When we think about cities with great food scenes, what comes to mind are the big names like San Francisco, New York, London, Paris, and even Tokyo. No one seems to think of the small, but bustling city in Southeast Asia called Manila. It seems that in the last four years or so, Manila's food scene has started to grow. Zomato and phonebooky are favored over Yelp when it comes to deciding where to have dinner, and locals traveling from North to South are guaranteed to find something new everyday.
Manila is a small city in the middle of Asia, which allows for a variety of people to constantly pass through. The growing economy continues to attract people the city's natural wealth and the melting pot of cultures that exist within its borders. The blend of locals, expats and immigrants allow for the perfect hotbed of fusion flavors that will likely please the multitude of appetites that come its way.
One of Manila's game changers was the opening of Todd English Food Hall in Bonifacio Global City's SM Aura in 2014. The Food Hall, similar to its first location in New York, is Manila's first celebrity chef restaurant. The walls are adorned with the words, "Never trust a round pizza."
The restaurant is home to nine different stations that leave everyone's mouth watering. The real star, however, is the chocolate bomb of a dessert called the O.M.G., which will likely leave you saying the same thing after your first spoonful.
Recently opened in February of this year, it has proven itself to be another success. So, to a friend of mine who asked, "What the hell is Todd English doing in Manila?" I suppose that the Filipino's appetite couldn't keep him away.
Following Todd English is the opening of Nobu, a casual fine dining experience brought by celebrity Chef Nobu Matsuhisa in City of Dreams Manila, a Hotel and Casino Resort. Nobu attracts most food connoisseurs, and its unique Japanese-Peruvian flavors are welcomed by Manila's cosmopolitan nature.
The talent and persona of Chef Matsuhisa is presented clearly and carefully in every Umami Seabass taco, and the fresh and bold flavors bring forth a new, gastronomic experience for the more sophisticated palates.
The fine dining experience has continued to expand with Chef Jordy Navarra's (formerly of Michelin-starred restaurant's Bo Innovation Hong Kong and The Fat Duck) Black Sheep. Black Sheep features a short, traditional tasting menu with the option of single malt whisky pairings instead of wine. Customers overlook the Manila skyline while they wait. Chef Narvarra elevates Filipino flavors with both old and new culinary techniques.
The classic tamarind sour soup, Sinigang, for example, is refined with a delicate cut of grilled grouper with seaweed and guava. The desserts unravel salted caramel with truffle polvoron, a variation on the shortbread-like milk candy sold to children in primary schools. What I personally admire most, and what I strive for as a budding chef, is Chef Navarra's ability to take local flavors and treat them carefully to create something that challenges and surprises local and non-local palates.
One local, more casual success is the WildFlour Cafe & Bakery, also known as WildFlour, with Chefs Walter and Margarita Manzke of L.A.'s Republiqué and Chef Ana de Ocampo at the helm. This restaurant, which first opened in 2012, boasts house-made breads, the most amazing pastries and a well-crafted menu that both brunch and dinner lovers find themselves returning to.
WildFlour was the first restaurant in Asia to recreate Dominique Ansel's cronut only two short weeks after it was released in New York. It is also the masterminds behind this restaurant that brought PINK's Hotdogs outside the U.S. to Manila as it's first international location. To cater to the Philippine market, the addition of craft beers was even added to the iconic L.A. street food's menu. It's no wonder that this is my favorite place to go straight to whenever I land home.
The success of this restaurant also brought about the opening of Manila's favorite ice cream and soda fountain shoppe called the Farmacy.
It seems that Manileños have started to become increasingly enamored with pretty things, and the opening of Parisan patisserie Ladureé made this city effortlessly more chic. The beautiful macarons resemble jewels, and though desserts from Ladurée don't come cheap anywhere in the world, being privileged enough to be home to a Ladureé house gives Manila's resident Blair Waldorfs an excuse to carry pastel bags stamped with gold.
Chinese culture is also closely tied to Philippine cuisine. Binondo, Manila's resident Chinatown, is the oldest Chinatown in the world, and there's no doubt that the Chinese have a huge influence in forming the Philippine palate.
Manila goers would be repulsed to the thought of anything resembling Panda Express. They prefer the likes of Tim Ho Wan, Crystal Jade, and Din Tai Fung, some of the world's most favorite restaurants for Chinese and Cantonese fare.
Xiao long bao, peking duck and har gow are staples to Filipinos, who may not be Chinese by blood, yet still find themselves chanting "Kung Hei Fat Choi" during Lunar New Year. I know that there's nothing more that reminds me of a Sunday afternoon than sipping on oolong tea and waiting patiently for soup dumplings.
On the other side of the ocean comes the heavy Spanish influence. After all, Anthony Bourdain's "best pig ever," Cebu lechon by Joel Binamira's Zubuchon, takes from the Spanish cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig).
The restaurant Txanton is Manila's first jamónería, which showcases different types and grades of jamon, Spain's counterpart to prosciutto, as well as wine pairings that complement each cut.
The variety of Jamón Iberico de Bellota comes from different regions in Spain, and Txanton aims to educate Filipinos on the proper way to enjoy the best jamóns.
If you're one to enjoy tapas that remind you of late-night drunken food adventures in Madrid, look no further than the restaurants of the La Lola Group.
A recent local favorite is their Churreria La Lola, served hot and delicious churros con chocolate. Unlike the bavarian-filled sticks you can get in Costco, these are freshly made to order, light and only slightly sweetened, making way for the pool of dark chocolate that comes with it.
Catering to the Asian market (now serving churros with matcha white chocolate), while still keeping true to its Spanish roots, these Old World flavors are loved by all.
As I write this, my mouth waters and my stomach yearns for home more than my heart does. I suppose that there is something about the familiarity of how to navigate Manila's food scene that comforts me, versus the vast trial and error that I've been experiencing in the States.It's unsurprising that people have taken a liking to Manila, and how it surpasses the adobo or pancit that most associate the Filipino with. This city is home to an urbane and cultured population that welcomes the underrated, yet well thought out fusion flavors that are changing the world as we know it. Perhaps it might be a while, but hopefully someday the Michelin guide will not have to look further than home to find another star.