At collaboration dinner, Filipino chefs boldly take cuisine to next level

Unless we're writing about San Diego's best burgers or best pizzas, dining stories tend to get posted online, promoted on social media and then we move on to the next thing. They sometimes have a short shelf life, at least in the world of online analytics. There's that initial boost, then radio silence. We write, we post, it gets a comment or two and a few likes on Facebook, and that's that. In a wired world, everyone's got access to all things dining - on Yelp, on Eater, on The Daily Meal and, well, everywhere. 

So when my colleague Pam Kragen wrote about an enterprising generation of young Filipino chefs back in December, we didn't think much of it. The photos were lovely. Great anecdotes. Delicious-sounding food. But it will be just another story.

Or so we thought. 

Shortly after the story went online, something happened. "San Diego chefs pushing Filipino cuisine to new heights" was posted, it shot up to the No. 1 spot on the website. It stayed there for most of the day. It got clicked on, got liked and shared. A lot. And we didn't even have to use the words "best burger" anywhere in the story. 

Something was happening. We soon realized we struck a nerve. It was an online gold mine. But why? 

Filipino food, as we wrote in December, is often overshadowed by its sister Asian cuisines. It's a robust cuisine with bold flavors, but because of its myriad influences - Chinese, Malay and Spanish - it's never really risen to stand on its own, like Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean or Chinese food. It's delicious but somewhat of a culinary wallflower. 

Now Filipino cuisine is having its moment. In San Diego, this takes on a different dimension. In the nearly 20 years I've lived in San Diego County, the Filipino dining scene has pretty much been relegated to a couple of semi-decent sit-down restaurants and a slew of turo-turos (point-point joints where you point at what you want in a very casual dining setting). There's a cluster in Mira Mesa - a mix of fast-food mom-and-pops and established chains like Manila Sunset and Chow King. In National City , a similar situation: even more fast-food places, with the exception of sit-down restaurants like Villa Manila and Zarlitos. 

But now, these Filipino chefs - most of whom have helmed kitchens at high-profile San Diego restaurants - are doing something novel, at least for this area's dining scene. They're infusing their menus with Filipino flavors, and their restaurants are nowhere near National City or Mira Mesa. 

It's a bold move. A really gutsy one. 

If you put chicken adobo on the menu of a Mission Bay restaurant, will they come? It's too soon to tell. 

But I do know this: If you put on a collaboration dinner featuring four innovative Filipino chefs, they will indeed come. 

That's what happened Thursday when chefs Evan Cruz, Anthony Sinsay, Danilo "DJ" Tangalin and Kristianna Zabala came together for a rare event. One night. One kitchen. Four chefs. Eight dishes. Dubbed "Filipino Flavor," the collaboration dinner - the first of its kind by Filipino chefs in San Diego - was spurred by our story back in December.

The four chefs saw that something was happening, too. A movement of sorts, and they wanted to seize the opportunity. 

 

And Thursday night, at Sinsay's Jsix restaurant in downtown San Diego, that's exactly what the foursome did. There were two unofficial seatings that night, with a bulk of the first wave coming between 5:30 and 6 p.m. The dinner, from first bite to last, was about two hours, so by the time I left around 8 p.m., the dining room was ready for the next wave. 

Priced at $55, the multi-course meal unfolded beautifully, starting with an amuse-bouche quartet, presented this evening as pulutan, the Filipino term for small snacks normally consumed with beer. The dinner was sponsored by Specialty Produce and San Miguel, the ubiquitous Philippine beer giant. Service was somewhat uneven - I had to wait a long time to get seated and had to wave someone down to order - but perhaps the special event of the evening threw off the staff. 

When I saw the four items in the pulutan category, I thought I would have to choose. Thankfully, they were all going to be served. It made sense, though, because each of the four chefs had an offering. There were three savory bites and one sweet. I set the sweet dish aside to save it for last and took a bite at Sinsay's ukoy, a traditional shrimp-and-vegetable fritter. A tempura-like batter, in this case, enveloped the shrimp, sweet potato and bean sprouts. It's denser than tempura, but more flavorful. Dipped in the vinaigrette that accompanied the course, the ukoy was a good way to jump into the evening.

Next was a lobster fish ball, courtesy of Cruz, the executive chef at Arterra Del Mar. He used squid ink and uni, ingredients normally not used on this classic Filipino street food. Traditional fish balls, at least the ones I bought from street vendors as a Catholic school boy back in Manila, tend to be fluffy and sometimes elastic. Cruz's fish ball was a denser and excellent interpretation. Dipped in the vinaigrette, it was a burst of freshness with just the right texture.

Kristianna Zabala, the executive pastry chef at Nomad Donuts, served puto pao. It's a savory dish similar to the Chinese bao, but this one's made with rice flour. Puto is a traditional steamed rice cake that can be eaten by itself or with a dish. This version incorporates meat. The slight sweetness of the rice cake paired beautifully with the savory mixture of pork and chicken. The non-Filipino diner next to me, a retired math teacher, asked if the small slivers of banana leaves it came in were edible. "Not really," I said. "Just peel it off and eat away!" He did and smiled. (One quibble about the evening: Even though the menu outlined the lineup, it would have helped if the staff - very overwhelmed Thursday night, it appeared - explained what was being put in front of you. The non-Filipino diners next to me had to guess, and I had to offer some guidance a couple of times.) 

A self-professed sugar addict, I was looking forward to the polvorón, the semi-sweet Filipino cookie that traces its roots to the relatively young island nation's time under Spanish rule. It's a shortbread-like cookie made with flour, sugar, milk and nuts. Depending on how it's made, it can be heavy and dense or light and crumbly. Tangalin, executive chef at Tidal, used pine nuts in the cookie dough and topped it with a thinly sliced strawberry on a bed of strawberry puree. This version was definitely crumbly - a bit too crumbly to pick up with my hands. But the pine nuts gave the cookie a nice crunch, and the strawberry pairing was an interesting approach. Sweet and semi-sweet. You'd think the strawberry flavors would overpower the cookie, but it was actually quite delicious (and beautifully plated, topped with microgreens). The math teacher next to me said "that was amazing." 

The next dishes to come out of the kitchen were three entrees and to cap the evening, dessert. First up was Tangalin's take on pinakbet, a ratatouille-like vegetable dish tossed in fermented shrimp paste known as bagoong. Each chef was charged with coming up with a dish that reflected their ancestral ties to the Philippines. Pinakbet is a traditional dish from the Ilocos region, which sits next to the region of Benguet, where Tangalin was born. It's usually a dish served in a bowl or out of a pot - mounds of vegetables with some kind of meat, usually pork or shrimp.

Tangalin's was a deconstructed interpretation: roasted eggplant, long bean, pickled bittermelon and honey-glazed kabocha (winter squash) around vanilla squash puree, with okra paper, vegan eggplant chicharrones and alamang vinaigrette. It was a visually vibrant dish, with bursts of yellows, oranges and greens. Because I've had pinakbet a zillion times, I was expecting a jolt of saltiness from the shrimp paste (alamang vinaigrette). Still, the beautifully plated delicate mix of vegetables delivered fresh flavors, with the sweetness of the kabocha taking center stage. It was an elegant dish that seemed slightly hesitant - just a smidge - in the Filipino flavor department.

Over at Tidal during Restaurant Week, I had Tangalin's braised short ribs cooked in the traditional kare-kare style (stew in savory peanut sauce), and it was delectable and boldly Filipino. The menu at Tidal features seafood sinigang (tamarind-based soup), and the house bread is pan de sal.

Cruz, who was born in Subic Bay, took his inspiration from the traditional Filipino meatloaf-like dish called embutido, usually served in the shape of a roll and stuffed with hard-boiled egg, Vienna sausage and raisins. His seafood embutido is stuffed with Loch Etive salmon, surrounded by a cured egg, golden raisins and string-like shavings of cured beef known as tapa. All that sat on a house-made banana ketchup, a staple in Filipino kitchens.

With this dish, Cruz's experience with seafood shined. He's worked side by side with celebrity chef and James Beard winner Roy Yamaguchi and been in several kitchens around town, including as executive chef at Pacifica Del Mar and chef de cuisine at La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. This embutido - about a third the size of a normal burrito - was dense and flavorful, with just the right amount of seasoning. Even though the embutido itself got top billing, one of the supporting actors almost stole the show. The tapa, though delicately shaved in very thin strips, was tantalizingly tasty. 

Sinsay's dish was an homage to his parents. His mother is from the Laguna province, and his father is from nearby Cavite. He picked as his inspiration a traditional hot-pot dish from Laguna, estofado. His pork shank estofado is like a less-vinegary version of adobo made slightly sweeter by the combination of soy sauce and plantain. The shank sat next to mussels, a nod to his father's birthplace, Cavite, known for its fresh seafood. This dish served up a nice combination of sweet, sour and spice.

It reminded me of another dish known as humba, an adobo-like dish that also incorporates banana. This was the first dish of the evening served with rice. I'm sure there was a deliberate reason for not bringing out the rice earlier, but I'm not sure what that might be. By this time, though, I'd eaten so much, I barely touched the bowl of white rice. Sinsay's playfulness, which we first saw at his Harney Sushi days, is well displayed in the plating of this dish: elegant with a slight touch of whimsy. The tenderness of the pork shank played nicely with the chicharron (pork rind) that topped the dish. 

Zabala, the dessert queen in this royal foursome, didn't disappoint with her sweet last-course offering, served in a bowl and inspired by the traditional and popular dessert called halo halo, which means "mix mix" in Tagalog. The dessert came beautifully arranged in a dark bowl, with purple ube (yam) ice cream sarsaparilla as the star. It's surrounded by buko (coconut) pandan, jack fruit, fluffed rice, tapioca balls and leche flan, then topped with milk. Mixed together, it was a luscious symphony of flavors, but for me, the best part was the leche flan, perfectly made and about the size of a half-dollar coin. The creme brûlée-like bite was rich and flavorful and undeniably Filipino. 

It was the perfect way to end the evening - a night when four brave culinary souls boldly took the step of elevating Filipino cuisine to the next level, one plate at a time. 

Friday morning, Zabala posted on Instagram: "Last night each of us definitely cooked from the heart and soul as this dinner not only represented ourselves as individual chefs but our culture." 

It's a bold move. Is San Diego ready?

Twitter: @outdoorlivingsdmichael.rocha@sduniontribune.com

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