In Which Kebab Factory Gives Mediterranean Classics a Quirky Twist…

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Why is my flatbread on a spike?

I am of the opinion that authenticity is something to consider with regard to dining at establishments specializing in the cuisine of specific countries or regions.  For this reason, Japanese restaurants always seem to have a traditional aesthetic and Mexican taquerias always look like a mercado de la puebla in Oaxaca or Acapulco.

Following this unspoken, unwritten rule, many restaurants specializing in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and South Asian food look like the inside of a Persian harem with elaborately decorated lanterns, reproductions of Moghul Period art, and the requisite decorative hookah in the corner.  So it comes as a surprise that The Kebab Factory looks absolutely modern – and pretty much looks like a standard-issue present-day cafeteria because the food is prepared at a steam table at one end of the restaurant and is served on dinky melamine plates.

But don’t let that keep you from enjoying the wealth of flavors this joint offers.  In fact, a hint of quirkiness makes your meal more interesting.  Case in point is the starter shown above: baba ganoush with flatbread is presented in a somewhat unusual manner.  Instead of dishing up this tasty eggplant dip in a bowl or a small soup plate, this creamy melange of roasted eggplant, yogurt, and garlic is served in a highball glass with a drizzle of olive oil, a dusting of tart sumac with a hint of chili, and a whole green olive plunged into the center of the dip.  Additional chopped olives are also mixed into the dip, the zingy tart taste balancing the smooth, creamy, smoky bitterness.  Even the flatbread is presented differently: layered onto a paper spike – the kind you usually see in professional kitchens (for finished orders) or editorial offices (for finished assignments).  Crisp around the edges and chewy in the middle, these wedges are the perfect size for scooping up the baba ganoush.

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Kebab Trio Ultimate Plate (L-R: lamb, chicken, beef)

TKF also has platters to share under the heading Ultimate Plates.  One nifty choice is the Kebab Trio which has a three-kebab assortment on top of a bright yellow biryani with crisp coriander-seed pappadums and grilled tomatoes on the side.

I daresay that no extenders seem to have been used in the kebabs as these were meaty all the way through with the cumin-spiced lamb becoming a personal favorite.  The well-seasoned beef comes a close second, but the chicken – while perfectly spiced and flavorful – was on the dry side.  The mildly spiced rice works a treat with the meats, complementing rather than overpowering the flavors.

That said, what The Kebab Factory lacks in aesthetics, it certainly more than makes up for in flavor and savor.

The Kebab Factory: Ground Floor – SM Jazz Mall, Nicanor Garcia cor. Jupiter Sts., Bel-Air, Makati

In Which One Lunched on Saigon-inspired Dishes…

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Gỏi cuốn

This is the problem with working in the big city at the height of summer: when noon hits, you find yourself reluctant to brave the intense heat outdoors to grab a bite to eat.  Given how hot it is even in the wee small hours of the morning, you’re too flustered to fix yourself a boxed lunch.  And, even if you do manage to brave the heat, you find yourself heading to places closer to the office.  In my case, this means convenience stores – and you can only go so far before you find yourself dumpling-sick and fried-chicken-sated.

But good things come to those brave enough to go a hop, skip, and jump farther.  Thus, it was a serendipitous thing when I found myself trotting over to the food court on the 12th Floor of the nearby GT Tower because that’s where I found Xành Quán Vietnamese Food.

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Grilled Pork Chop and Fried Egg Rice

Xành Quán’s stock in trade is a dish called Cơm tấm or “broken rice”; so called, because it makes use of the grains that are broken in the milling process.  In most Asian countries, raw broken rice is sold at a lower price and is eaten by poorer folk or used as animal fodder, a base for brewing alcoholic beverages, or as a foundation starch for cosmetics.  In Vietnam, particularly in the southern city of Saigon, it is considered a delicacy because of its fluffier, mealier texture and mildly sweet, nutty flavor.

At Xành Quán, you can order broken rice served in the classic Saigon manner (P 150.00) where it is served with slices of sweet grilled pork, a slab of steamed, egg-wrapped Vietnamese meat loaf (chả trứng), and a selection of fresh and pickled vegetables.  Personally, I went with the grilled pork chop and fried egg rice (P 140.00); it is a tasty and filling combination.  The pork is rather thin, but very tender and has a sweet, savory taste heightened by the addition of sesame oil, annato (hence the golden color), and nuoc mam (fish sauce) in the marinade.  The egg adds richness to the dish and is set off beautifully by the crisp, tangy Vietnamese pickles (carrot and daikon radish), along with slices of fresh tomato and cucumber.  It is deeply satisfying, yet the flavors and textures are light enough to make it a meal you can enjoy even on the hottest of summer days.

However, in case your appetite is seriously flagging in the heat but you still want something substantial, you can opt for Xành Quán’s take on the highly-popular gỏi cuốn (Vietnamese summer rolls) which go for P 25.00 a piece.  Here, fresh herbs (mint and Thai basil), bun (rice noodles), small prawns, and slivers of grilled pork are wrapped in translucent rice paper.  The resulting rolls are served with a chili-flecked peanut sauce that adds a fiery sweetness to the bland bun and heightens the fresh, green flavors of the herbs as well as the savor of the meat and prawns.  It is also a fascinating play on textures with crunch coming from the herbs and the al dente noodles, the chewy rice paper, tender meats, and creamy dip.  Not a bad way to nosh up for the day and a refreshing one, as well.

Xành Quán Vietnamese Food: Art and Food Galerie, 12th Floor – GT Tower, Ayala Avenue cor. H.V. dela Costa St., Salcedo Village, Makati.

 

 

 

In Which a Drink at the Airport was Refreshingly Gingery…

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Ooh, that looks interesting…

The weather continues blisteringly hot and the heat index has been hitting record highs of late – devastatingly record highs, if I may add, alas.

It’s times like these when I wish that Cebu would send over one of their best refreshment chains up north to us in Manila.  Seriously, I’d do anything to have a Tubo Cane Juice kiosk somewhere within walking distance right now!

As its name suggests, TCJ’s stock in trade is sugarcane juice (Tag.: katas ng tubo).  Sugarcane stalks are run through a mechanized press that crushes the sweet juice out of the hard, fibrous sticks.  This liquid is a pale amber in color, surprisingly mild with regard to its sweetness considering what is produced when it gets reduced by heat into the familiar crystalline granules we use for cooking, baking, and sweetening our morning cup of caffeine.  Each cup is pressed to order, thus ensuring the pristine quality of the end product.  Poured over crushed ice as is, sugarcane juice is a delicious, revivifying drink with which to cool down.

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Ginger-Mansi

But TCJ isn’t content with slaking the southern crowd’s thirst with plain sugarcane juice; oh, no, sir!  To add value in terms of both taste and nutritional value, TCJ blends freshly-pressed cane juice with equally-fresh, equally just-squeezed juices to create a delicious line of refreshments.  While I could have opted for a right-in-season mango infusion or sipped a superfood mix featuring milky-white and tangy guyabano (soursop), I needed something to soothe a throat that was threatening to ache along with a serious dose of Vitamin C.  For that, I had to order the Ginger-Mansi.

Here, fresh root ginger is run through the same crush-and-extract procedure as the sugarcane.  The resulting ginger presse is sharply aromatic, hinting at just how potent and pungent it will be if sampled straight.  This is mixed with fresh cane juice and a good squeeze of fresh kalamansi lime, poured over ice (a large will set you back P 90.00 – not a bad deal as Manila juice bars tend to be a bit more expensive), and handed to you with a typically cheerful Cebuano smile by the staff at the counter.

To describe it is to say that it is, pretty much, a still [non-carbonated] version of  ginger ale: bright and spicy, just fiery enough to wake up your tastebuds, just sweet enough to stave off the burn.  The citrus tang of the lime cuts through and each sip is a soothing, harmonious blend.

Now, there are sugarcane juice kiosks here in Manila.  However, these are few, tend to be far between, and rarely feature other flavors.  Which begs this question from me: when does Manila get a TCJ franchise…or do I have to take another trip to the Queen City of the South for a sugarcane and ginger fix?

Tubo Cane Juice – Departures Lounge, Mactan Cebu International Airport, Pusok, Cebu

In Which a Vegetarian Lunch is Filled with Mexican Flavors…

Mexican flavors...without the meat.

Mexican flavors…without the meat.

Under ordinary circumstances, we usually think of Mexican cuisine as a fairly carnivorous one: fajitas con carne come to mind and so do unctuously rich and savory pork carnitas.  We think of tacos loaded with beef mince cooked down with chilies and such spices as cumin and plenty of black pepper or burritos loaded with everything from carne asada to strips of char-grilled chicken to savory chorizos of varying levels of heat and intensity.  Vegetables are probably the last thing people have in mind when they think of Mexican food…and then one encounters the food over at FaBurrito.

The restaurant’s name is a double-edged pun of sorts: a play on favorito – the Spanish rendition of the word “favorite” – and the hopeful premise that you’d have a “fab burrito” over at their shop.  And it should be noted that you’ll probably feel fab by the end of your meal because:

  1. All the food is made to order and nothing is microwaved;
  2. All the ingredients used are fresh and organic [and locally sourced, most probably] and nutty-tasting, chewy brown rice is used in the bowls and burritos rather than polished white;
  3. They actually let diners know in the ordering phase how many calories each dish has;
  4. 10% of all proceeds help fund the FabFoundation which runs a school/shelter for homeless children; and
  5. The food is amazingly flavorful (considering that the average Juan dela Cruz’s notion of healthy eating involves flavorless, nutritionally balanced provender).
Veg chips for the win

Veg chips for the win

When I trotted over to FaBurrito from across the street, I wasn’t sure what I even wanted to eat.  All I know was that I was hungry, but didn’t quite want anything with meat.  Fortunately, I checked out the menu and noticed the fajita mushroom burrito (P 210.00 for a regular sized burrito; same price for the rice bowl and salad options).  It was a happy choice.

While not as massive as my favorite burritos from Cantina Deliciosa (which, come to think of it, I haven’t been to in a long time), you get a substantial flour tortilla-wrapped cylinder loaded with strips of shiitake mushroom soaked in a rather spirited marinade (you’ll see why in a bit) before being pan-grilled, lettuce, tomatoes, sweet onions, chewy kernels of brown rice cooked with cilantro for a herbaceous zing, and nutty black bean frijoles.

The earthy flavor of the mushrooms was amplified by the tang of fresh lime and the peppiness of green chilies in the marinade; a bit of char yielded in the grill pan also gave it a tasty hint of smoke.  I am not a fan of brown rice, but it worked very well here as the nutty sweetness of it was a good complement to the zingy grilled mushrooms.  All in all, quite a delicious and satisfying thing to have for lunch as it fills you up rather than out.

Add P 125.00 and you can opt to have one of their veg-friendly soups or a basket of veg chips (those herb-flecked nachos you see above with a fresh-tasting dish of pico de gallo salsa) and your choice of iced tea.  I say: go for the lemongrass as it is just sweet enough and is most refreshing; the right thing to drink, I daresay, for these horrendously hot summer days.

FaBurrito: Ground Floor – Tower II, The Columns, Ayala Ave. cor. Sen. Gil Puyat Ave., Makati

In Which a Deep-fried Fish Classic Gets a Fiery Twist…

Panko-crusted cobbler with a chilli-butter sauce

Panko-crusted cobbler with a chilli-butter sauce

 

The principle of cooking deep-fried crumbed or battered fish is such a simple one that it boggles the mind why it’s done so badly both at home and even at the nicest restaurants.  The fish is either overseasoned or underseasoned; soggier than wet paper; burnt to a crisp – definitely not palatable.

But, when it’s done right, it can be sheer delight: a crispy exterior encasing a meltingly soft and almost creamy interior that doesn’t taste too fishy because it’s been seasoned properly.  Plus points if it comes with a proper batch of deep-fried spuds or, perhaps, a salad dressed impeccably with a citrusy sauce.  

That said, the panko-crusted cobbler over at Melo’s (yes, the steakhouse; you can get lovely fish at a steakhouse!) is a paragon that others would do well to imitate.  Each piece is properly crumbed, seasoned, and deep-fried into the crispy outside / tender inside ideal.  But what sets this one apart from the competition is the smattering of sauce that gets drizzled over it: a garlic, chili, and lemon-infused clarified butter whose taste infuses each and every piece – spicy, sharp, lightly salty.  The steamed veg and the small portion of potato Parmigiana seem almost unnecessary; yes, the fish is that good.