Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Very Happening Place in Cebu

The crowd—a mix of businessmen, tourists and society people, both foreign and local—were nattily dressed, gathering at the cavernous ballroom. On the stage, host Johnny Litton welcomed them to what is considered one of the most exciting events in Cebu, the Philippines’ second largest and most important metropolitan area, located in the central part of the archipelago. The wine was uncorked, and the curtains were parted, revealing waiters holding sparklers and tables laden with French food.

The Beaujolais nouveau day has been increasingly celebrated around the world to mark the arrival of the Beaujolais nouveau, a red wine made from Gamay grapes and produced in the Beaujolais region of France. It is fermented for just a few weeks before being released on the third Thursday of November. Georges Duboeuf, the biggest producer of the wine, created the event to promote it. Originally, the Beaujolais was made to celebrate the end of the harvest and for local consumption. From a local phenomenon in the local bars, and bistros of Beaujolais and Lyons, Duboeuf thought of a race to Paris of carrying the first bottles, which attracted attention. By the 1970s, it had become a national event. The next decade, the races extended to neighbouring European countries. In the 1990s, North America followed and then to Asia. The original date of the race was changed to third Thursday in November in 1985. On that day, people would shout “Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé (The new Beaujolais has arrived)!” This marks the beginning of a hearty merriment. Over 65 million bottles are said to be distributed around the world.

Since 1994, the Beaujolais nouveau event is being held in the Philippines, spearheaded by the French business community, particularly in Manila, which is becoming a lively social gathering that celebrates French food and culture. In 2011, Le Club, the French Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines, had the theme Paris La Nuit for its Soirée Beaujolais, held at the Harbor Garden Tent of Sofitel Philippine Plaza Hotel on November 17. It featured the dancing of Cancan girls flown from France for entertainment, and French wines not just Beaujolais and food.

In 2007, the Soiree Beaujolais was brought to Cebu for the first time. Now, the Marco Polo Plaza Hotel is leading in its celebration. The last one was held on November 19, 2011, at its Cebu Grand Ballroom.

“You know, in any enterprise, you need somehow some vehicle for publicity. Advertising is just one, but you want also some other forms, and it could be in the form of excellent food. It could be in the form of an event. It could be in a form of charitable [activities, and under those are] corporate social responsibility and environment. And…you need to balance all of them, particularly in a hotel business, and we focus essentially on events that draw the crowd out,” said Johannes “Hans” Hauri, the Swiss general manager of the Marco Polo Plaza Hotel and the area general manager for the Marco Polo hotels in the Philippines. “This never usually happened in Cebu, so we took it over and extended it from Manila, where it has been an institution since the 1990s.”

Hauri said the Beaujolais event is in line with the hotel’s encouragement of cultural exchanges, particularly through food. Thus, it has become a celebration of French culture, with a French food festival at the hotel’s main dining, the Café Marco and French films being shown at the alfresco El Viento Restaurant and Pool Bar from November 18 to 27. The highlight is the Soiree Beaujolais, which has become bigger every year, attended by people from other provinces.

“In 2007, there were 240 paying customers, then there were 320, then 350. We sold 420 tickets this year, but 500 will be attending,” Hauri beamed before the event.

Hauri added that there are guests coming from other places aside from Cebu, many of them foreign “expats living in the Visayas, and some of them travel from Dumaguete, from Camiguin, from Bohol,” availing of the room packages Marco Polo designed for the event. He said that they have 94 percent occupancy that day, proving that the event has been successful in attracting people.

After the Soiree Beaujolais, the following months are busy time for the hotel because of events and celebrations. For December, it is Christmas and the New Year. Hauri informed that January to February seem to be the busiest for them

“Overall, in the year we’re running 70 percent (occupancy),” he said. “In January-February, we are maybe running 80 percent.”

He said that the Sinulog Festival, Cebu’s biggest event and one of the country’s major festivals, is a big factor, “but events can also be generated through conferences, congresses.”

“We have a lot of pharmaceutical or medical related conferences,” Hauri said. “So, it’s all stimulated by events.”

Since it opened on April 27, 2006, the Marco Polo Plaza, a subsidiary of Federal Land and a member of the Metrobank group of companies, has established itself in the social landscape of Cebu. With a work experience in Asia for 25 years, Hauri, a graduate of the Swiss Hotel Management School in Lausanne and former general manager of many Hilton and Shangri-La hotels and the Singapore Mandarin International, was with the second Marco Polo hotel in the country from the start. In 2008, the urban resort and business hotel was given a deluxe class hotel accreditation granted by the Department of Tourism Region VII office.

While many resorts and hotels are located in nearby Mactan Island, Marco Polo Plaza is perhaps the only five-star hotel in Cebu City. The hotel enjoys a good location on the Nivel Hills in the barangay of Apas. Rising about 600 feet above sea level, it affords a panoramic view of the metropolitan Cebu and the Mactan Channel, which very few offers. The 24-story hotel has 329 guestrooms (144 Deluxe Mountain View, 84 Deluxe Sea View, 36 Grand Deluxe Mountain View, 18 Grand Deluxe Sea View, 22 Continental Club Mountain View and five Continental Club Sea View) including 20 suites (Junior, Executive, Honeymoon, Marco Polo and Presidential). The Continental Club at the 22nd and 23rd floors offers the more discerning guests privacy and luxury. The pool is shaped like a mango and has a small waterfall. The Wellness Zone Spa has adequate facilities and list of treatments. The hotel also has 12 function rooms, a grand ballroom and a garden terrace for meetings, conferences and events.

Marco Polo’s 7.5-hectare property is situated in the suburbs of Cebu, but it is very accessible to urban centers and shopping malls. “But there are customers who want to stay up here to find that piece of scenery,” Hauri said. “They want (to escape) the rumble and jumble around Ayala or SM or whatever. They find themselves in greenery, and we are fortunate enough to be surrounded with lots of greenery. Particular for meetings, they are coming up here because they can hold the people together.”

What Marco Polo is most proud of is its food. There are four dining outlets here. The Lobby Lounge offers drinks, snacks and entertainment. The Blu Bar and Grill, which opened in 2008, is at the rooftop, offering Continental cuisine, grilled meats, appetizers, seafood and a spectacular view of the city at night. The El Viento Restaurant and Pool Bar has Italian dishes and pizzas from a wood-fired brick oven. Right now, it offers a Mango Bango menu with all dishes containing the fruit, from appetizer (such as prosciutto-wrapped mango with Parmesan, arugula, cracked pepper and cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil) to dessert (such as wood-fired dark chocolate pudding with poached mango and white chocolate grappa soup).

The Café Marco offers buffet with four show kitchens: Asian, Japanese, Western and dessert. With 535 square meters, it can seat 144 guests. With wooden floors and panels and chairs in green, mustard and red, the restaurant is elegant as well as casual. At the helm of the restaurant is executive chef Luke Gagnon, who was born in Southern Ontario, Canada, and moved to Toronto at 18 to begin his culinary education and career apprenticing at the Four Seasons Inn On The Park. Then he went to Four Seasons Yorkville, Sutton Place, The Prince Hotel, Westin Harbor Castle and Sherwood Inn Resort. He also joined chef Milos Chelika at the Golden Mushroom Restaurant in Southfield, Michigan. His stint in Asia started at the Excelsior Hotel in Hong Kong then to Shangri-La Shenzen, Shangri-La Mactan Island Resort, Casino Windsor and Sutera Harbor Resort in Malaysia.

“Through the quality of the food, the variety of food that we are offering, that serves as reputation for the best hotel in the city,” said Hauri. “It is a deliberate tactic that we want to anchor our reputation on the food. We want to anchor our reputation to the restaurant because that’s drives our business.”

He explained: “Many people ask what’s the most important thing in a meeting. I guess the first one is the meeting and the second is the food. Where do we go where there is good food? So it’s not necessarily the light bulb. It’s not necessarily the wallpaper, pattern or whatever...They are here for the fundamentals. Can the hotel deliver the service and does it have good food? That’s all you need.”

Hauri, who is also president of the Hotel, Resort and Restaurant Association of Cebu, is particularly meticulous about their local cuisine. “I’m very conscious about the quality of local food that we are offering,” he said. “Usually international hotel are very good in international food — club sandwich, burgers, French fries, things like that. I want to understand local food so we hired a local consultant who comes every Saturday. She either takes the cooks down to the market, shows new sources, makes new recipes, then they cook their recipes, try it out.”

Hauri was talking about restaurateur Jessica Avila, who, he said, “has the resources and passion. She has the iron discipline to whip these boys to their places.”

“So in local cuisine, we have an edge over other hotels. I’m proud to say we are offering the best local cuisine,” he declared.

Thus, Cafe Marco enjoys robust patronage. “I would say 75 percent would be making bookings because they don’t want to be disappointed and 25 percent are walk-in (customers),” Hauri estimated.

But they are not planning on expanding the restaurant. What are in development are the four-tower residential condotel Marco Polo Residences next to the hotel and a new Marco Polo hotel in Metro Manila, particularly in the Ortigas business district.

He explained: “We now have 152 seats, and every night they are occupying 123 to 150. If you drive it up to 180 very quickly, some days people will say, ‘Oh, it’s only half full,’ and half full in people’s mind is no success. So it is better to be small and consistently full. Don’t become greedy. Better have a reputation of people making a queue than people who can walk in freely.”

The Beaujolais event was a show of Marco Polo as an excellent venue for events, as well as its culinary prowess. After the toast, which gave honor to the wine, the event became what it really is—a celebration of food and company.

The hors d’oeuvres consisted of prosciutto-wrapped artichoke hearts, salmon tartare crostini with goat’s cheese and mushroom duxelles crostini. The cold selection included pate de volaille en croute (chicken pate in pastry); jambon persille tradition Bourguignonne (Burgundian ham brawn with parsley); poivrons rouges rotis et anchois de collioure (baked red bell peppers with anchovies); salade de pouple (squid salad); Nicoise salad; a selection of pates, terrines and galantines; wood-fired vegetables with olive oil, balsamic and Parmesan; tomato bruschetta with goat cheese, basil and roasted garlic; a selection of smoked meats and cold cuts; house cured gravlax with traditional condiments; Caesar’s salad; and a “seafood bar.”

The puree Saint Germain (green pea soup with bacon) went well with any of the breads—fouace (crown loaf), pets de nonne (cheese beignets), pissaladiere olive and onion flat bread and French bread.

The seafood entrees were sumptuous with chapon roti aux oignons, petit jus aromatize au chorizo (roast ocean perch with onions in chorizo sauce); fish fillet hazelnut crusted with piquant red pepper coulis; supions aux artichauts, vinaigrette a l'orange et crème au noix (small octopus with artichokes and savory walnut cream); and bouillabaisse rich Provencal fish stew with rouille piquant sauce to accompany fish soup.

Also vying for attention were the traditional chicken coq au vin; couscous au mouton a l'algeroise (mutton couscous Algerian style); daube de beouf a la Provencale (beef in the style of Provence); quiche lorraine (bacon pie); pommes gratin Dauphinoise; ratatouille (Provencal stewed vegetables); and a pasta station.

The hotel hired cheese expert Richard Poirier to take care of the cheese selection. Aside from the Crottin de Chavignol AOC Pasdeloup, Coulommiers Donge, Cam. Normandie Vert AOC, Reblochonnet Edelmont, Ste-Maure Soignon Coque Blanc, Pyrennees Onetik Cire Noire and Bleu Auvergne ‘or des Domes, Poirier concocted a cheese inspired by Cebu—the delicious mango cheese.

The pastry selection was a delight with le millefeuille (three-layer puff pastry cake filled with confectioner's cream, decorated with iced almonds and icing sugar); macaroons; Saint-Honore (cream puffs arranged in a circle filled with Chiboust's confectioner's cream with added kirsch and eggs, as well as vanilla cream); Regal Chocolat (bitter chocolate sponge soaked in vanilla syrup with chocolate mousse and served with strawberry coulis); Paris-brest (wheel-shaped choux pastry with several layers of cream made of roasted almonds and hazelnuts, and dusted with icing sugar); tatin d’aubergines aux pommes (eggplant and apple tatin); la tartelette feuilletee aux pomes, noix, pignons et raisins florentins (apple tarts with nuts, pine nuts and golden raisins); and tarte au citron (lemon tart).

Wines flowed as well as beer. For entertainment, singer Verni Varga and the band Renaissance performed. The highlight of the entertainment was the Cancan girls from Le Centre des Ateliers de Danse de Figeac. The program was capped by a raffle draw with a trip to Paris as grand prize.

The party here is different from Manila, Hauri observed. “What definitely you see is great enjoyment for the food,” he said. “The curiosity of new things is very typical enough for any island folk. You constantly see arrivals. You see others departing. The curiosity here is very much in the people here, and Cebu also lacks deluxe boutiques. We don’t have Louis Vuitton. We don't have Ferragamo. We don't have things like. It's a little bit modest, but the sincerity and the connection are there because the families know each other for decades and some for generations. Others get married to each other and so forth. So all those have an impact on the social fabric of being humble, respectful, curious about things happening and so forth.”

“It's really Cebuanos coming together for social interaction,” Hauri concluded. And the Marco Polo strives to be a venue for these, making a landmark in the memories of its guests and of the city it is in.

Contact Marco Polo Plaza through telephone numbers (+63 32) 253-111 in Cebu and (+63 2) 234-8170 in Manila. Email Visit Web site www.