FeaturesCulinary CutsThe Understated Restaurant That Never Fails To Impress

The Understated Restaurant That Never Fails To Impress

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By RENZ TORRES and IAN ROSALES CASOCOT

 

If you have seen The Menu (2022), Mark Mylod’s scathing “eat the rich” satire set in the world of haute cuisine, you will probably remember the cheeseburger scene. Not to give too many details to avoid the worst of spoilers, the film chronicles a particularly life-changing day for a celebrated chef, his devoted kitchen staff, and the deep-pocketed diners who could afford his $1,250 per head menu. Part of the allure for these diners is the exclusivity that money can buy: the attention to detail by an exacting chef who gives a culinary experience that borders on the theatrical, all in the comfortable confines of a glimmering restaurant set in a private island whose diverse ecosystem of flora and fauna provides the ingredients necessary for the food entailed in the menu.

For this day, Chef Julian Slowik—played to chilly perfection by Ralph Fiennes—has curated a guest list that will provide a reckoning for a life lived in the exacting demands of the kitchen and the public expectations that go with becoming a culinary god; for these guests, Slowik has devised a very special menu. By the time dinner ends, that reckoning will be met in unexpected ways.

There’s only one catch: a diner who’s not in the guest list—a woman named Margot who is clearly not part of the 1% and who has come to accompany one of these high-rollers, Tyler, a privileged foodie who likes to believe he knows everything about food and seeks affirmation from his idol, Chef Slowik. Margot has taken the place of Tyler’s date—and Margot’s presence, and her seeming indifference to all the culinary theatricalities that are being served up, unsettles Chef Slowik’s grand designs for the evening. A bunch of wonderful things happen that culminate to one fraught confrontation in the film’s third act, where Margot tells the chef to his face that his menu, in all its high conceptual wonders, bores her. “And what’s worse,” she says, “I’m still hungry.”

This visibly pains the chef, who asks her what she wants to eat instead, catering to her pleasure, and off the menu of course.

“A cheeseburger,” she demands.

A lowly cheeseburger, the anti-thesis of all the haute cuisine that surrounds them.

Chef Slowik relents. He cooks the “best cheeseburger she will ever eat,” and when she signals satisfaction, it makes the chef happy.
Best to leave this unexpected movie review at that. We suggest you see the film yourself—and laugh, and go hungry, and reel from the horror of it all.

All of the above is really a long prologue for us to be able to say one simple thing: the only measure of dining out is the unalloyed satisfaction we get from the eating. For us, this means two basic things: [1] the delight of taste, and [2] the fullness of a satisfied belly. When one pays premium in dining out, these two things are paramount, especially for the regular Dumaguete diner who still remembers a time [the 2000s!] when paying P150 for a dish is highway robbery. Times have changed of course—and runaway inflation is unavoidable in the New New Society—but the old sense of Dumaguete kuripotness largely remains intact. So when you expect us to pay P250-P400 for a meal these days, you better wow us in the savory department, and you better make us busog. We will certainly demonstrate public impression by any restaurant’s theatricality and atmosphere and culinary concept, but if the menu fails in both counts, you will not read a bad review here [almost no one writes bad reviews in Dumaguete] but the grapevine will be buzzing: “Wala sya’y lami, mahal pa gyud,” the whispers will say, and they will carry.

A few months ago, we decided to try out this new restaurant along _______ Drive, in a setting you could call warehouse chic. The soup we ordered for starters was good. But when the entrees arrived, we were stunned by how stingy the servings were. How stingy? Ant-Man would have been happy. And when the bill came, it totaled to almost a thousand pesos. Probably not shocking if you are in Manila, but in Dumaguete? These two Dumaguetnons were shocked. And we left that restaurant very hungry still. We ended up buying burgers in Jollibee to sate us. And we will never probably go back to that restaurant again.

A few nights ago, we decided to try another new restaurant, also along _______ Drive. The food was mostly fine, if expensive. Except for one detail that was disheartening: the rice for a rice bowl dish had the consistency of bad lugaw. And we thought: an expensive meal shouldn’t expect you to swim through your carbs.

Which leads us to Domus, an unassuming little restaurant in Amigo Subdivision under the proprietorship of two enterprising young men, Raoul Obligado and Neil Clarion, with the latter serving as chef. Domus, truth to tell, defies all our attempts at being unsatisfied. We were prepared to hate it, shaped by circumstances that seem funny now. We heard about it from friends and from Facebook, and when we finally decided to drop by, we couldn’t find a table. The place was busy, filled to the brim with college types—and on cursory inspection, the venue had the feel of a boy’s dormitory hastily converted to a no-frills restaurant. [In truth, it is housed in a repurposed residential house in the subdivision, complete with front grilled windows with climbing variegated monstera leaves.] There was no attempt at polish at all, and the vibe was Bohemian meets the Millennial—which we mostly didn’t mind. We liked that kind of vibe. [We miss Kape Lucio in Piapi!] But they couldn’t accommodate us, and we had to leave. We asked if they were open on Sundays, and we were told they did, and they opened doors at 11 AM.

We returned on Sunday, and true enough, the place was open. But there was absolutely no one around. We called out for what wait staff could attend to us—and there was no one. Until a door opened—apparently the CR/bathroom—and out came someone clad only in a towel, who freaked out when he saw us. “Are you open?” we asked. “Yes, sir,” he replied, “kinda. But we are not yet ready to serve guests.” We inwardly fumed, and then we left—determined not to go back again.

But of course we did. Months later.

And we were prepared to loathe it.

The immediate thing about Domus’s menu that attracted us was the limited number of fares, always a good sign. [Beware of restaurants that has so many listed items—that usually means a cook that cannot edit his offerings, and who relies on a dispirited assembly line preparation with no true culinary identity to call his own. Mostly.] The minimal fare on Domus’s menu told us: “These are the choicest of what I want to cook for you, and I don’t want to be distracted by too many offerings.” We ordered the garlic chili pechay and the ampalaya shredded fish and the crispy palabok—which are apparently the favorites.

By the first bite, we knew we were wrong to doubt.

The blanched pechay with garlic chili oil was a refreshing and appetizing mix of hot and cold, red and green, mild and complex. The unexpected pairing of ampalaya and mango provided a freshness that was new, the flakes of fish a startling addition. When the crispy palabok came, we were mute from all other considerations, except to allow our eyes to savor: the crispy-fried noodles puffed and piled on the plate, topped with soft-boiled eggs, green onion and seared shrimp, with calamansi on the side. We poured the warm and savory sauce onto the dish, and we watched the nest of noodles collapse. And then we dug in—and the flavors crackled in our tongue, and we were goners. We finished off with their fizzy lime Negra, Domus’s signature drink: the unlikely combination of coffee and citrus blended perfectly, topped with sparkling water for a cold finish.

We went back again a few days ago. “We haven’t been to Domus for a while,” we said to each other. “Let’s try their other fares.”

We tried their spaghetti, an updated classic with its rich ragu sauce topped with cheese sauce and a sprig of parsley. It was a tad too rich, to be honest, its surprising Indian whiff perhaps coming on too strong [Renz insists it was Italian]. But the sinilihang pork belly was another matter, a concoction so surprising we could not help but gasp. The crispy unctuous pork belly wading in bagoong-flavored coconut milk sauce and flavored with chili, on a bed of blanched pechay and sitaw [yardlong beans] tied in knots [the greens provided a necessary contrast to the porkiness of it all]. We usually have problems with pork fat, which can be off-putting when prepared without love, but there was no such problem with the dish, with the taste of bagoong washing over our palates first and finishing off with a kick from the chili. It was delightful.

We have never been disappointed with Domus fare. And Domus passes our most basic of expectations: the food is always tasty, and the food is always filling. And it doesn’t break the bank! This restaurant, which seemed at first like an experiment in restauranting by college bros, is lightyears better than many of the snobbiest restaurants in town. Margot would have been happy eating here.

_________________________________________

Author’s email: 
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