“BLISS” Espresso Tiramisu. The name says it all!

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Excellent Craft beer hand picked from micro breweries

 

It showcases real Pinoy class.

What this tells us all, is that we can create rather than merely imitate.

Now, here’s the question of the hour: WILL IT WORK THIS SECOND TIME AROUND?

When we listen to the “encore”, your guess can only be as bad as mine.

 

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Last minute huddle

 

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SINGLE ORIGIN, Edades Rockwell opens tonight. 11-14-16

 

 

 

 

Journey of the senses

It’s a photographers playground. “Eye candy” perhaps.

 

Tucked away neatly in the latest high-end BGC development, PASSION by Gerard Dubois is a sparkling gem that beckons the gourmand in all of us.

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The glowing facade

It’s cozy, well lit, spacious and neatly appointed.

Everything conforms to the strictest standards of stores all over Hong Kong.

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There is nothing here that is customised to the Filipino palate.

Ultimately,  PASSION by Gerard Dubois is a Boulangerie, Confiserie and Patisserie that aims to provide its customers with that genuine Parisian feel.

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The display cases closely  resemble the works of Modern French Pastry icons of Paris. Jean Paul Hévin, Pierre Hermé & Fabrice Le Bourdat to name a few.

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Thinly sliced meat from the charcuterie served with crusty bread! Pure bliss

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The ubiquitous French Macarons with countless interpretations

It all started roughly three years ago. As Chef Gerard Dubois aggressively expanded his label all over the Hong Kong peninsula, he set up a state-of-the-art commissary kitchen north of Manila, in the Clark industrial area.

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The La Rose Noire Philippines quickly generated employment to the tune of over 4,000 full time employees!

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It made perfect sense for the expansion to include local retailing, as he’d been able to successfully execute the wholesale production “down to a science”.

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Semi-self serve: The bev showcase

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Gerard Dubois. The proud Chef

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A young business woman by the name of Pamela “Pie” Flores often travelled to Hong Kong with her Corporate-lawyer husband. It was there that they chanced upon Chef Gerard in one of his stores. The couple instantly fell in love with the restaurant concept.

 

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Master franchisor & Franchisee of PASSION by Gerard Dubois at the Fort, BGC: Pamela “Pie” Flores

Talks immediately ensued. An accountant by education, Pie had a consultancy firm that catered to various industries that included real estate, internet service provider, utility provider and mall development.

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The passion and true love for the concept was so strong, that Pie decided to drop her entire career in favor of procuring the local master franchise for the famed brand.

This was a calculated move on her part.

She knew deep within, that the “calling” had to be heeded.DSC09193

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My pick: Tomate et l’aubergine on a wafer thin dough. Heck, It doesn’t get any simpler than this!

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The sandwich bar!

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When an ordinary jar is embellished with a bow tie and a swizzle stick is elaborately designed, we can safely conclude that the store was put together with real passion!

Passion first, money later.

Is it paying off?

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I’ll tell you this.

When a franchisee strictly follows the operational manual of a brand (WITH A PROVEN TRACK RECORD OF OVERWHELMING SUCCESS) down to the letter, it effectively decreases the chances of failure.

It is therefore destined to succeed.

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It’s going to be a long journey of the senses.

 

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I dare say: prove me otherwise!

 

 

 

 

VIVA Mexico!

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Lo de Alberto logo

It’s a golf driving range in the epicenter of the Pasig-Ortigas urban jungle.

The “City golf” is a fairly tight development that has a wide array of bars and restaurants.

This area comes into full swing from late afternoons all the way till early morning. During day time, it tends to slack quite a bit and slow down.

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Pollo al pibil:  Chicken burrito with mexican rice and frijoles black beans

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Just a couple of months ago, my good friends and dynamic restaurateur couple Dodjie & Monica Violago set up Lo de Alberto.

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Dodjie Violago

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Monica Violago

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What exactly is it?

Answer: It’s a remarkable collaboration between the Violago couple and Mexican Chef Balam Nazar.

100%  Al fresco, 100% Mexican.

The real deal.

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The bold declaration

The burning passion and desire to get this project going, may have started a good 20 years ago.

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The man behind the concept

Dodjie lived in Orange County, CA back then. DSC09107

Having had a knack for adventure, he and his friends would take long road trips and wander aimlessly taking turns driving their vehicle, often times as long as 12 hours with brief stop overs.

They were wildly driven by a common desire to discover things in unfamiliar territory.

No internet, no GPS, no mobile phones. Just the trusty road map, gut instinct and loads of energy to burn.

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Spiced Horchata with rice, kahlua liquer and cinnamon

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Sangria de Mexico y Tequila Lemonade

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Monica sharing a light moment with Chef Balam

It’s no big wonder that when the Violago couple met Mexican Chef Balam Nazar, they immediately churned up a comprehensive business plan.

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Chef Balam

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Talks went underway, as the numbers on the balance sheet were very promising.

The result of those talks finally came to fruition when Dodjie acquired a lease contract in a seemingly odd location.

Lo de Alberto prides itself as being a genuine “Taqueria“.

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The menu board

It is in the middle of a parking lot that also serves as a walkway around the City Golf development.

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Carnitas de puero taco: Fresh tortillas, shredded pork loaded with finely chopped fresh cilantro, served with two salsas and nachos.  ARRIBA!

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Absolutely no frills here. No enclosed section, no air conditioning.

Dodjie deliberately planned it this way to provide his customers with a genuine Coyoacán out door market feel.

Paper plates and simple furniture cap off the whole experience.

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Chef Balam molding his tortilla dough before moving it on to the concavo

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I’ll tell you this. I’m not a big fan of Mexican food. It’s just not something I’d go out of my way for.

But Chef Balam converted me in an instant!

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Concavo y tabla de cortar

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In Lo de Alberto, you can expect the best tortilla made from scratch using a concave pan.

Such a simple recipe with minimal ingredients.

But the execution is precise.

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You get this warm, chewy, soft and pliable dough that is really outstanding. It’s so good, you could use it for almost anything.

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I didn’t come here for the flour tortillas. But I sure as hell will!

I’m a convert, remember?

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The shredded pork with salsa is overloaded with cilantro,  an herb that defines authentic Mexican cuisine.

Muy delisioso!

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Hongo quesadillas: Mushroom and cheese

The enchilada with chicken and cream cheese beat the daylights out of me.

Of course, the Hongo quesadillas with mushroom and cheese went very well with that ice cold bottle of cerveza!

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Lo de Alberto is not your fancy restaurant.

I’ll bet you won’t propose marriage here.

Simply put, it’s a cool place to loosen up, kick back and hang out with your buddies.

Superb food and  great drinks at  very reasonable prices.

You can’t go wrong.

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The new kid on the block

The backstreet is livening up….fast!

Bolanos st. in Legazpi Village, Makati city,  is a half kilometer stretch that is sandwiched between two main thoroughfares namely: V.A. Rufino st., and De la Rosa streets.

Joe Fores recently opened a great hang-out called Pappy’s.  A really nice, well-appointed, cozy bar beside what used to be Allium which, by the way is currently being transformed into a contemporary Japanese restaurant called Hibana.

Further down the road, his nephew and my good pal Raulito Fores is busy constructing his first food venture: a soon-to-open Italian restaurant.

Right in the center, is a small, dimly lit restaurant called the Mantra Bistro.

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The subtle decal paste on the front window pane

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The short menu

Owned and operated by Mr. Ranjit Chimni, I must say, that this restaurant is a  remarkable gem to behold! It’s a French inspired “Bistro” serving authentic Northern Indian cuisine.

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Ranjit Chimni, the man behind the MANTRA BISTRO

 

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The Mantra bistro is located at the Ground floor level of the Grand Midori on Bolanos St..

While it isn’t the only genuine Indian restaurant in the country, it is probably the one most likely to succeed through the years.

 

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“Good food is only a tiny speck in the whole dining experience” Ranjit Chimni

Under the helm of Ranjit, the Mantra Bistro is fast gaining recognition as a favorite Indian bar and restaurant destination that features a superb array of classic, exotic dishes.

His walk-in traffic and bookings are noteworthy. With a total seating capacity of less than 50, he was compelled to extend his seating to accommodate al fresco dining since he’d been consistently running a full house with several turn overs since he opened barely a month ago!

Having had no previous experience in running a restaurant business, he  learned the ropes on the job, rather quickly.

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French bistro set up serving authentic Northern Indian cuisine. None of that “fusion-confusion”

He didn’t exactly have a choice.  

 

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All he had back then were gut feel and a heart made of stone.

Your initial foray into the local food business where only the very best survive, is an unnerving prospect. This is specially true when you factor in your operational costs.

One will inevitably have to deal with controllable factors such as labor, procurement, marketing, quality assurance as well as uncontrollable factors like erratic weather behavior, spiralling prices, competition and a surplus of other head aches.

To put things simply, the essence of survival is endurance. Whereas the essence of success is getting back your investment and sustaining your growth.

 

I’ve known Ranjit for quite a while now, and it’s easy for me to say that he is steadfastly fastidious, full of energy and he runs a tight ship. Those are the aces up his sleeve!

 

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Weeknight crowd starting early: Word of mouth sure does wonders!

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The welcome smile

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The Mantra Bistro interior gives you a warm, snug feel

At 44 years of age, he is an amiable fellow that creates friends instantly with an infectious smile.

Having spent the last 7 years in Manila, he seems to be every bit as Pinoy as everyone else.

“There are three components that sets us apart” says Ranjit.

“First I made sure we utilize a real tandoor oven which I flew in from Delhi. Second, I had to make sure that the investment I made on the oven should be a top notch Chef that knows how to use this properly”.

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THE Tandoor oven flown in from India. There’s simply nothing like it!

“So, my next major investment was to fly in an Indian Chef with solid credentials”, he continued.

After a tedious selection process, he finally decided to fly in his “most qualified talent”. He based this on his kitchen demeanor, length of experience and more importantly, where and how he was trained.

“This was a bit tricky”, Ranjit said. “I had to fly back to India for an extended period of time to do my research. That entailed having to ask around for referrals from very reliable sources before conducting my screenings and personal interviews”

Enter Chef Kumar Sarawan, a native of New Delhi.

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Trust me when I say: this fellow is a master of his craft. His resume’ boasts of several highly rated restaurants around the Delhi and Mumbai areas with 20 years of solid experience rising from the ranks to Chef de Cuisine. But ultimately, he is a bonafide product of the Taj group of Hotels having moved around different properties of the same label.

 

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The Master of the Tandoor Oven

Wait a second….did I say Taj?

Dang!

In my opinion, the Taj group of hotels are Leisure and Business hotels all over the Indian peninsula that bear the same prestige as the finest hotels worldwide including the Oberoi, Ritz Carlton and the Four Seasons!

Surely nothing small time there.

So….what’s “the Master” doing here?

Chef Kumar spoke to me with excitement the first time we met.

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Eastern “tapas” or should I say “hors d’ ouevres“?

“I love Manila”, he said. “I love the people and the overall environment. I’m here to provide the Filipinos a real chance to experience honest-to-goodness North eastern cuisine at its very best,” he continued.

Needless to say, heading the Mantra Bistro kitchen offers him both an adventure and escapade of a lifetime. A unique opportunity to spread his wings and be absorbed by an entirely new culture. Now, that’s cool!

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The Master presenting his bread masterpiece!

I must mention that Chef Kumar has mastered the art of Indian bread making. Using the proper oven, technique and ingredients allow him to create the finest, freshest and most authentic Indian breads only found in Northern India!

I loved the Paneer paratha stuffed with cottage cheese, garam masala and fresh chilis. Chewy and flavorful by itself, it just went so well with the palak paneer, a spinach dip made with garlic, ginger and spices. A close second favorite on the bread menu had to be the Garlic Naan. I could eat that all day!

The Mantra offers three types: The Kulfi which is made from milk, cardamon, saffron, pistachio and dry fruit. It is the traditional Indian version of the ice cream.

The Lassi is yogurt drink could be had in savory or sweet flavors.

And the Gulab Jamun which is made with powdered milk, which is then fried and finally dipped in sugar syrup.

Indian desserts are expectedly sweeter than usual. They’re there to cut through all the spices and create a balance.

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Lassi and Gulab Jamun: Sweet endings!

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During the early planning stages, Ranjit sought my help for staffing as well as sourcing out the best ingredients.

This happens to be the third element that “sets the Mantra Bistro apart from the rest”.

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Fresh from the Tandoor Oven: THE MEAT PLATTER Tandoori Prawns, Murg Malai Tikka (Chicken),  Yogurt marinated Chicken, marinated Tandoori Salmon

We all know that the key to excellent, authentic Indian cuisine are the spices. Hence I pointed out the Asian Mini mart at UN avenue,  Manila and Jupiter st., Makati, as the main wholesalers of Indian food products here in Manila.

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While he acknowledged this, he took it upon himself to source BETTER QUALITY suppliers.  That, he did. Straight from Singapore.

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Superb Indian spread

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Chicken Tandoori: Tender, succulent and loaded with flavor!

He now flies in his spices from Singapore, which, as we all know is a melting pot of Chinese, Malay and Indian cuisine.

He gets fresh turmeric, top quality saffron threads, cardamom, coriander seeds and every single key component straight from the best source!

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Regan Josh and Paratha: Prepare to be impressed!

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Classic vegetarian Tandoori platter: Green pea tikki, Potato Tandoori aloo, Cottage cheese and Tandoori broccoli

On top of this, I’d like to add a word of caution for all of you unsuspecting consumers out there.

Heed my advice.

Each time you walk into a restaurant, check the size of the menu.

Allow me to explain why this is important. Any food establishment that carries 35 or more items on their menu card may not practice the best inventory  control system simply because of the volume kept in their freezers.  Fifty items would be pushing it over the hill!

Consequently, you have food items in there that are either “freezer burning” away or worse, taking on a different life form!

Finally, the absence of an automated point-of-sale POS machine that generates daily sales and inventory proceedings may be a root cause of poor quality control as well.

YUCK!

Of course there are a couple of acceptable exceptions:  1) Their turn over volume is lightning fast or 2) Majority of their fresh ingredients have multiple usages for various items listed on the menu.

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Similar ingredients, different interpretations. Bread and Chicken (Tikka) menu

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Dear friend and Mantra Bistro proprietor: Ranjit Chimni

The Mantra Bistro clearly takes all of these into serious consideration.

The Mantra will reverberate: QUALITY OVER QUANTITY!

 

 

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