Thank you, Chef

Local-Drinks-Anthony-Bourdain-thumb (Photo courtesy of 8list.ph)

A Tribute To Anthony Bourdain

June 25, 1956 – June 8, 2018

I’d never met the man but I felt like I’d lost an old friend when I found out of his passing a week ago. I’d gotten to work, sat at my desk and went to Facebook on my iPhone. When I saw a post about his death, at first I was stunned then I hoped that it was a mistake or another hoax. Next, I felt the grief and tears wanted to flow out but I suppressed them just in case a student walked in and I had to explain myself. Gutted. Like a fish.. Such was the impact Anthony Bourdain had on us home-cooks. Well, this home-cook, anyway. He was a hero of mine. As a writer, chef and lover of life, Anthony Bourdain was on my list of people I would most like to meet and have a meal with. And for that meal, I’d suggest somewhere like a dampa in Baclaran or an outdoor food stall in Singapore. He was a people’s man, an everyman, who appealed to those like me who were a fan and never got to meet him. In interviews, in his shows and in his writing, he came across as a regular guy who could easily let the fame and fortune go and recall his roots. Maybe it was his love for New Jersey, his upbringing here that makes him endearing to me; another Jersey Boy. He came across, to me, as someone I could’ve known and shot the bull with at a friend’s house in Glen Ridge, side-by-side on Lifecycles at the gym I used to work in in West Caldwell, or at a bar in Asbury or Point Pleasant. He had his demons and vices but we all do and I hope and pray that he is now at a better place. I offer condolences, too, to his family and friends and I pray that they’re recovering in peace.

I read Kitchen Confidential in 2017, having purchased a copy around 2009, and it reinforced my affection and even idolatry of Chef Bourdain. It’s all about his early life as a chef and the things we don’t see behind the swinging double doors of the kitchen and it’s written with a candidness that makes the reader feel like he’s sitting with Bourdain and sharing stories over a beer. The beer, of course, would’ve been opened over the side of a folding table and drank straight from the bottle. As a book Kitchen Confidential is one of my favourite books I’ve ever read and offers a taste of how fascinating Bourdain was as a person and personality.

I’d heard about him but I didn’t truly discover Anthony Bourdain until I stumbled on a rerun of an episode of No Reservations when he goes to Singapore. It must’ve been late at night so when I saw Singapore and food, my attention was naturally piqued. As a foodie from Hong Kong – often referred to as Singapore’s ‘twin city’ – and a lover of a good Curry Shrimp and Chicken Rice, I watched the show with keen interest. I was also writing my own book, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, at the time and there’s a scene in it set in Newton Circus and several references to food so watching this particular episode also became a form of research. As much as I drooled over the food and longed, believe it or not, for the city’s humidity and the sounds of clanging woks and loud waiters yelling orders in Chinese, the show’s host also mesmerized me. Bourdain’s carefree attitude and yearning for a cold local beer to go with the local cuisine and who isn’t afraid to get messy and sweaty enjoying both turned me into an instant follower. Add to all that the fact the he loved Asian food, especially lechon (Filipino roast pig), made him even cooler.

More recently, I was a fan of The Taste, The Voice of cooking shows in which the contestants – professionals and home-cooks alike – prepare an audition dish and present it to the judges and, if selected, have to choose which coach is going to mentor them throughout the competition. More than once, my wife and friends suggested I audition but, as competent as I feel in the kitchen that I could maybe have offered something that would get me on a team, I don’t have the culinary skill to keep me on the team. So, I never applied. If you’re a fan of Bourdain, you know that he was one of the show’s producers and judges. Naturally, in my culinary fantasies, I would get on his team. (Although, Nigella Lawson, another culinary hero of mine, was also a judge and mentor so choosing a team might not have been so cut-and-dry. Haha!)

More than his culinary skill and knowhow and his status as a celebrity, Bourdain made the world a smaller place. Through his various travel food shows, he offered that top-notch food isn’t limited to Michelin-rated restaurants. There’s quality in a dive in the back woods of Korea or Vietnam and getting messy adds to the visceral joys of dining. He also opened the world’s eyes to the notion that food is more than what goes in someone’s mouth and, hopefully, tastes good while offering sustenance. He shared that food is culture and that people make food in more ways than by just putting the ingredients together. He reminded us that an essential ingredient in every dish is heart; the chef’s love for the food and the people for whom he is making it. He showed Filipinos celebrating Christmas, late-night eats in Thailand, pre-dawn markets in France. Outside of the food, he showed how the people live – their homes, their streets, their languages – and he was never afraid to get down and dirty.

Recently, over the last three or four years, there have been posts in Facebook and articles in The New York Times and other publications touting Filipino food as the next wave of food. In the 1980s, Japanese food had a global breakthrough in everyone’s culinary enjoyment. Sushi, sashimi, wasabi, miso and other Japanese words became part of the global culinary lexicon. A few years after that, Thai food and tapas made inroads. Various forms of fusion cuisine popped up everywhere next. Middle Eastern food also had its moment in the spotlight. So, too, did Korean food. Now, it’s the time for Filipino cuisine to shine. As an Asian American who is mostly Filipino, this is exciting, but I can’t help from feeling that Bourdain, thanks to the courage of his televised global gastronomy, had a hand in this.

Anthony Bourdain was a chef. He was a writer. He was a television star. He was a celebrity. He was the coolest. At his core, however, I think he was just a Jersey guy who loved food. He didn’t care who made it, where it was made and, even how it was made. The bottom line was that the dish should be full of flavour and make him feel something. Kind of like life. Kind of like him.

 

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Asian Delight

Via Montebello, 66, Lazio, Rome, Italy. Tel: (06) 3249217715

While enjoying all of the freshly made Italian cuisine, by the fifth day of our Roman adventure, we – well, I, at least – began craving something different on our palates and by different, as an Asian and lifelong rice-eater, I mean rice and some kind of ulam (Tagalog for dish); something from home, like Adobo or Afritada, on top of steamed white rice or some deep-fried fish (the saltier the better, of course) served with sinangag (garlic fried rice).

So, to that end, I jumped online and searched for the nearest Asian restaurant. Originally, I searched for a Chinese spot; not craving for Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indian and not even thinking a Filipino joint would be anywhere nearby. I found several but, to be honest, I wasn’t sure, even with Google Maps, if they were easy to get to from our hotel. More importantly, I also had no way of knowing if the 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 star reviews some of these restaurants got were accurate or not. I was raised in Hong Kong. Gastronomically, that’s a blessing and a curse. Having lived in there for sixteen years and eaten some of the best Chinese food in the world, I’ve become a bit of a Chinese food snob. Sorry.

Anyway, back to the restaurant at hand.

Among the search results, there was a restaurant called Asian Delight. It got excellent reviews and was billed as “home cooking Filipino food.” That settled it. My wife and I widened our eyes and said, “Let’s go!” So, we put on our shoes and, with our son in tow, left the hotel and hailed a taxi. We told the driver “Via Montebello, sessantasei.” In minutes we were there and discovered that Asian Delight is actually only a few blocks and one roundabout from where we were staying, Hotel Quirinale on Via Nazionale. We hadn’t yet been in this neighborhood on this trip but our excitement levels escalated and we knew we were in for a treat when we saw a small Filipino flag flying at the eatery’s door.

Asian Delight is a small place with seven or eight booths lining the side walls and a small counter in the middle of the room. At the counter, are three stools probably for the solo diners. Directly opposite the door, sat Chris, a Filipino from Samar who has been living in Italy for six years. His Italian has a Filipino accent to it and his English has what almost amounts to a Portuguese one. (Is that what happens when Tagalog marries Italian? Hmm.) And Chris’s Italian sounds, well, Italian like how one of my ex-girlfriend’s father sounded when he and his sister talked in their native tongue at holiday meals.

Enticing customers like a carnival barker at the town fair (think Gordon McCrae in Carousel), Chris is as much entertainer as he is proprietor. He runs Asian Delight with his Kuya (Tagalog word for ‘older brother’) Betts in the kitchen and another cook, who in uncanny fashion resembles Manny Pacquiao, the boxing champ, congressman, and hero of The Philippines. Ironically and iconically, there is a large sketch print of Pacquiao on one of the side walls overlooking a corner booth.

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Manny Pacquiao watches over the diners at Asian Delight

The menu at Asian Delight offers Chinese dishes and, of course, Filipino ones. We treated ourselves to some of the Filipino food and, to my son’s delight, there’s an entire section in the menu devoted to ‘egg rice.’ These are silog options; dishes like Tapsilog, Bangsilog, Ribsilog and, of course, his favourite, Longsilog. Basically, these are dishes made up of garlic fried rice (sinangag, hence the si), fried sunny side up egg (itlog means egg in Tagalog, hence the log) and some kind of meat. Tapsilog is beef tapa with garlic friend rice and fried egg. Bangsilog is the same but with fried bangus (white fish). Longsilog uses Filipino sausage called longanisa. The sinangag at Asian Delight is a little different than how I’ve had it at other restaurants. Most places and houesholds will fry chopped garlic and mix it into the rice in the frying pan. Some places will crown a lump of white rice with fried garlic. At others, the rice is browned in the frying process with browned garlic mixed in. At Asian Delight, it’s slightly browned with garlic mixed in but there are also slivers of sliced or ripped scrambled egg. This deviation from how sinangag is usually made was not an unpleasant twist.

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Longanisa at Asian Delight, Rome, Italy

As for the Longsilog itself, Rome must have the brightest gold-coloured egg yolks around. Cooked perfectly with the yolk covered by a white sheen without being cooked solid, the egg oozed into the rice as my son sliced the egg and mixed the two together. It made me imagine what Filipino risotto might be like. The longanisa was sweet – a little too sweet than I’ve ever had – but it was softly cooked and offered a nice cut and blend with the saltiness of the rice and egg. The sausage was also skinless. This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen skinless Filipino sausage but it was the first time I’ve tasted skinless Filipino sausage. To my son’s pleasure, it beats out the usual skinned sweet longanisa we eat in the US.

We also ordered a plate of Pork Dumplings.

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Pork Dumplings with  a dish of hot sauce

They were tasty and didn’t make or break the meal but they weren’t anything that knocked our socks off. They were a basic meat dumpling like the kind you can find in the freezer section of your local Asian grocery store. I wouldn’t order them again but, if someone did, I wouldn’t turn them away and I’d even have one or two bites.

For the rest of the meal, we ordered Pork Sinigang (Tamarind Stew) (pictured below, left) and Lechon Kawali (deep fried pork belly) (pictured below, right). Before we go on, you should know that Filipinos like their dips and sauces. There’s toyo (soy sauce) with or without chili; suka (vinegar), with or without chili peppers; bagoong, a fish or shrimp paste; and Mang Tomas, a condiment often used for lechon (roasted pig) and other grilled or barbecued meats. I guess it could be considered a kind of Filipino barbecue sauce or meat-based mayonnaise of sorts. And then there’s patis, a fish sauce that is used in many different kinds of Asian cooking from Filipino to Thai to Vietnamese to Indonesian. Often used in the cooking, patis is also used as a dip or condiment however in most restaurants it’s not readily available to the customer. At Asian Delight, though, Chris gladly brought out a small dish of patis for my wife when she asked for it. As for how the two dishes tasted – delicious. Part of their tastiness might have been due to the my palate’s need for different stimulation than what I’d been getting. The sinigang and lechon kawali  weren’t any better – and they certainly weren’t worse – than any I’d had before but they were spot on and tasted just like home. The sinigang had a nice bite to it thanks to the green chili that was added, something that is common with this dish but not something we always do at home. The lechon kawali was tender and the pig skin crispy without being burnt or overdone.

During our meal, thanks to all the sharing we were doing (a normal part of our meals, as a family, and among Filipinos), my son’s two longanisa turned into one so we ordered a side dish of longanisa so he could round up and balance his ‘Filipino egg risotto’ with the meat. The side order came with three sausages on a plate which I thought was generous. Comparing it to our dining experiences in the US, we got one more sausage than we’d get, say, a our local diner if we’d ordered a side dish of a regular pork breakfast sausage.

To round out my meal, I ordered a beer. Asian Delight offers San Miguel and Red Horse, two staple brews from The Philippines.

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Red Horse Beer, one of the staple brews from The Philippines

It’d been ages since I’d had a ‘San Mig’ so, naturally, I ordered one. Unfortunately, they were out of it so I settled for a Red Horse, which didn’t disappoint. For those of you who haven’t tried it, it’s akin to Heineken or Tsingtao.

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My wife, giving a thumbs up to the beer and to Asian Delight

At the end of the meal, we promised Chris that we’d return and we did, the following night, after our excursion to Venice. Asian Delight closes at 10pm and we got there at 9:45pm. There were two customers left who were paying and Chris and company were starting to clean up and shut down. We were able to get an order to go and he threw in a free order of white rice. My wife ordered Pancit Canton Bihon, which is a Filipino-style Lo Mein with added rice or vermicelli noodles to the lo mein noodles. My son ordered Longsilog again and I went with the day’s special and one of my all-time favorite Filipino dishes, Kalderatang Kambing (Filipino goat stew).

There are other dishes on their menu, of course – Sisig, Adobo, Halo Halo, Leche Flan, Dinaguan and others – that we didn’t get to try but one doesn’t go to Rome to try Filipino food, after all. You can, though, bet your last Euro that the next time we’re in Rome (and we will be back because my son threw in only one coin into The Fountain of Trevi which, according to legend, means we’ll return) and we’re craving a different taste to our palates a trip to Asian Delight will be added to our itinerary.

Asian Delight’s name is spot on. The food definitely satisfied the change my taste buds needed and it did so at a reasonable price. The meal we had was around 30 Euros (about US$37), which is about the same we’d pay for the same meal at Pandan in Bloomfield, New Jersey. In addition to the tastiness of the food and the charm from our host, Chris, Asian Delight triggered memories, as food does, of summers in Manila and family meals in Hong Kong. The emotional and psychological warmth was more than welcomed and a pleasant surprise to our impromptu Filipino dinner. Being there, I was also offered the opportunity to speak a fifth language on our vacation and practice my Tagalog, which is functional but far from good. (In and around our trip, I’d already had the chances to speak English (which I speak fluently), Italian, French and Spanish – none of which I speak fluently but can manage in small doses and in a pinch.)

Chris was a joy to meet, as well, and the coziness of the place offers a certain intimacy, without ignoring personal boundaries, that made me feel like we – the various customers, even though we had our own meals and conversations, were all together enjoying the deliciousness of the natural fusion that is Filipino food and the happy, welcoming charm that is the Filipino spirit. So, for anyone who needs a change of pace from the deliciousness of Italian cuisine but, especially, for my fellow Filipinos, do pay Asian Delight a visit if you find yourself in Rome. You won’t be disappointed. Oh, and say “hi” to Chris for me.

Rating: 1 1/2 bites

0 bites = Don’t bother. I suffered for you.
1/2 bite = I enjoyed it enough – I had to eat something, after all – but I wouldn’t recommend it.
1 bite = Good. I’d have it again but I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to get it.
1 1/2 bites = Very good/super tasty. I’m definitely going back and I’m bringing friends. If I weren’t married, it’s somewhere I’d take a first date to. That’s how good it is.
2 bites = Unique, I’ve never had (and probably won’t ever have) better than this, this is what I’d want if I were going to be executed and I could have whatever I wanted for my last meal, Epicurean Orgasm!

 

Filipino Rock Salt

29 January, 2012

For the most part, and I’m a home-cook foodie, dishes never really taste the same as the first time you eat them – nor should they – and more often than not, they never taste as good as that first time either. This, however, could be due to a psycho-emotional reason and not due to palate or taste. That’s not to say I’ve never had anything that was better some place else or made by someone else from the first time I tasted it but when it comes to a traditional Filipino breakfast it’s never quite right unless Filipino rock salt is used in cooking the eggs.

Before we go on, for those of you who aren’t familiar with what a traditional Filipino breakfast is, here’s the scoop. Very simply, it’s fried egg (itlog) over rice (kanin), which can be everyday steamed white rice or fried with garlic (sinangag). All of that is usually eaten with some kind of meat. In some cases bacon or Spam™ will make a Filipino very happy but what will make us really giddy is if the egg and rice are served with longanisa (Filipino sausage), tocino (sweet, cured pork), or tapa (Filipino beef jerky). Tapa is also referred to as beef tapa, which is sliced sirloin that has been cured with kalamansi, toyo (soy sauce), sugar and garlic. Each variation of a traditional Filipino breakfast has its own name depending on the combination; its name derived from its parts. For example, the version with sausage is referred to as longsilog.

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Longsilog with plain white rice

The one with tocino is called tosilog and, you’ve probably guessed it, the beef jerky version is called tapsilog. In the 1980s, at The Intercontinental Hotel in Makati, at their lobby restaurant called The Jeepney, there was even a version that served breakfast with fried pieces of pork adobo. Fried bangus (Milkfish) is also an option. If you’re ever ordering a Filipino breakfast, just make sure you specify what kind of rice you want – garlic or plain – but, going by their names and I concur, sinangag is the preferred choice. Finally, you eat all of it with any or all of the following sides/condiments: vinegar; vinegar with hot peppers; Jufran™ (banana catsup), and atchara (pickled papaya).

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A weekend family breakfast. Three orders of ‘egg rice.’ Notice the bottle of Jufran™ in the middle. 

Okay, so back to the salt. Living on the United States’ east coast, the term ‘rock salt’ makes one think of ten or twenty-five pound bags piled high outside the local ShopRite or Home Depot with the words printed in bold across their front. It conjures up images of clanging trucks driving by and spraying salt pellets onto the blacktop roads. In The Philippines, however, the term ‘rock salt’ refers to salt used in cooking that’s big and even crunchy. In appearance and feel, rock salt looks like Pop Rocks. The morsels don’t always dissolve –which is the best part – and the taste is strong and earthy. It’s a taste all its own and one you don’t get with the fine iodized salt we all have in our pantries.

Over the years, I’ve tried to find it here in the United States. Even venturing to the various Filipino and other Asian supermarkets I know of doesn’t always yield positive results. Moreover, the rock salt is often on the dearer side of things and that’s if they have it. On two recent occasions when friends went home to The Philippines for holiday, I asked if they could bring some back for me. One of them managed to, procuring a small bag (about 1kg) that I used sparingly. A couple of years later, when my 1kg bag was close to finished, another friend tried but her bag of rock salt, which I think was significantly larger than 1kg, was confiscated at the airport. I wonder if they thought my friend was smuggling, very openly, some strange-looking kind of cocaine. Joke lang.* Talking with friends about this – Filipino and Fil-Am friends and non-Asian friends – they suggested I try sea salt. So I did but I wasn’t totally satisfied. It wasn’t big or crunchy enough. As a seasoning and flavour enhancer, it was sufficient. As a substitute for Filipino rock salt, it was less than.

More recently, however, I discovered a new product in the salt aisle at my supermarket. Something compelled me to pick it up and shake it. When the salt rattled inside the canister, I smiled. I took a chance and bought it and the next opportunity I had to make a Filipino breakfast, I used it. I wasn’t disappointed. It looked, felt and tasted like Filipino rock salt. After I broke the egg and watched the yolk ooze into the rice and mixed the two together, I took a spoonful into my mouth and I was sent back forty years to our home in Pasay. I was eight or nine, maybe ten, and having longsilog with a glass of very sweet black Sanka™. (My coffee, of course, was in the empty and washed narrow glass container that was the previous jar of Sanka™ my grandparents had.) Thanks to this new salt product, I was in food heaven! I can’t say that this new product tastes exactly like Filipino rock salt but it’s as close as you’re going to get. Filipino rock salt crystals are also larger but, again, so far, this is the closest I’ve found.

And what is this new product? It’s Morton™ Coarse Mediterranean Sea Salt.

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The great discovery! Morton™ Coarse Mediterranean Sea Salt. 

Yes, sea salt but coarse and from The Mediterranean. I haven’t made sinangag with it yet but I will for sure and I can’t wait to taste and feel the crunch when I have a bite. So, fellow transplanted Filipinos and Fil-Ams, when you’re in a pinch (pun intended, siempre naman!**) and in need of a quick fix that only Filipino rock salt will give you but don’t have any, give this product a try. You’ll be glad you did. Oh, and just for the record, I don’t work for or have any connection with the Morton™ company. I’m just a Fil-Am writer and teacher who’s excited that he’s found the taste of his youth in something that’s new and, more importantly, easily accessible.

Now, if I could only buy Baguio cooking oil in America, I’d really be in home-cook foodie heaven. Thanks for stopping by.

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* Lang is a Tagalog word that can be translated to ‘just’ or ‘only.’ It implies a lessening of severity or seriousness from what was actually said. “Joke lang” is a common Filipino phrase that equates to “just kidding.”

** Siempre is Tagalog for ‘naturally’ or ‘of course.’ Naman is a word used for emphasis.

Babalou

Babalou

4 Rue Lamarck, Montmartre,

Paris, France 75018

http://restaurantbabalou.fr/en

I was in Paris, France recently with my wife and our son – my first time since I was thirteen – and our second meal of the trip was at Babalou, a quaint restaurant around the bend from L’Eglise Sacre Coeur and away from the hustle and bustle of the centre of Montmartre. Babalou was a chance find but what a find it was!

We didn’t really have any idea where we should eat. We knew we wanted to visit Montmartre. (As a writer, I had allusions that I might have an Owen Wilson experience a la Midnight In Paris but, alas, no such luck.) So, after a day that included visiting The Louvre, The Eiffel Tower and riding the Batobus, we returned to our apartment hotel, showered and headed out to eat. Like I said, we had no idea where to venture so my wife just did a search on her phone and Babalou was the first in a list of Montmartre eateries. We’re goofy people and the name Babalou just called out to us so we decided that’s where we’d, at least, start. If it didn’t look like fun or a delicious gastronomic experience, we’d move on and try somewhere else.

Without a car and uncertain, at the time, how to get to the closest Metro from our hotel, we ordered an Uber and got there in about fifteen minutes. (Our hotel is in the eighth arrondissement, close to Champs d’Elysees, and Babalou is in the eighteenth.) Across the street is an apartment building that reminded me of a block of flats in Hong Kong. In fact, this entire part of Montmartre, on the hill, a concrete wall and block of flats across from the restaurant, and a narrow street brought back memories of visiting my late friend, Ravi, on Conduit Road in The Mid-Levels of Hong Kong.

Our plan to move on to somewhere different if Babalou didn’t look any good was instantly negated. Babalou is far from other eateries and has chosen its location well. It’s away from the downtown area of Montmartre so, unless we chose to walk several blocks or order another Uber, we were stuck with Babalou and I’m glad for that. Being in Paris, a city known for the deliciousness of its food, whether its somewhere five-star like Maxim’s or somewhere cozy and more Mom-and-Pop, Babalou stood up and held its own. In fact, it did better than that. To me, it sets a standard – in taste, in style, in atmosphere, in charm.

Opened and run by two friends, Emmanuel Michel and Federico Colombo, the chef, and managed with the assistance of Michel’s mother, Babalou is like walking into someone’s living room and being offered a meal you won’t soon forget. If ever. The restaurant is decorated with secondhand and discarded items. It’s a quaint place where nothing matches. Michel admitted to us that some of the chairs and tables were taken off curbs, discarded by their former owners. There are old lampshades, being used the way lampshades are supposed to be used, but hung upside from the ceiling light fixtures.

There are shelves of books and LPs (next time I go there, I’m bringing a copy of my novel to add to Michel’s collection) around the room and an old typewriter  in a corner, which I did covet – the typewriter, not the corner. The unique style goes to food-related items as well. The salt and pepper, balsamic and olive oil came in large test tubes that stood up in a metal rack. The balsamic and olive oil were capped with spritz tops, which I found to be utterly clever. This allows the diner to apply just the right amounts of each so as not to use too much and either ruin the taste of their food or go beyond any personal dietary restrictions.

The salt and pepper test tubes were capped with an actual bung, which made offered the illusion that we were in some mad scientist’s domain. And, who knows? With the creativity in Chef Colombo’s food, perhaps we were.

Anyway, back to the food. Dining Babalou is like walking into your friend’s house and his mother says you get pizza or pizza. And that’s okay because it’s, quite possibly, going to be one of the best pizza you’ll ever taste.

Yes, Babalou serves pizza, which I found ironic being we were in Paris – a city known for its culinary tradition – but when I found out that Michel is half Italian it made perfect sense. (While Michel is half French and half Italian, and he proudly says so, he will be quick to remind you that he is, however, full Parisian.) His mother, from whom he gets his Italian half, helps manage the restaurant; waiting and busing tables, seating patrons, making Café au Lait, Espresso, and Cappucino. She, no doubt, helps prepare the pizza ingredients in the kitchen.

The menu includes salads and antipasto as starters and there is a small dessert menu with Tiramisu, Panacotta, Baba au Rhum (cake soaked in rum) and a Nutella Calzone but their main offering is pizza. Babalou does have a pasta offering but it’s ravioli topped with the sauce of the day. As for the pizza, there are some standard ones on their menu like Four Cheese, Margherita, and Salami but they also have a Daily Specials Menu written by hand on a small tray-sized chalkboard. Whatever kind you order, you get a large, which is about a foot in diameter, or a small. The small, however, isn’t a round individual pizza. It’s half of the large (meaning it’s like taking a whole or large, cutting it down the middle and serving that) and comes, no matter what, with a salad. The salad, which you can choose from the salad offerings in the menu, fills the other half of the plate.

As much as the quality of the food is crucial to an eatery’s reputation, the personality of the proprietor and those who work there are equally important. Michel is much like his place. He is charming and pleasant and, while I was anxious but intimidated on having to rely on my four years of French study in secondary school, I was eager to practice speaking it. Alas, thanks to Michel’s stellar English, my lessons under Miss Emery, Miss Geddes, Monsieur Couderc, and Mister Safranek weren’t needed.

As for what we ate, I had the Speck,

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Speck Pizza and Caprese Salad

 a four-cheese pizza with jambon and mushroom, and a Caprese salad. The tomatoes in the salad were some of the juiciest and sweetest I’ve ever tasted. Moreover, they weren’t acidic. I don’t know if tomatoes are in season this time of year in France – I suspect they’re not – but, either way, they were delicious. The flavours in my pizza were balanced, too. None of the flavours – the cheeses, the ham or mushroom – overpowered the others. With ham and cheese, you might also expect the pizza to ooze with grease. At Babalou, the pizza doesn’t.

My son ordered a small Four Cheese, which came with a roquette (arugula) salad.

 He enjoys the ‘white pie’ here in the U.S. and he is a picky eater so we decided that Babalou’s Four Cheese would be his safest choice. He enjoyed it enough but found the cheese combination to be a little sharp for his taste. Kids can be finicky but he didn’t love his pizza; that is, until I gave him some of the jambon that came with my Speck and he ate it with his pie. My wife ordered a pie off the night’s Specials Menu, Tartufi,

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Tartufi Pizza

which was topped with artichoke, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and an olive tapenade. It was an interesting and well-matched blend of flavours. The artichokes were lightly browned, the mushrooms remained juicy, and the olive tapenade added a subtle undercurrent that brought the ingredients together. The cherry tomatoes were sweet and sliced in half and spread over the pizza.

 

My son ordered a small Four Cheese, which came with a roquette (arugula) salad.

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Four Cheese Pizza and Roquette Salad

 He enjoys the ‘white pie’ here in the U.S. and he is a picky eater so we decided that Babalou’s Four Cheese would be his safest choice. He enjoyed it enough but found the cheese combination to be a little sharp for his taste. Kids can be finicky but he didn’t love his pizza; that is, until I gave him some of the jambon that came with my Speck and he ate it with his pie. My wife ordered a pie off the night’s Specials Menu, Tartufi,  which was topped with artichoke, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and an olive tapenade. It was an interesting and well-matched blend of flavours. The artichokes were lightly browned, the mushrooms remained juicy, and the olive tapenade added a subtle undercurrent that brought the ingredients together. The cherry tomatoes were sweet and sliced in half and spread over the pizza.

For dessert, I had Babalou’s Tiramisu. When Michel mentioned it, it was a given that I would order it. Tiramisu, like New England Clam Chowder (click here for a review of the NECCs I’ve tried on Montauk) and Monte Cristo (the best I’ve ever had is the one from the Holiday Inn coffee shop in Hong Kong, circa 1978) is something for which I am on a quest to find the best; the version that after I have it I can’t – physically, emotionally, psychologically, logically, morally – have any other one again. Unfortunately, while tasty, the Tiramisu at Babalou was good but not better than any I’ve had at other restaurants. My wife, however, ordered the Panacotta aux Fruits Rouges (Panacotta with berries)

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Panacotta aux fruits rogues

 and she loved it. It was a clean Panacotta, smooth and not overly sweet, and was served with a nicely tart raspberry sauce. As my wife put it, it was the best she’s ever had and “the way Panacotta should be.” Our son, a chocoholic at nine, had the Nutella Calzone; a Nutella filled pastry made of pizza dough that is a twist on a more common Nutella-filled crepe.

So, while one or two items didn’t make go us gaga, everything we ate at Babalou was delicious and I wouldn’t hesitate to order any of the same dishes again. Babalou was an excellent discovery for us and, in this foodie’s opinion, somewhere you have to go to when you’re in Paris. The food is excellent, the atmosphere eclectically cozy, and the host charming. If you do go, please pass this message on to Emmanuel Michel: “Merci mon ami. Quand je reviens à Paris, je vais certainement vous rendre visite. Bon appetit.”

Rating: 1 1/2 bites

0 bites = Don’t bother. I suffered for you.
1/2 bite = I enjoyed it enough – I had to eat something, after all – but I wouldn’t recommend it.
1 bite = Good. I’d have it again but I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to get it.
1 1/2 bites = Very good/super tasty. I’m definitely going back and I’m bringing friends. If I weren’t married, it’s somewhere I’d take a first date to. That’s how good it is.
2 bites = Unique, I’ve never had (and probably won’t ever have) better than this, this is what I want if I were going to be executed and I could have whatever I wanted for my last meal, Epicurean Orgasm!

 

 

Tres Leches

A few years ago, while on vacation in Montauk, I wrote a blog post comparing the various offerings of New England Clam Chowder at the restaurants we went to at the eastern end of Long Island. (Click here for that review). A few months before that, I posted about the best Lobster Roll I’d eaten. (Click here for that post). Today, while having an impromptu lunch date with my wife, I decided that I’m going to keep track of the best Tres Leches (Milk Cake; a sponge cake immersed in sweetened milk) I can find. The reason: We had lunch at a Peruvian spot in Union, New Jersey for the first time (Don Alex Restaurant) and among the available postres there was Tres Leches. (I’ll do a review of our Don Alex visit soon but, for those of you who can’t wait, go and enjoy. You won’t be disappointed. We had the Red Snapper, Roasted Half Chicken (which amazingly tasted like my mother’s fried chicken from my youth), Fried Yucca, Beans, Rice and Salad.)

My search for the best Tres Leches is going to be both difficult and easy depending on my level of commitment and when I want to declare my search over. You see, in the immediate area, as far as I know, there’s only Tres Leches at Cactus Charly, the Mexican spot in Maplewood, New Jersey and at Don Alex. I haven’t seen Tres Leches on the dessert menus of other/non-Latino area restaurants. There is  Colombian place, also in Union, called Gusto y Sabor, that might also have Tres Leches. So, I can either leave it at the two I’ve had or I can be adventurous and force myself to go out and about, venturing to Gusto y Sabor, visiting Newark’s Ironbound section, taking a short drive to Montclair where I know there’s a Mexican restaurant and a Colombian restaurant and, perhaps, including New York City in my quest.

Having never heard of Tres Leches (a demerit for a self-professed foodie) until I was offered it at Cactus Charly, I found my ignorance of it to be a little odd and concerning considering I’ve enjoyed Spanish food since I was a kid and I’m Filipino and much of our cuisine is influenced by Spanish cuisine. After all, The Philippines was a colony of Spain for three hundred years and we were colonized by Spain en route from Mexico. So, one would think that with so many South American and Latin American countries having been colonies of or influenced by Spain – especially Mexico – that Tres Leches might be a Spanish dessert and that it would’ve found its way to The Philippines. Not so. It has Latin and South American origins and it’s also popular in The Caribbean. The idea of soaked cake, however, likely comes from Medieval Europe and there is even a version of Tres Leches in Turkey called Trilece. So, it turns out, that it makes perfect sense for me never to have heard of or tasted Tres Leches until I moved to the United States, where I have more exposure to Mexican and other South and Latin American fare.

What I like about Tres Leches is its general lightness without lacking flavour and character. It doesn’t sit in your stomach like a lump of coal the way a cheesecake or overly dense chocolate or white cake with icing do. Additionally, as light as it is, the sponge cake in Tres Leches isn’t excessively airy and unfulfilling. For me, when you eat a slice of cake, you want to know that you ate a slice of cake. A too airy sponge cake almost has the same ghostlike qualities as a spoon of Cool Whip and Cool Whip by itself is a complete waste of a culinary experience. Some would say that of Cool Whip, period.

So, take this post as a preview of what’s to come; a teaser to your palate, if you will. I could review the two Tres Leches I’ve had but I’ll wait to post until I have, say, four or five to report on. A review of my wife’s and my experience at Don Alex will be posted soon as well. In the meantime, enjoy your culinary experiences and share any new recipes you try.

Thanks for stopping by.

Mogo and Cubacan – Eating at Asbury Park

Mogo – Korean Fusion Tacos

Boardwalk and First Avenue, Asbury Park, NJ 07712

Monday – Thursday and Sunday 11am-10pm (or later)

Friday and Saturday 11am-3am (or later)

eatmogo.com

and

Cubacan Restaurant

800 Ocean Ave, Asbury Park, NJ 07712

(732) 774-3007

Open 11:30am – 10pm

cubacanrestaurant.com

I was recently at Asbury Park, somewhere I haven’t visited in more than twenty years. The boardwalk is still there but with some new storefronts and eateries. The Stone Pony, of course, is still there. So, too, is Convention Hall. What wasn’t there twenty years ago, however, that is there today are Cubacan and Mogo.

We were there as part of a mini-weekend getaway, staying at a friend’s place in Sea Girt. The weather wasn’t conducive to the going to the beach so we ventured into Asbury Park so my wife and son could experience a Jersey–perhaps, The Jersey–boardwalk. The rides and such weren’t too keen on our son’s list of things to do but the mini-golf was. We were also pressed for time and the weather wasn’t on our side so we made it a quick visit. During our time there, naturally, we got hungry so we perused the boardwalk and examined a couple of menus until we decided upon Cubacan for lunch. I’ll discuss more on that later.

As we strolled along the boardwalk, our son became famished and needed an immediate snack–or so he said. We came upon a small takeout stand called Mogo, which my wife and I had both heard of but never tried, so we decided to give it a go. Our son is not very adventurous when it comes to food and less so when he’s almost hangry (extreme hunger that leads to anger that turns a person into Karen Black a la The Exorcist). Our son has not yet exhibited hangriness (yet) but my wife has on occasion so it’s natural that one day he might. As for now, he takes after me–just deal with it.

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While Mogo was intriguing to my wife and I, my son didn’t want to have anything to do with it so he settled for an orange soda. So much for being famished. My wife and I, on the other hand, ordered one Bulgogi (beef) taco, one Sae Woo (shrimp) taco and one Jae Yook Bokkeum (pork) taco. Before I go on, let me say that I love Korean food. Ever since I first tried Bulgogi at Arirang Restaurant in Hong Kong–once in Causeway Bay but now in Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui­–to today when I go to Palisades Park, New Jersey or K-Town in Manhattan or Keo Ku Restaurant in Parsippany, New Jersey, I’ve had a love affair with Korean food. In fact, I count Kalbi Chim as one of my all-time favourite dishes. However, I also have to confess that, while many fusion dishes do succeed, I am, generally, not a fan of fusion cuisine. I was excited to try Mogo for the first time but, I’ll admit it, I was also apprehensive.

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Mogo Tacos; bottom to top, Bulgoggi, Sae Woo, Jae Yook Bokkeum

As tacos go, they were okay. I might even say they were good. They had the requisite taco trappings–vegetable garnish, some kind of salsa, the taco and the protein filling. Unfortunately, as a ‘fusion’ taco, I was a little dissatisfied. I was very excited as I bit into the first taco–the Bulgogi–and I wanted terribly to be knocked off my feet. I wasn’t. The beef itself was very tasty and comparable to most Bulgogi I’ve had at other Korean restaurants. Unfortunately, and here’s one reason why I don’t typically dig fusion cuisine, the tastiness of the meat and the sweat renderings of the Bulgogi marinade and seasoning were overshadowed by the pico de gallo and romaine lettuce. I didn’t taste the meat until several chews into my bite and this wasn’t because I’d bitten off only a small chunk of meat. It was like having a salad followed by the main course in one bite instead of having the two tastes come together in culinary harmony. With the Sae Woo, the shrimp itself lacked any kind of flavour. It was simply some kind of cooked shrimp buried under the toppings of its taco. The menu description says “tangy sweet and sour shrimp” but I tasted neither sweet nor sour in the shrimp when I pulled a piece out of the taco and ate it by itself. Lastly, the Jae Yook Bokkeum taco offered some redemption. The pork was delicious and something I’d like to have over rice. In its taco, combined with citrus-mayo slaw, there was something in each bite that the other two lacked. Each part expressed its own identity and they combined nicely with each bite. Unfortunately, the beef took a backseat to the pico de gallo and the shrimp just kept silent.

I’m not panning Mogo but I’m also not giving it raves. There was a long queue when we stopped by and there are days when things don’t always go right. The beef and pork, by themselves, did have tremendous flavour and as victuals, on a whole, there was some spicy kick and a nice contrast of crunchy and soft in each taco. As Korean fusion cuisine, however, at least on that day, it didn’t work for me and I really wanted it to. As a result, I’m still not a full-on convert to fusion cuisine. I would like to try Mogo again. Perhaps if the line isn’t long or maybe I’ll go to their sir-down restaurant, which is also located in Asbury Park. Unfortunately, I live a little far from Asbury Park so my next taste might not be for a while; but, hopefully not for too long a while.

As an Asian, good or bad, I’m naturally drawn to Asian and Pan Asian things. As a longtime student of Taekwondo, a Korean martial art, I have a pull towards Korean things as well. From both viewpoints, I wanted to love my Mogo tacos. I truly did but, alas, that didn’t happen. My experience with Mogo reminded me of something Bruce Lee said to Dan Inosanto, his best friend, student and training partner about martial arts and, specifically, the Filipino martial arts. He’d told Guro Inosanto, who is Filipino American, not to embrace the Filipino martial arts just because they’re Filipino. Bruce Lee was a pragmatist and examined many different martial arts and combat systems to develop himself into the best martial artist and fighter he could be. He took from (western) boxing, fencing, non-Chinese martial arts and Chinese martial arts to express himself. The same concept can be applied to cooking.

It was after our Mogo experience that we walked up and down the boardwalk, peered in storefronts and examined menus. The most interesting was from Cubacan–the first restaurant whose menu we looked at– and it was there where we decided to have lunch. Having had tacos to tie us over, we skipped ordering any starters.

For drinks, my son, whom I already mentioned is obsessed with orange soda, tried Cubacan’s version. It was house-made and not a Fanta or Sunkist and tasted more like an Italian Blood Orange Soda but with less fizz.

 

My wife and I weren’t sure if our son was going to like it but he did and gave it a ‘thumbs up’. For my wife and I, we tried the Red Sangria. It wasn’t as sweet as the Red Sangria I make, the recipe of which I stole from a Spanish restaurant on West 4th Street in Manhattan’s West Village. Nonetheless, it was a refreshing fruity drink that, if you’re not careful, you’re going to feel when you stand up. It wasn’t one of those cocktails that hide the alcohol but it wasn’t overbearing either. Regardless, it was delicious and perfect for a summer shore getaway.

For lunch, my wife had the Mejillones; blue bay mussels in a green jalapeno soup with fennel. There was, as expected, a hint of fresh garlic in the salsa.

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Mejillones

Mejillones is listed in the menu as an appetizer which, after having the Mogo tacos and scheduled to attend a dinner party later, was exactly the kind of healthy, light and extremely tasty lunch my wife was looking for. While it was very tasty, it wasn’t different from many of the other mussels in green sauce I’ve had at other Spanish or Hispanic restaurants.

I was a little nervous that our son wouldn’t be inspired by anything on the menu. He’s very picky and only eight and I thought it was going to be bread and butter for him but Cubacan has, also as a starter, Sliders de Cubana.

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Sliders de Cubana

He ordered that and he thoroughly enjoyed it even though it was a touch spicier than he would have preferred. The sliders at Cubacan aren’t made just from beef. They’re made with beef and chorizo (Spanish sausage common in Spain, South and Central America and Mexico), which is on the dry side and tangy. (Don’t confuse the Spanish-style sausage with the Filipino kind, which I knew growing up also as chorizo but is more commonly referred to as longanisa. Of the Filipino chorizo, there is a sweet variety and a spicy variety.) Although he had his without it, the Sliders de Cubana also comes with Manchego cheese. Accompanying the mini burgers on the plate were some very tasty, freshly made French Fries.

For me, I was torn between a traditional Cubano or the Choripan, a sandwich made of chorizo, Swiss cheese, caramelized onions, lettuce and tomato. I asked our waitress which she recommended but she informed us that doesn’t eat meat and hadn’t tried either one. She did say that the Cubano was very popular so I went with that.

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Cubacan’s Traditional Cubano

I’ve had a Cubano before but here it was elegantly balanced. Between the roasted pork, smoked ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles, each bite blended each flavour perfectly so I could taste each part by itself while chewing the sandwich as a whole. Compared to other Cubanos, the pork in this one was not dry and it was thinly sliced. It also tasted like the Roast Pork my college girlfriend’s mother would make during the holidays. My ex-girlfriend’s mother was from Spain but her husband was from Cuba and I have to say, to this day, hers is still the best Cuban Roast Pork I’ve had. Cubacan’s comes close. The pickles with Cubacan’s version were also thinly sliced which prevented it from overpowering the entire sandwich. Overall, the Cubano at Cubacan was a near perfect sandwich and one I highly recommend. My son tasted it and it also received his approval so it must be good and kid-friendly.

Accompanying our meal, we ordered two side dishes–Garlic String Beans and Yuca Fritta (Yucca Fries).

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Yuca Fritta

The only Yucca dish I’ve had previously and subsequently made on many occasions is boiled peeled yucca that is drizzled with olive oil and fresh garlic; another dish I learnt from my college girlfriend’s mother. So, when I saw a different yucca option, I ordered it and, boy, am I glad I did. To be honest, I still haven’t worked out if the Yuca Fritta is dipped in batter before it’s fried or if the batter effect is a natural result of the yucca when it’s deep fried. Either way, it’s an excellent side dish. Adhered to the surface of some of the yucca fries were crystals of rock salt or, perhaps they were some kind of garlic rock salt (Is here such a thing and, if so, where do I get it?). This, for me, made the dish. Accompanying the Yuca Fritta was a small dish of what tasted like a garlic pesto dip.

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Garlic String Beans 

The Garlic String Beans were equally as tasty, sautéed lightly in olive oil and chopped garlic. They were cooked just right, maintaining their crunchiness without being hard.

Overall, our trip to Asbury Park was a successful one. We enjoyed some down time, away from the mundane monotony of our lives, our son enjoyed some mini-golf and we all savoured some new dishes. As a result of this experience, I may begin a third culinary mission–find the best Cubano. I’m already on a quest for the best New England Clam Chowder and a search for a version of the Monte Cristo my father introduced me to at The Holiday Inn in Hong Kong. On my last trip to Hong Kong, in 2007, the Monte Cristo was no longer on the Holiday Inn’s coffee shop menu and the coffee shop itself was very different from the way it was in 1978. Back to the present, I give kudos to both Mogo and Cubacan for their innovations in the kitchen. Unfortunately, Mogo didn’t deliver its best but Cubacan did and I’m looking forward to my next meal there.

My ratings:

Cubacan – 1 1/2 bites

Mogo – 1 bite

0 bites = Don’t bother. I suffered for you.

1/2 bite = I enjoyed it enough – I had to eat something, after all – but I wouldn’t recommend it.

1 bite = Good. I’d have it again but I wouldn’t go out of my way to get it.

1 1/2 bites = Very good/super tasty. I’m definitely going back and I’m bringing friends. If I weren’t married, it’s somewhere I’d take a first date to. That’s how good it is.

2 bites = Unique, I’ve never had (and probably won’t ever have) better than this. This is what I want if I were going to be executed and I could have whatever I wanted for my last meal. Epicurean Orgasm!