The bright orange puree of pumpkin oozes out of pockets of pasta called agnolotti, sweet and rich. Then it is punctuated by something sweet, salty and aromatic—crumbs of amaretto cookies. On the other hand, the thick fillet of cod is like fleece on the tongue, countered by slices of tasty chorizo. The rice croquettes are heavenly, earthy with the black truffle flavour. Then something familiar touches the tongue—kesong puti, the local white cheese made from carabao’s milk.
Chef David Pardo de Ayala seems to have a penchant for tucking in surprises in his dishes. And in his Christmas menu for Restaurant Verbena of Discovery Country Suites, a seven-suite bed-and-breakfast place in Tagaytay City, there are a few of these. Pardo de Ayala maintains that the menu is made of “familiar ingredients prepared in a delicious way with just one or two surprises to keep the flow of the meal interesting.”
“Crushed amaretto cookies on your pasta, or a black truffle and rice croquette, a bit of kosher salt on the caramel cream sauce—all these provide an unexpected surprise that, we hope, further increases the diner’s enjoyment,” he explains the menu, which he hopes to engender “mostly comfort and satisfaction.”
The menu, which the boutique hotel yearly comes out with, does not contain the comfort foods Filipinos traditionally associate with Christmas, a season much anticipated and protracted in this part of the world. But it is something special, and special things are emphasized during Christmas, as well as creating memories. Its being different can be remembered maybe for years to come.
“Menus are always snapshots of a chef’s current inspirations,” Pardo de Ayala says. “My seasonal menus will likely feature similar ingredients that have a strong connection with a particular time of the year (pumpkin, chestnuts, eggnog, gingerbread, etc.), but they are always designed and executed on their own, according to what my chefs and I feel is the best we can offer at any given time.”
The Restaurant Verbena Christmas menu is Pardo de Ayala’s gastronomic interpretation of the season, something out-of-the-ordinary and distinctive.
“I wanted to feature dishes that have a strong holiday feel, as well as a sense of special occasion,” the acclaimed chef says. “Arugula with figs, brown butter sauce for pumpkin, Brussels sprouts, black truffles…all these ingredients speak to me of this special time of the year, while at the same time they are easy to approach, identify with and enjoy.”
We brave the traffic out of Metro Manila on a busy weekday and ascend to the cooler clime of Tagaytay City, 56 kilometers south of the capital, to lunch on the new offering. Restaurant Verbena, which serves “contemporary country cuisine” with a unique flair, is a dining destination, being listed in The Miele Guide among the best restaurants in Asia. The Singapore-published guide ranks the restaurant at number two among the top five Philippine restaurants in 2010 and 2011. This achievement is credited to Pardo de Ayala, who, since 2005, has been the corporate chef of the Discovery hotel group that includes Discovery Suites in Ortigas Center and Discovery Shores in Boracay Island. The restaurant of Discovery Suites, 22 Prime, is also in The Miele Guide.
The 38-year-old Colombian chef, who has been in the country since 1997, holds a special place for Discovery Country Suites and Tagaytay City in his heart.
“The charm of Tagaytay is very unique,” he shares. “We are often asked, why don’t we open Verbena in Makati or somewhere in Manila? Our answer to that is that our restaurant belongs in Tagaytay and in Tagaytay only because we can’t bring to the city the view of the volcano or the cool fresh breeze, or the December fog, or the ultra-fresh herbs, lettuces, tomatoes and peppers. Just getting to Tagaytay is part of its charm. That is why my team and I work so hard at making Verbena’s restaurant experience worth our diners’ special journey.”
Many people think Tagaytay is special, too. The city in Cavite is perched on a mountain ridge, 600 meters above sea level, with a spectacular view of the Taal lake and volcano. The weather here is pleasantly cool, which is very attractive to residents of the hot and humid Metro Manila. From December to January, it can get misty and nippy in the morning. Thus, Tagaytay is a favorite weekend and holiday getaway. Many resorts are lined along the main road, as well as several good restaurants, including Discovery Country Suites, which is formerly a vacation house of the Tiu family, owner of the hotel group as well as several magazine titles. The boutique hotel is said to have “the distinct country manor ambiance…reminiscent of the stately summer homes in Baguio City with oak and stone foundations blending gracefully with fine furniture and art pieces of the interiors.” The much cooler Baguio is another favorite getaway but is much father out in the north.
This time of the year, the homey bed-and-breakfast place in the barangay of San Jose is richly bedecked with glittery Christmas trimmings, as well as with Tagaytay harvest of big red and yellow capsicums and tomatoes, the colors of Western autumn. Watercolor paintings of Edgar Doctor, which are for sale, further add colors to the interiors. Restaurant Verbena occupies part of the lobby, the mezzanine and the former veranda that looks out to the picturesque countryside, lake and volcano. Pardo de Ayala has the tables in the veranda adorned with chestnuts and flowers in pots made out of red-painted squash for our lunch.
Starter is a simple one—organic arugula salad with fig chutney and Parmesan cheese—but a medley of flavors—the nuttiness of arugula, the fruity sweetness of the chutney and the pleasant tanginess of the cheese. This is paired with Beringer Founders’ Estate 2008 Riesling.
This is followed up with the roasted pumpkin and amaretto agnolotti with brown butter, mushrooms and sage. Agnolotti is a kind of ravioli and usually stuffed with meats. This one is light with pumpkin but heady in flavor. The little pouch-like pasta sits on slices of mushroom and topped with amaretto cookie crumbs and sage.
“Agnolotti is not a terribly common pasta shape in the Philippines,” Pardo de Ayala explains, “but quite normal in northern Italy. I am big fan of pumpkin, and I have been hoping to feature it in this menu in combination with amaretto and fresh local sage. In our Christmas menu, the pasta takes the place normally occupied by soup, and we hope this dish makes a lasting impression on diners. Many have commented that they find it delicious.”
For the entrée, the chorizo codfish fillet with white bean ragout and chives, which is best paired with Beringer Founders’ Estate 2009 pinot noir, presents three flavors on the plate. The stronger-flavored chorizo complements the fish.
“Seafood and chorizo is a traditional Portuguese/Spanish combination,” says the rubicund chef. “I love chorizo, with the savory punch it brings to everything it accompanies, and I especially like the flavor of Spanish pimenton, the primary seasoning in a good chorizo. Codfish is a fairly mild fish, which Filipinos are used to eating in its salted bacalao presentation. I chose to feature it because, while it is easy to recognize and enjoy, it is not a fish you often find in restaurant menus.”
Another entrée choice is the luxurious United States Wagyu bistro steak with black truffle rice croquettes, roasted carrot puree and Brussels sprouts. The Beringer Founders’ Estate 2009 cabernet sauvignon is recommended with this. The very tender slices of grilled steak has a very likable smoky taste, which is unusually light to contrast the rich carrot puree, generously spread at one side and decorated with a few leaves from the Brussels sprouts. The oval croquette of long-grain rice sits temptingly at the corner of the plate, waiting to surprise with a strong truffle flavor and hints of kesong puti. The chef presents a bonus: pan-seared Rougie French foie gras. The plate is now a giddy symphony of flavors.
For dessert, a contemporary twist gives new life to an Escoffier classic—the pears “Belle Heléné.” A slice of poached pear is topped with homemade chocolate-macadamia ice cream and served with salted caramel crème sauce.
“Don’t be surprised if there is a burst of saltiness,” says Pardo de Ayala. “A good dessert should have an amount of seasoning by way of salt…Salt goes well with caramel. It makes it more ‘caramel-ly’.”
The inventor of the saltwater taffy must have thought likewise.
The intriguing lunch is ended with a Tagaytay herbal infusion tea, very comforting and very apt.
“Christmas while I was growing up was the time of the year for my grandmother to feature all her typical recipes—dozens, as in literally 12 or more desserts made from scratch, fried cheese puffs called buñuelos and our version of maja blanca called natilla,” recalls Pardo de Ayala. “Christmas still has a strong religious tone in Colombia, and while I was growing up we always looked forward to the Novenas de Aguinaldo, a nightly series of gatherings around at neighborhood homes, to pray beside the Belen, sing villancicos (Colombian Christmas carols) and just have a terrific time. I hope this tradition doesn’t get lost with time.”
These memories and his heritage are not infused into the Christmas menu though. “I always leave the Colombian cooking to my mother and grandmother,” he smiles.
Pardo de Ayala is creating new memories with new dishes, made in Tagaytay, with touches of Tagaytay. He says that the Tagaytay elements are “several but not as obvious as with other menus we often feature.”
“Our arugula, all fresh herbs and vegetables come from Tagaytay. Instead of offering the traditional hot tea at the end of the meal, we prepare a special Tagaytay herbal infusion that features several herbs and local dalandan. And the truffle rice croquettes, to many people’s surprise, have local kesong puti as one of its ingredients. So no matter what cuisine, special ocassion or time of the year, the harvest of Tagaytay is always present in our menus,” he says.
The lovely, diminutive Taal Volcano—and Tagaytay has the best view of it—seems to float. Now, it wears the lightest veil of mist, so pensive, so faraway. I take a sip of the tea and close my eyes, savoring the flavors of the herbs it helped fertilize and bringing the volcano closer.
The Restaurant Verbena Holiday menu is offered for the whole month of December, starting at P1,150+ per person, with several options according to budget or inclination. Diners have a choice of main course between fish and meat. One can also exclude the dessert. The taste menu, the highest option, includes all dishes. It offers a supplementary addition of pan-seared Rougie French foie gras, as well as wine pairings by the glass featuring the chef’s California varietals from Beringer wines.
Discovery Country Suites also offer special room packages for the month of December, inclusive of country breakfast for two persons, complimentary wine and Cheese buffet at sundown and special turndown amenities. Room rates start at P8,000++ for a deluxe suite on weekdays and P9,500++ on weekends.