Chef Anthony Sinsay could have easily lost his cool, but he didn't.
Last Thursday, before the start of his second Filipino-themed dinner at downtown's JSix, "the entire network of computers went down 20 minutes before the first tables sat," he recalled. "We had to print a rough draft of the menu to get our first few guests something in front of them from our hotel GM's laptop."
Sinsay, used to the pressure-cooker environment of a bustling kitchen, remained surprisingly calm early in the evening as the six-course dinner unfolded.
"My (food and beverage) team did an amazing job - working through it and reprinting twice to get menus printed for our guests. The only reason I was calm was because I knew the team was doing everything they could to take care of our guests. It was truly teamwork that brought it all together."
Teamwork was indeed the name of the game for the chef's second Philippine-centric evening in nine months. The dinner was dubbed "Kain Na," Tagalog for "let's eat," and it was meant to "explore the progression of Filipino food history," said Sinsay, who was joined by Chef Celebration scholarship recipients Tara Luansing Monsod, Jordana Francisco and Justin Castillo. Chef Celebration is a local nonprofit aimed at identifying and helping promising young chefs.
Each chef was in charge of a course, with Sinsay - a longtime chef whose San Diego culinary lineage goes back to his days as Harney Sushi executive chef - taking on two. This dinner wasn't nearly as daring or creative as the first dinner back in January, "Filipino Flavor," whose roster was stacked with some of San Diego's most progressive Filipino chefs (Sinsay; Evan Cruz of Arterra Del Mar; Danilo "DJ" Tangalin, formerly of Tidal and now with Bivouac Ciderworks; and Kristianna Zabala of Nomad Donuts).
If you're a traditionalist, though, this dinner was for you. Sinsay and his kitchen compatriots went back to the basics for this round, and it produced some memorable culinary moments. Here are four of them:
Fresh, thy name is kinilawin
Sinsay led the evening's lineup, and, immediately, he hit a home run. His Filipino-style ceviche, called Yellowtail Kinilawin, was beautifully plated - almost too pretty to eat. Delicate ribbons of red onion and thinly sliced green chiles sat atop yellowtail in a flavorful broth of coconut milk and coconut vinegar, with a splash of calamansi juice. My dinner companion - not a big seafood fan but game for culinary adventures - proclaimed: "It's fish, but it's not fishy! And it's delicious!" Indeed, it was. The flavors were bursting from the bowl: salty and sour and just the right amount of both. In two words, fabulously fresh.
Mussels with muscle
The second course, by chef Monsod, showcased mussels with slivers of crab in a flavorful, stewlike broth, a traditional Filipino dish called ginataan, which means "done with coconut." Saltiness mingled with sweetness in a bowl where the mussels played the central role, supported by perfectly cooked squash.
Master of disguise
The menu billed it as "Chocolate Meat," a dark brown, almost black, dish of "pork parts." Those in the know could smell it from a mile away: the highly acidic dish in front of them was none other than dinuguan - intestines, ears and other parts that, during the Spanish reign, were the least desirable parts of a pig. All that was simmered in vinegar, garlic and pork blood. It's one of the island nation's most popular dishes or least popular, depending on who you're talking to. This version, by Sinsay, was flavorful and not as fatty as the ones you can get at traditional Filipino mom-and-pop joints. The thread-like ribbons of crispiness on top? Pig ears.
Where are the tortillas?
Chef Castillo continued the pork theme with his Filipino-style fried pork belly, aka Lechon Kawali. Served family style, the lechon was tender and tasty, accompanied by a garnish of cherry tomatoes, onions and chicharron (pork rinds). The dish came with white rice and an aromatic liver-based sauce used for dipping. My dinner companion's take: "It's like carnitas," she said before her first bite. After taking a taste: "It is carnitas! Where are the tortillas?" The traditionalist that I am, hand me the bowl of white rice, will you?