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A primer for table-hopping

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Part 2 of a series on Dumaguete food

A growing city–and its increasingly ravenous appetites–changes with time. It is an inevitability. Our favorite food places come and go in fashion. Our shifting standards dictate it. The menu is now a mess, we say. The place has lost its charm. The toilet looks dirty and forbidding, so you can imagine how the kitchen must be. The prices are just a little too steep for what looks like a carinderia. The menu, alas, is now a mess.

But we eat out more and more still, the City changing and becoming more cosmpolitan under our feet, and the restaurants continue to mushroom with much hope and most of the time, they just vanish like stale French fries.

Some food places and their famous dishes, of course, stay for good: the pinsik from Rago’s; the addicting cheese bread and fruit mix from Silliman Cafeteria; the spaghetti carbonara from Chantilly; the lechon manok from Golden Roy’s and Manok ni San Pedro; the cheese de sal from Mrs. Breadworth in Lee Super Plaza; the steak from Le Chalet in Why Not; the kebab in Persian Palate; the grilled squid from Mamia’s; the crispy pata from Santa Monica; the sun-dried pork belly from Gimmick; the tocino from Manang Siony’s; the pastries and cakes from Ana Maria; the cafeteria spread and dimsum from Howyang; the batchoy and arroz balao from Qyosko (and sometimes its delicious dulce de leche cheesecake, or Oreo white chocomousse, or milk chocomousse); and the homemade ice cream and organic chicken steamed rice from Panda Haus.

There is still Rosante, along Perdices St., which after it burned down a few years ago, became the more posh Don Roberto’s, and still serves its famous roasted chicken. La Caviteña may now be a shadow of its former self–but it’s still there, hanging on. Chin Loong, with its pseudo-Chinese menu, has had its ups and downs (and now it looks like it’s in the ups again), and CocoAmigos, with its once- delightful Mexican whimsy, has been in steady decline for the past few years, its go-go musical acts on weekends becoming an Angeles City kind of attraction. Baduy. So we stay away.

For dressy fares, you go to Fuh Garden (what used to be Mei Yan); or to Casablanca–or if you had a car, all the way to Atmosphere in Dauin, or to any of the resorts that dot that beach town. (We used to frequent this delightful little Thai restaurant called Sawasdee in Tanjay–which was quaint enough to patronize largely due to the distance and effort, and the food was truly brilliant, never mind the hangers of dreadful RTW crowding out the make-do tables and chairs. Once it made the move to Dumaguete, however, it carried its barriotic eccentricities with it, and was promptly shunned by the AB-aspirational crowd that’s the Dumaguete bourgeoisie.Everything in food, you see, rests on reputation, in a region that takes its sugarlandia air with utter seriousness.)

Most often, we go to La Residencia Hotel’s two restaurants–Don Atilano for its steak, or Wakagi for its Japanese fare.

I go to Don Atilano sometimes for breakfast when I am bored and have a hankering for tapa or daing na bangus or danggit or tocino or Spanish chorizo or double-fried adobo, peculiarly prepared the Don Atilano way. (Which is, well, snobbish.)

But my most memorable dinner here was not its famous steak–which is as ordinary as they come–but with its sake-marinated Norwegian salmon (complete with roasted shallots, mandarin orange and greens, served with soba glazed in teriyake sauce), coupled with its lengua bordelaise (which is ox tongue braised in bordelaise sauce and cooking wine), its bacalao (cod fish fillet sautéed and simmered in rich tomato and olive oil), its roast chicken with pesto butter, and its seared fillet of dory over shrimp ravioli sautéed on butter and shitake mushroom and topped over shrimp ravioli on heavy cream.

That was one truly memorable dinner, something I shared with friends with similar tastes for culinary adventures–but since La Residencia’s latest remodeling, its old charm has been lost to its shiny new chrome and wood finish. Even its brewed coffee, which was once praised by The New York Times as probably one of the best in this part of the world, has lost something of its magic.

Things have changed. That much can be said. The City has changed. Today, with a new Robinson’s mall south of downtown, the choices have become a little more crowded. Not in the same way that Cebu or Manila or Bacolod do it, but nevertheless, it’s a stirring of sorts, perhaps a sign of better things to come.

There’re already Gabby’s Bistro and Jutz’s Café (formerly Boston Café) and Neva’s and Likha and KRI and Mamia’s and Royal Suite in the mix. Sans Rival has expanded from the small pastry shop of our collective memories, to become a full-fledged restaurant, open even on Sundays. There’s even a new Thai restaurant, an affair called Ti Ban Thai along San Juan St. — a stone’s throw away from Sans Rival — where the waitresses remind me of the girls in Patpong–scantily dressed, luring in a specific kind of customer. (Here, I ordered kai sate for appetizer and pad thai for dinner. The kai sate tasted like an afterthought, its meat brittle-tasting verging on the merely okay. Dipped in generous peanut paste, its pad thai was a little more passable, its noodles had a respectable consistency, and it had the surprising earthy airiness of sprouted mung beans; the whole thing, caked in a mushy layer of fried scrambled eggs, seemed like something concocted with an eagerness to please.)

Over the past year or two, I have gone on random food adventures with three other friends, each of us equipped with a role–Moses Joshua Atega acted as our liaison man for restaurants around town, Greg Morales was food photographer, and Arlene Delloso-Uypitching was newly-discovered food stylist.

The following articles in this series are an account of our tasting trips, which became, in essence, a culinary discovery of some of the best that Dumaguete had to offer.

There are two kinds of articles about food: one talks with such specificity about the dish in consideration and the reach is for the technical, an examination of ingredients and process; the other talks about the experience of the partaking, which is how I approach food appreciation.

It is for me a kind of theater of gustatory delight that is part communal act (we call that a “feast”), and part, individual meditation, done in bites, for the pleasures that life can offer.

This will be an attempt to do the latter. (To be continued…)

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