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The Philippines

Three Manila restaurants that show the talents of young chefs applying lessons of top kitchens in West to local cuisine

Josh Boutwood sees the same excitement about Manila’s dining scene as he did working at Noma; he’s part of a corps of young chefs, including Allan Briones and Carlos Garcia, who are helping put Filipino cuisine on the world’s radar

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 January, 2018, 8:15am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 January, 2018, 7:14pm

As the cuisine of the Philippines continues to make a big ­impression on diners worldwide, Manila has cemented its reputation as one of the best places to taste dishes from the country’s most exciting young chefs.

Filipino-British Josh Bout­wood is a busy young man, running a portfolio of restaurants as corporate chef for The Bistro Group while simultaneously leading Test Kitchen, a 20-seat, reservations-only, private restaurant on the fringes of Manila’s Makati business district.

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Boutwood’s childhood was spent mostly in the UK and Spain, where his parents ran restaurants.

He enjoyed cooking from a young age and enrolled in the Escuela de Culinario Mojacar in southeast Spain.

He has had stints at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons outside Oxford in the UK, and in the kitchen many young cooks would kill to experience – that of Noma, in Copenhagen.

René Redzepi’s restaurant in the Danish capital, named No. 1 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards four times, has influenced profoundly those who worked there. The chef is well known for foraging for ingredients and making maximum use of local produce – two things that have rubbed off on Boutwood.

“What was happening in Scandinavia eight to nine years ago is what’s happening in the Philippines now. It’s encouraging and I’m excited at the fact we have so many indigenous ingredients.

“Back in 2009 when I was there, there was a strong vision for the future … When I came back to the Philippines in 2012, it lacked that future vision. Today it’s different. How I feel about the Philippine food scene now is how I felt back in 2009,” says Boutwood.

It would be easy to drive past Test Kitchen without giving it a second glance. The interior is understated; diners sit together around two big tables. By the end of dinner, you’ve invariably made some new acquaintances.

The menu, which changes often, is prepared and served by Boutwood and his young team in what has to be the definition of an open kitchen: dishes are prepped and plated in full view just feet from diners, with Boutwood explaining each dish to them.

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The meal we ate was remarkable, showing serious craft, application and creativity. To start, six-month-old lamb had been cured in juniper, rosemary, fennel seed, rosemary and a touch of chilli. Curing and smoking are two of Boutwood’s passions and various cuts are suspended from the ceiling in one part of the kitchen.

The delicate lamb is paired with young potatoes that have been cooked confit, along with aged Brie, aged balsamic and drops of cold pressed olive oil. It’s a beautifully balanced plate, far lighter and prettier than its ingredients might suggest.

The same could be said of an ox heart tartare. The meat is salted, smoked and dehydrated, before being spooned onto a brioche made with black tea, Jamaican allspice and pink peppercorns. Dots of golden egg yolk gel bring richness, before micro amaranth and mustard crown it.

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Boutwood loves the challenge of accommodating dietary requirements. In a vegetarian version of the dish, pink oyster mushrooms prepared with thyme and butter replace the ox heart atop the brioche. He explains that the mushrooms come from a farm in Quezon province east of Manila with which he works regularly as part of his goal of sourcing as many ingredients as he can locally.

An excellent mahi mahi is next, before what Boutwood calls the “grain course” of spelt berries cooked in a dashi made from kelp, with radish and micro greens. Then comes roasted chicken paired with carrots prepared in a number of ways, including puréed and lacto-fermented, and accompanied by excellent lavash flatbread made with fennel seeds.

The meal is memorable for many reasons, but mainly because of the balance of flavours, textures, portions and the way each dish leads up to the main event. Set menus range in price from PhP1,900 to PhP2,900 (US$37 to US$57) per person based on seasonality.

Another Filipino chef, Allan Briones, is making waves at something of an institution – Old Manila, at The Peninsula hotel. His appointment came as a surprise to some, but only because Briones is Filipino and historically Old Manila has employed European head chefs.

The young-looking 37-year-old trained under British chef Marco Pierre White before becoming head chef at Belgian restaurant Maison Mathis in Dubai.

Old Manila, which opened in 1976 and has recently been renovated, has a striking, black and white art deco interior featuring large photographs by Filipino-Spanish artist Francisco Guerrero.

Briones’ menu include nods to his time in the UK such as English pea soup with crispy jamon, fresh peas and lemon broth, and a torchon of foie gras with cherries – from Baguio, north of Manila – accompanied by salted date caramel and brioche.

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A stand-out was his decadent yet light bone marrow and beef tartare with pickled shimeji mushrooms and a clever espuma of salted egg. The two most memorable dishes we tasted, though, were desserts.

The first was a frozen key lime “pie” presented as an ice cream on a stick, sitting on a meringue smear with batons of sharp candied lemon and dots of crushed graham crackers.

Even more striking was a beautiful and geometric chocolate dish using single origin cacao from Davao in the far south of the country. The 77 per cent cacao was used to great effect with crunchy pili nuts and delicious ice cream made from carabao (water buffalo) milk. It almost felt bad breaking through the outer wall to get to the main event inside.

Lastly to a Spanish chef who boasts an impressive, Michelin-starred résumé. Carlos Garcia worked in London restaurants including Roussillon and Gauthier before opening the Black Pig in Alabang, a Metro Manila suburb.

The Black Pig serves highly accomplished cuisine, and his latest opening, The Pig Pen, in the centre of Makati, shows the same dedication to authentic flavours and ingredients. He and chef Tricia Villacorta-Macdonald use locally sourced organic produce to create dishes that explode with Asian and European flavours and are beautifully presented.

Take a seemingly simple dish, grilled skewers of chicken; Garcia explains that the marinade includes fennel seed, coriander seed, tamarind paste, raw brown sugar and red onion vinegar. Fresh curls of papaya and green mango salad on the side come with tiny dilis, or fried fish. Even more flavour comes from a dipping sauce made with chicken skin, chilli, fish sauce and squeezes of the sharp calamansi citrus so beloved in the Philippines. It’s a simply brilliant plate of food.

With the Filipino love for eating pork, it’s no surprise that pig feet wrapped in potato is another popular order – a sticky, crunchy textural joy, if not a dish to be eaten daily. The hoisin sauce that accompanies it is made in-house, like everything on the menu.

Lamb shoulder marinated in bagoong, or shrimp paste, is another cracking dish, enhanced by its carrot kimchi accompaniment.

Dishes are designed for sharing, but at PhP500 for three courses you can experience the breadth of the menu without breaking the bank. It’s worth noting that The Pig Pen doesn’t charge for rice.

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As if to prove The Pig Pen’s commitment to technique and excellence, dessert is also flawless. It combines chocolate praline with feuilletine pastry that eats like crisp shards of crepe, chocolate mousse, dulce de leche, a classic layered dacquoise and Swiss meringue. Beautiful, delicious, and technically perfect.

Test Kitchen, 9780 Kamagong Street, San Antonio Village, Makati City, Manila, Philippines, tel: +63 2 403 5952, thetestkitchen.ph

Old Manila, The Peninsula Manila, 1226 Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines, +63 2 887 2888 manila.peninsula.com/en/fine-dining/old-manila

The Pig Pen, Eton Tower Makati, Dela Rosa St, Legazpi Village, Makati, Metro Manila +63 2 157 6469 pigpenph.com