Friday, August 31, 2007

Opus's Day

At a corner of Metrowalk, a small dining and shopping complex at the edge of the Ortigas business center, the newly opened Opus glows in white paint and blue lights. The restaurant-bar can accommodate only about 40 persons, but it exudes an air of mock elegance with its minimalist interiors, clean lines and immaculate paint. One may think the food being served here is “sanitized” -- too chic to be flavorful and too safe to be exciting. On the contrary, unlike many restaurants in the area that are too big in atmosphere to mask food either not given much attention or overly tinkered with, Opus holds a few surprises.

“I love white,” says owner Danielle Lee, explaining that the color connotes a bit about herself: Simple, a catch-all word to mean something straightforward, easy, unburdened with affectation or anything regarded to be complicated, and thus good. Many things surrounding Lee are not really “simple,” however, considering she is only 19 years old. That is one surprise: the owner is too young to own and manage a restaurant.

With a very pretty face and a comfortable background, she is supposed to be partying, studying and if doing some work on the side, modeling. Lee, like her older sister Divine, has done some modeling, and is studying to become an entrepreneur. She says her parents raised her in a strict manner, which has made her quite disciplined. And independent, too, now that she is living on her own in a condo unit, doing many of the chores and now earning her keep.

With a restaurant, she breaks the common notion about people of her age and stature, but confirms conception on her ethnic background. Being of Chinese descent, she must have inherited the business acumen and started early. The business acumen will be seen in time. About the matter of starting early in business, Lee worked for a time in her full-blooded Chinese father’s real estate and condominium company Globe Asiatique. While her sister Divine became vice president for sales in the company, she chose to put up her own business.

It was only last April that she really seriously thought of putting up a restaurant. It was a dream of hers, to share her passion for food and cooking. This she inherited from her mother Maria Victoria Lee, who used to own a flower shop. At a very early age, her mother allowed her to tinker around the kitchen. Lee says she learned how to cook at the age of three, which meant she didn't burn the hotdogs. But by six, by the guidance of her mother, she knew how to cook the complicated kare-kare from scratch. Next she learned to cook Chinese and started experimenting.

“I want to share my food,” she says, recalling that she would have friends over and cook for them. Now, she wants to share her food with the larger public, so a restaurant is but a logical next step.

From April until its opening on Aug. 8, an auspicious date for the Chinese, Lee has been hands-on from the interiors to the recipes. She even trained the waiters herself, she relates, and to an amusing degree. She told them how to serve, even though she had no background in restaurant management. She just happened to know how, she says. She even designed their uniforms and gave them grooming kits, which the waiters really like. They even wear scents recommended by her. Everything reflects herself, Lee adds.

The menu is of personal importance. It is virtually a compilation of her favorites. Thus compiled, she had it looked over by the chefs. For the food, she got some help from chef Blanche Hontiveros and consultant Redd Agustin, who both have impressive culinary backgrounds.

“I love them!” she exclaims about her helpful staff. And she also loves her food.

The menu is largely Filipino. There is a sprinkling of Ilocano influence, which more likely comes from her boyfriend Ryan Singson, son of former Ilocos Sur governor Chavit Singson. He also taught her how to drink, she relates. She is proud of her bar menu.

The Filipino in the food here is a more encompassing term, which includes the traditional, as well as the ones that have become part of the Filipino's ordinary diet, like corned beef.

Lee calls her food “updated” or “modern Filipino cuisine.” For her, this is simply put as Filipino dishes served on modern plates instead of palayok and banana leaves. It may sound a tad simplistic, but it has a point. To be served on chic square plates, the dishes must be very presentable, and Filipino dishes traditionally and largely lack in visual appeal. To be more precise, the dishes are given modern twists, and it is not fusion, the chefs aver. As part of the update, the dishes are given modern names, sometimes fancy.

Opus’s menu lists 54 dishes. The top eight, which was an excruciating selection, according to Lee, are called her Eight Masterpieces. It includes North and South, the pork sisig rolls, Twisted Pate, Big Boy, bulalo con sinigang, bangus and pork crackling, tuna salad and crisp chicken and pork pasta.

The certified bestseller of the restaurant, even this early, is North and South (P200), so named because it combines two recognizable food items of the Ilocos region of northern Luzon and General Santos City in Mindanao: the bagnet and the tuna. Chunks of the crunchy pork and raw tuna meat are mixed together with a dressing of sinamak, the coconut water vinegar popular in the Visayas, and coconut milk.

Another bagnet dish in the menu is the bagnet salad. The bagnet salad combines two quintessential Vigan fares: the bagnet and the KBL. KBL stands for kamatis (tomato), bagoong and lasona (the local shallot). The tomato and shallot are diced and drizzled with fish bagoong, making a delicious side salad, a favorite among the Ilocanos.

Chunks of bagnet are mixed with diced tomatoes and onions. Chef Redd thought of using another kind of bagoong, the bagoong alamang, mixing it with honey and vinegar to make a very delectable dressing. The dish is topped with sprigs of cilantro, one of my favorite herbs. I would pick the leaves off the stem and carefully skewer a leaf with my fork together with a piece of tomato, onion and bagnet. The result is a pleasurable symphony of textures and flavors.

Opus took the favorite pulutan, which originated in Pampanga, and has it neatly wrapped like a lumpia. The pork sisig rolls (P160) contains grilled pork and liver, diced and sautéed with spices and held together by egg batter. This is wrapped in lumpia wrapper and then fried. The rolls are served with a Thai chili glaze.

An American food item that has become a favorite of Filipinos is the hamburger. Here, it is served hefty. The Big Boy burger, they call it, and it is grilled sirloin beef burger topped with fried egg, bacon, melted cheddar cheese and sautéed mushrooms. This is served with tomatoes and lettuce on the side.

The Italian pasta has also crept into the Filipino table. Here, the pasta is served with a Filipino flair. Crisp chicken and pork pasta (P190) has linguine pasta drenched with a savory adobo-infused cream sauce and topped with chicken and pork adobo flakes. It is surprisingly yummy.

The tuna salad (190) is more Japanese-inspired. The tuna is perfectly seared and encrusted with sesame seeds. It is nestled on a bed of mixed greens drizzled with honey-wasabi-ginger vinaigrette, another dish worth a try.

The more familiar milkfish comes as bangus and pork crackling (P180), which is boneless bangus cooked in sisig-style marinade.

Of course, every Filipino menu must have the sour soup sinigang. Here, two favorite soups are blended together with surprising results. The Bulalo con sinigang is bulalo and sinigang in one dish. The beef chunks and bone marrow are cooked with traditional sinigang vegetables in tamarind nam pla broth. Served with jasmine rice, this is perfect for rainy days.

The restaurant also serves other sinigang variations, including sinigang na liempo at spare ribs (pork belly and spare rib sour soup) and sinigang na sugpo at puso ng saging (prawn and banana blossom sour soup).

The most exotic in the list is the Twisted pate (P130). The Southeast Asian delicacy of duck embryo, which is sold here on the streets, is given a “gourmet” treatment. The balut and chicken liver are pureed with thyme and cream, and spiked with local rum. Then the blend is spread on crostinis. What a lovely way to make a dish out of the balut.

Another balut dish in the menu is not for the squeamish. The balut and prawns (P190) has whole shelled balut and prawns cooked in oyster sauce and chili sauce reduction.

There are other notable items in the menu, which could have made it to the Eight Masterpieces. One is the corned beef steak, which has a large chunk of corned beef served with roasted onions, mushroom, garlic mashed potato and soy infused gravy. The seafood in ginger coco cream consists of prawns, tuna, snapper, squid cooked in coconut cream. Then there are the usual treats-kare-kare, crispy pata, gambas -- which are also recommendable.

The dessert list is limited but special. The cheesecake is light and smooth. The brownies are round, moist and drenched with chocolate icing. These are serves with fruit salsa, diced fruits in sugar ginger syrup.

Among the rows of flashy restaurants, Opus, with its uncluttered look and creative dishes, is a pleasant surprise.

Published in The Daily Tribune, September 03, 2007, Page 12.

Opus Resto-Bar is open 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

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