Saturday, May 08, 2010

Shook Up by Peppermill

Sometimes Vincent M. Rodriguez opens the lanai of his home along Castrillo Street in the Corinthian Gardens, an upscale residential enclave in Quezon City at the northern fringe of the Ortigas business area, for diners and foodies. This is a rare opportunity. Rodriguez runs a catering company called Peppermill Caterers, favored by celebrities and big companies. His dishes are indeed rare delights—a slab of salmon peppered with finely chopped seaweed and other herbs and spices; large portions of salpicao sizzling on stone; a delectable salad of wakame, salmon and crabsticks; bagnet, so juicy and crunchy; and a playful panna cotta with chopped fruits.
All these, which we pronounced superb, were served to us one summer night, among potted plants and near a small waterfall and pond with kois, by someone who has had no formal culinary training. Rodriguez studied management and marketing at the California State University in Bakersfield, planning to work for their family business in Candon, Ilocos Sur, afterwards. The Rodriguezes are a prominent family in the city, owning the biggest supermarket in the province called Four Brothers. Vincent’s brothers have also made it to the limelight one way or another. Most famous was the late fashion designer Porte Rodriguez, who also delved in local politics. Leonard, who operates the only school supply store in the city, is known for his sizable Swatch watch collection, which is probably the biggest in Asia. Nick is the only one with a culinary education and has a restaurant called Salad Days.
It was for Nick that Vincent returned home from the United States. He was asked to help run the restaurant. His culinary experience, though, may be traced way back. “Our family loves to cook,” Vincent said. Flair in the kitchen was something he grew up with. He also worked in restaurants while in the United States. “Then I tried cooking at home until I was satisfied,” he related.
Food has always been part of forty-something Vincent’s life. “Food is very important to me; it’s part of my everyday life. Without the need to eat, life will be unexciting,” he declared. He added that “good food as something that you can’t take out of your mind.”
And good food made that one summer night, a delightful degustation, fusing American, Mexican and Asian flavors, amid a homey ambiance. The appetizers came in little portions, laid out on a white rectangular plate: truffle fries, Peppermill’s signature roll and shrimp popcorn. A couple of sticks of French-fried potatoes were dipped on truffle-flavored creamy sauce. The roll was a large maki with sea urchin meat, rice, shrimp and others held together by a strip of nori. Served in a small goblet, the shrimp popcorn looked more like trimmed-down tempura, with crunchy and translucent crust and sweet coating of sauce. All were thoroughly satisfying.
The salads teased the palates. The Napa Valley salad, served in a goblet, had Romaine lettuce, watermelon bits, mango and slivers of grapes with the dressing, the Peppermill dressing with shreds of chicken meat, lying at the bottom. Tossing the salad was like mixing halo-halo—reach for the bottom with a spoon and start mixing.
The wakame salmon salad came in a small black bowl, consisting of tiny cubes of salmon, crabstick shreds and wakame, a seaweed with a subtly sweet flavor popular in Japan and Korea.
Vincent would only divulge little about the ingredients. To keep himself from revealing secrets, he would smile like Mona Lisa or grin like a Cheshire Cat. The dim lighting prevented us from identifying the smaller ingredients. Our tongue tried to unravel the flavors, which proved to be complex, tantalizing. Our stomachs were more eager but of no help.
The entrée dishes arrived in dizzying succession: salpicao medallion, bagnet with bagnet rice, prime rib-eye steak roulade, chicken walnut Sonoma and encrusted baked salmon.
“I love to eat meat,” Vincent admitted. “I not a fan of seafood.”
The salpicao medallion, sprinkled with crisp, fried garlic, was served on a rectangular slab of granite. A little fire kept the stone and the meat hot. Salpicao usually has the beef cut in little cubes, but Vincent wanted some innovation, making the meat like a compact fillet mignon.
Everybody raved about the bagnet, which was served plainly and simply, except for a small mound of fried and flavored rice, his own take on the Thai bagoong rice, and a small saucer of sweetish fish bagoong sautéed with tomato. This was the only dish that was telling of Vincent’s Ilocano heritage.
Bagnet is very similar to lechon kawali or wok-fried pork and chicharon or pork cracklings, particular the chicharon of Carcar, Cebu. Bagnet is big chunk of pork boiled, then deep-fried and stored. It has to be refried for eating. It is accompanied by rice, of course, and a side dish of KBL (kamatis, bagoong, lasona), chopped tomatoes and shallots drizzled with bagoong or fermented fish sauce.
Peppermill’s bagnet had thin, crunchy skin and thick layers of fat that melted in the mouth. The meat was flavorful. It was because the pork came from a native black pig, Vincent explained. His father had taught him to use the native ones for a tastier bagnet. Moreover, the pork was deep-fried for four hours in low fire.
Then there was the prime rib-eye steak roulade with fat sticks of asparagus wrapped in its juicy embrace. The steak was accompanied by baked sweet potato or kamote, a lovely surprise. While it had its own merit, the bagnet was still on everybody’s minds. It overshadowed the Chicken Walnut Sonoma, which was chicken battered and fried like Chicken Cordon Bleu. The walnut I could distinguish if it was with the chicken and in the creamy dip spiked with a raspberry sauce.
For my dear Bob, date for the night, an Ilonggo and professed seafood lover, the salmon could make him forget about the bagnet. He had recently declared a love for salmon. I had declared a love for everything. Anyway, the slab of fish was baked and encrusted with a secret concoction. Vincent could only reveal chili and seaweed. It was served with a splash of mango salsa on the side. The salsa was sweet and tart with strong hints of cilantro, one of my favorite herbs, a perfect accompaniment to wash away the fishy aftertaste of salmon.
Concluding the degustation was a very creamy panna cotta served in a goblet topped with an assortment of chopped fresh fruits, restraining further cravings. Our drink, called Pandan de Rosa, screw pine juice with grenadine, fended off the heat of the season.
There are more in the Peppermill menu such as the Alaskan king crab pepperoncini pasta; Argentine pork roast; baked marble potatoes, baby carrots, French beans and cherry tomatoes; Southern blackened turkey and black forest ham; deep-fried barramundi or black cod in seaweed sauce; wild mushroom bisque; paella in pouches; crab wontons; Vietnamese rolls; almond nougat; and raspberry sorbet. But the stomach and perhaps the memory, can only take so much for a night. We will have to wait for another rare opportunity, like the blue moon—this opening of the lanai for public dining or a high-profile event in which Peppermill Caterers is serving.
The lanai is usually used like a dining showroom for food tasting for potential clients, Vincent explained. And Peppermill already had served big-time clients—corporations like Hewlett-Packard, Nestle, DuPont and GMA 7; and celebrities such as Kris Aquino (who loves the bagnet and the paella), Sharon Cuneta (who loves the wakame salmon salad), Vicky Belo, Regine Velasquez, Ogie Alcasid, Jaya, Ryan Eigenmann and Cacai Mitra. Some clients he keeps confidential.
This is not bad for a catering company, which only started in 2007, operating at home, which was acquired by the family in 1988. It started out as a hobby, Vincent confessed. Then, “a friend, Rey Lanada (road manager of Alcasid), requested me to cater for his party and a guest of his was Kris Aquino, who asked if I could cater for baby James’ (Aquino’s son) baptism.”
Word spread about Vincent’s food. “Great reviews—from presentation to taste!” he exclaimed.
He named the new catering company Peppermill because pepper is his favorite spice. “I use pepper in almost every dish I prepare,” he confessed.

Peppermill’s services are pricier than many caterers’, but with the exquisite flavors the price is worth it. Moreover, the menu is customized for each client. Vincent sits down with the client in conceptualizing the menu, in which he often creates new dishes.
Vincent gets a kick out of creating dishes even under pressure: “My most memorable experience is conceptualizing a menu for our VIP clients for less than a day. We make it a point to be available and ready anytime.” And the inspiration “just comes,” he shrugged.
His favorite creation would be the US Angus prime rib-eye roulade. “I have never tried anything similar to what I have created,” he commented.
For people wanting to taste Vincent’s dishes, they only have to wait. A restaurant is in the planning, and Vincent revealed that it will serve New American cuisine. He dreams of putting up “different types of restaurants that is unique, either here or abroad.”
Vincent may not reveal the recipes of his dishes, but he puts out this morsel of advice: “Put your heart into cooking and make sure that others appreciate the experience that you are about to bring them.”
Something throbs in each dish he presents before you; it’s the secret.

Peppermill Caterers office is at 19 Castrillo Street, Corinthian Gardens, with telephone numbers 633-0329 and 216-1873, mobile phone number 0917-5357948, e-mail and Web site It also has a Facebook account.