|Claude's Talangkâ Rice and Inasal Pork Belly|
For a sense of the surroundings for this extraordinary meal, please read Bale Dutung, Part I: Setting the Table...
There are bound to be high expectations for a meal when it involves making reservations several weeks in advance, choosing a multi-course menu enjoyed by a certain famous gastronome, then hiring a large van to ferry a dozen hungry diners to another province an hour and a half away just to eat lunch. In between, there are the articles and blog posts, all raving about the cook, his wife, the food and their love of art and cuisine, to sharpen anticipation to a keen edge. With that kind of set up, a modicum of disappointment is inevitable.
While failing to live up to the hype is a risk for many restaurants du jour, Bale Dutung in Angeles, Pampanga is no fly-by-night eatery. Part art gallery and collector's museum, it is also home to artist, author and chef Claude Tayag and his wife, Mary Ann Quioc Tayag. Since 2000, the couple have welcomed diners to experience their innovative take on authentic Kapampangan cuisine in a setting that is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the appetite. Few dining establishments can call themselves true food destinations, but surely Bale Dutung deserves that claim, especially after a visit from Anthony Bourdain put it within range of every global foodie's radar. Though being featured on No Reservations shone the spotlight on the Tayags' place, it is the quality of their food and the totality of the eating experience that are certain to keep it there indefinitely.
We'll Have What He Had...
|The Tayags & Guest|
Our meal began with a cool glass of dalandan juice with muscovado ice cubes and a warm welcome from Mary Ann. While Claude was in the kitchen preparing the food, his wife commanded the front of the house. A slender, youthful figure in a crisp white top and colorful sarong skirt, she was lively and charming in her welcome remarks, setting a festive tone for our luncheon. But the meal did not begin without some trepidation on my part, as I silently fretted over my lack of self-control when faced with copious good food. Could I go the distance and not slip into a food coma well before dessert? As if reading my mind, Mary Ann addressed what is apparently a familiar concern for Bale Dutung guests. "This is a long lunch that requires patience, so don't rush," she said, her disarming smile gentling the admonishment. "You're in my house - I will pace you."
|Claude and Mary Ann Tayag|
|L-R: Talangkâ, pesto & balo-balo|
(Photo courtesy of Joy Valero)
With that, Mary Ann invited us to start with a pre-appetizer of crackers and a selection of house specialty sauces and spreads (which are bottled and sold under their Claude '9 brand). There was a classic basil pesto made with indigenous pili nuts in place of pignolas, while orange-hued taba ng talangkâ was nothing but pure, unadulterated crab fat. One of the 'acquired tastes' mentioned by Mary Ann was undoubtedly the balo-balo (also known as burong hipon and tagilo) - a regional delicacy of fermented rice and shrimp cooked in garlic and ginger, resulting in a tangy, almost cheddar-like flavor. Tastebuds primed by these condiments, we were off and eating...
Pananghalian sa Bale Dutung (Lunch at the House of Wood)
Anthony Bourdain Menu
1st Course: Ensaladang Pakô (Fiddlehead Fern Salad)
|Photo courtesy of Valerie Valero|
2nd Course: BBQ Paldeut at Claude'9 Talangka Rice
(Grilled Chicken Tails with Lemongrass Marinade and Crab Fat Rice)
"No Pampango eats talangkâ rice without grilled meat," declared Mary Ann, as plates of crab fat-studded rice and a skewer of reddish-gold grilled chicken were placed before us. But eating one without the other was not the faux pas we committed: Instead, our table was a bit too impetuous with the vinegar. Mary Ann quickly set us right by explaining that Claude marinates the puldeut (Gr. pygostyle) in a special mixture that already includes vinegar, as well as lemongrass and atsuete (annatto). To add more of the souring agent - even if it is Bale Dutung's own aged aslam atbu (sugarcane vinegar) - might overwhelm the subtle flavor of the marinade. Go ahead and dip it in vinegar later, she said, but implored, "Give me the first bite!" And she was right - without additional flavoring, a hint of tartness cut through the rich fattiness of the tails and complemented the delectable taste of barbecue char.
3rd Course: Adobong Pugo (Adobo-style Quail)
|Photo courtesy of Joy Valero|
4th Course: Hito at Balo-Balo and Talangkâ Sushi
(Catfish & Balo-Balo and Crab Fat Sushi)
(Maki photo courtesy of Joy Valero)
5th Course: Lechon Tortilla** (Roast Pig Tortillas)
kimchi for a crunchy, chewy, spicy, savory fusion of flavor and texture. This was the dish that Anthony Bourdain missed and I would recommend that he promptly return and fix that. It was only after our meal, when I had a few minutes to chat with Claude, that I got a hint of the inspiration for his lechon tortilla. The Spanish influence on Filipino cookery was indirect, he noted. "The influence is really from Mexico. We were ruled by Spain through [the Viceroyalty of New Spain in] Mexico." With the addition of kimchi and the Thai green chili-inspired sauce, this course seemed to best illustrate Claude's observation that food and flavors of the Philippines draw from both sides of the Pacific.
**Lechon Tortilla, along with Pan de Bagnet (Claude's porchetta-inspired sandwich), is now available every Saturday and Sunday from Bale Dutung's stall, run by Claude and Mary Ann's son Nico Bailon, at Mercato Centrale in Bonifacio Global City.
6th Course: Papaitan Soup (Goat Meat Sour Soup)
Whereas the previous two courses drew inspiration from other national cuisines, Papaitan is uniquely Filipino. Nevertheless, Mary Ann pointed out that many Filipinos have never tried, or may not even care to try, this specialty. The name comes from the word pait [PAH-eet], meaning bitter, and the bitterness in the broth comes from goat bile, which in Pampanga is normally served separately and added to taste; however, Bale Dutung's version was served Ilocanos-style (added directly to the soup) for a more gentle introduction to this unusual ingredient. The thin broth was full of pieces of goat liver and tripe, making for a pungent aroma and a distinctly gamey flavor, but it also had a pleasant tingle from macerated green chilies. Perhaps proving that food preferences are from nurture, not nature, my mother could only manage a small sip of Papaitan, whereas Mr. Noodle enthusiastically requested a second serving.
7th Course: Bulanglang Kapampangan na may Tian ng Bangus,
Ulang at Tadyang ng Baboy
(Pampangan Stew with Milkfish Belly, Crayfish and Pork Spareribs)
Talk about splitting hairs - or in this case, soups: Bulanglang (pottage) is a particular specialty of Pampanga and neighboring Bulacan provinces, and is sometimes mistakenly interchanged with siningang and dinengdeng, two other soupy dishes, due to similarities in ingredients. Like sinigang, it uses bayabas (guava) as a main flavoring agent, but not for souring; instead, the fruit imparts a sweet taste that reminded me of banana. (Mary Ann cautioned that the bayabas must be at a perfect stage for bulanglang - too raw and the sourness would turn it into sinigang, too ripe and it would lend a bad smell to the soup.) Like dinengdeng, it is chockful of greens, such as okra and kangkong (water spinach), but while the Ilocano specialty is primarily a vegetable dish, bulanglang is served with meat and seafood. Really setting it apart from the other two, however, is its texture: Bulanglang is thick and creamy, thanks to starchy gabi (taro) and the addition of steamed rice.
From experience, Mary Ann recognized the signs of rapidly stuffed bellies and called for an intermission at this point in the menu: "I tell my staff, 'When you see our guests staring up at the ceiing, slow it down."
8th Course: Sisig Babi (Sizzling Pork in Onion and Liver Sauce)
Bourdain called sisig a "divine mosaic of pig parts" and I couldn't agree more. The unctuousness of pig cheeks was saved from sheer oily saturation by a squirt or two of calamansi, while the cartilege-crunch of pig ears satisfied my snack-y impulses. Best known as pulutan, or bar food, sizzling sisig actually evolved from a simple Kapampangan dish of boiled pigs' cheeks and ears traditionally given to pregnant women. In the mid-1970s, local restaurateur Lucita Cunanan, aka Aling Lucing, adapted the recipe, put it on a hot iron platter and created what most Filipinos consider the unofficial national dish. It is such a popular food that variations from tofu to bangus (milkfish) can be found on many Filipino restaurant menus here and abroad. But it will always be a Kapampangan dish and that, said Mary Ann, means making it only with cheeks and ears.
9th Course: Kare-kareng Laman Dagat (Seafood Stew in Peanut Sauce)
A literal translation of the Kapampangan name is 'essence of the sea' (laman=essence, dagat=sea, ocean) - so much more poetic, isn't it? And it mostly definitely was poetic in presentation and flavor. This final savory course was by far our favorite and even drew a crowd of admirers from other tables when it was rolled out from the kitchen. Mary Ann acknowledged that this dish is best known and traditionally made with oxtails, but in now way was Claude's seafood version a mere substitute. New Zealand mussels (the only imported ingredient in the entire menu), lumot (cuttlefish) and prawns were bathed in a rich sauce of coconut cream, ground peanuts and taba ng talangkâ that was equal parts sweet, nutty and salty, then served with steamed rice wrapped in banana leaf and a generous dollop of bagoong (fermented shrimp paste). Not wanting to aggravate a mild peanut intolerance, I only meant to have a small taste, but ended up cleaning my plate - it was that good.
10th Course: Tibok Tibok (Pure Carabao Milk Pudding)
Are you stuffed yet? True to her word, Mary Ann did a masterful job of pacing the meal while the waitstaff served perfectly portioned plates that allowed us to fully taste a dish without overwhelming the belly. As a result, I had just enough appetite left for this lovely dessert. Tibok tibok is a mild-flavored Kapampangan pudding made of carabao (water buffalo) milk, sugar and cornstarch, and topped with latik (which blogger Jun Belen perfectly termed Toasted Coconut Milk Crumbs). Creamy but with a slight jelly consistency, it was lightly sweet and delicious paired with a post-meal cup of strong dark coffee.
As we enjoyed the last bites of our luncheon, Claude and Mary Ann graciously posed for photographs and chatted with their guests, completing the first impression that a meal at Bale Dutung is a meal shared among friends. While the setting was exquisite and the food beyond expectation, there were also small, thoughtful details throughout the experience: Mary Ann taking a moment to learn each of our names; the small bowl filled with fresh water and kamias to rinse off our fingers between courses; Claude personally wrapping porchetta for a guest; the knotted long beans in the kare-kareng, looking like small wreaths; frozen towels to cool off in the afternoon heat; and a special commemorative menu with a one of Claude's illustrations of Bale Dutung's open kitchen. It's that kind of caring, personal attentiveness that set the Tayags and their beautiful home apart from conventional restaurants.
There's no need to ask: I will most definitely return. After all, there are two other menus to try...
|Scenes from a Kapampangan Kitchen|
Claude's Talangkâ Risotto
(from Food Tour: A Culinary Journal by Claude Tayag, with the author's permission)
While a meal at Bale Dutung is well-worth the trek from Manila to Pampanga, the Tayags have made it easy for me to enjoy the same flavors back at home with their line of Claude '9 bottled sauces such as Inasal BBQ Marinade (BBQ Paldeut), Burong Hipon (Hito & Balo-balo roll) and the decadent Taba ng Talangkâ. While I loved the talangkâ rice served with grilled chicken tails, I was thrilled to find a recipe for creamy crab fat risotto in Claude's book Food Tour - a collection of his food and travel writing. Keeping in mind Mary Ann's statement that Pampangos always have grilled meat on the table, I served it with pork belly marinated in Claude '9 inasal mixture. Now, if only they would bottle that kare-kareng sauce, too...
Serves 4 to 6
1 Tbs minced garlic
1/4 cup chopped onions
2 Tbs butter or olive oil
500 g round grain rice* (preferably Italian arborio)
1/2 cup white wine
Approximately 1 liter chicken stock, heated
4 Tbs Claude's Taba ng Talangka**
Fried crablets (if available)
Sauté garlic and onion in butter or olive oil. Stir in uncooked rice and white wine. Let the mixture simmer, adding ladles of hot chicken stock at intervals until all the liquid is used and absorbed (around 28 minutes). The risotto should be tender, glossy, moist and rich. Add Claude's Taba ng Talangkâ, then stir in grated cheese and top with fried crablets***.
*With no arborio on hand, I used Japanese sushi rice instead, to quite satisfactory results.
**For taba ng talangkâ, or crab fat paste, outside of the Philippines/Asia, check your local Asian market - it may be found in the refrigerated section.
***Instead of fried crablets, I topped the risotto with a small dollop of talangkâ and served it with grilled pork belly.