She must have been half blind and her comment smacked of dogmatism. She said that Philippine cuisine is difficult for a PR company to market to an international crowd because it is too meaty. I looked at her incredulously. We were in a Brazilian restaurant and had just been served all kinds of meat – chicken, lamb, veal, and beef. The restaurant had a good crowd of international diners including this Filipino. Who said meat is hard to promote? In trying to sound smart, she only ended up sounding like a smart aleck. That Filipino food is meaty is true to a certain degree given the preponderance of pork-loving eaters in the archipelago. Vegetables, sadly, do take a backseat to meat dishes in a Filipino home or restaurant, but it isn’t the rule of thumb.

Clockwise: Pinakbet ala Jean, Tinuno nga Bangus, and Poqui-Poqui.

Clockwise: Pinakbet ala Jean, Tinuno nga Bangus, and Poqui-Poqui.

Rice is an essential part of the Pinoy dining table.

Rice is an essential part of the Pinoy dining table.

Philippine restaurant Victorino’s, located on Scout Rallos corner Jamboree in Quezon City, features a balanced mix of meat dishes and vegetables done the Ilocano way on one part of the menu and European cuisine on the other. Admittedly, I have never been to Ilocos, but it was a vicarious journey at Victorino’s. The interior decor is reminiscent of the old houses of yesteryears: classic tiled floors embellished with stylish strokes, varnished wooden tables paired with high-back wooden chairs, and a merchandise area teeming with locally woven table runners, shawls, and blankets, and handcrafted evening bags on display in polished wooden cabinets. Table setting is sparse – basic white crockery that were not chipped, and cutlery – but it exuded simple elegance despite the paper placemat. Form is secondary to substance: the chef let the dishes’ flavours tickle the palate of the guests.

Bagnet, the iconic pork dish of Ilocos, figures prominently in the menu including in chips form. It is the Ilocano’s take on the usual lechon kawali, deep fried pork belly, which is a staple in a pork-loving Filipino’s menu for celebratory feasts. I have been told that it can rival any pork dish in the world. It can be eaten on its own, added to paella like what Pio’s Kitchen does, or mixed in with vegetables. Being a non-pork eater, bagnet was eclipsed for the gulay (vegetable in Filipino) and seafood.

Indulge in a bit of shopping before or after your meal at Victorino's.

Indulge in a bit of shopping before or after your meal at Victorino’s.

An impromptu gathering with family had us digging into a mini Ilocano feast highlighted by a truly Ilocano vegetable dish called pinakbet, a mélange of stewed vegetables. There are two versions of the dish at Victorino’s. First is Pinakbet ala Jean, which is “well done” eggplant, ampalaya (bitter gourd), camote (sweet potato), string beans in bagoong isda (fish paste), and bagnet. The other is Pinakbet ala Apo Lakay, which, as distinguished by our waiter, is half-cooked pinakbet. We chose the former with me eating around the bagnet. The second dish was Tinuno nga Bangus or grilled milkfish stuffed with onions and tomatoes. The last one was Poqui-poqui, a plate of grilled eggplant sautéed with onions and tomatoes. Naturally, white rice was part of the order.

The verdict: it was a wonderful play of flavours – smoky, sweet, and the right amount of salty- punctuated by the freshness of the milkfish and vegetables. As for service, it was adequate. The waiters maintained composure amidst the influx of diners and numerous requests hurled their way ranging from asking for extra sauces, following up on the order, a look at the menu, asking for the bill, and having the leftovers packed to go.

Dig into Halo-halo ala Victorino's.

Dig into Halo-halo ala Victorino’s.

Dessert was not a saccharine, guilt-inducing experience. It was only fitting to end it with a Filipino dessert – synchronicity, people – and so the choices were Halo-halo and Patopat. The former choice was a far cry from what I was used to. Victorino’s version didn’t have the commonplace green beans and nata de coco. Theirs was a glass tumbler of homemade mixed fruits, slow cooked root crops, and topped by a yema ball (custard ball), leche flan and grated cheese. Interestingly, the fruits and root crops were not found at the bottom of the glass, as it is the customary set up of Halo-halo, but on top so they weren’t soggy when the glass reached your table. Also, you can adjust the milk content because you pour in the milk yourself.

Meanwhile, Patopat is to the Ilocano as suman is to the Tagalog me. The Ilocano version of this steamed sticky rice cake was served with mango and sweetened coconut strips. It is served with brown sugar on the side for the Tagalogs.

Care for sweet sticky rice, or Patopat, with mango?

Care for sweet sticky rice, or Patopat, with mango?

Philippine cuisine is as vast as the archipelago with the meat dishes admittedly taking centre stage. However, it is a centre stage shared with equally stellar vegetable dishes for the vegetarians out there. Or simply put meat-eater or not, one is never without choices with a Filipino menu.

Family lunch at Victorino's

Family lunch at Victorino’s



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