Early Review: Apero Brings Quality Goods to the NorthAugust 18, 2016
As far as restaurant makeovers in Manila go, among the best examples has to be Cafe Provencal’s rebirth as Duck and Buvette in 2014. Beyond the visual overhaul, they’ve succeeded in offering great French food with little to no pretension, at prices that can’t be beat. If anything, their location at a corner of Shangri-la’s rather drab Main Wing has always seemed to be a mismatch. Which is why I was more than excited to learn of a new restaurant opening from the same group, but at the tranquil heart of Corinthian Hills. Apero positions itself as a neighborhood cafe, serving food round-the-clock with a “cascading menu.” The secluded location may be out of the way for some, but also spells out a more serene environment. Although small, the space is bright, with plenty of glass panels to welcome the sunlight. And while situated next to not one but two other cafes–UCC and Starbucks–it still manages to draw in patrons (many of them of the Tita crowd, naturally).
Like Duck and Buvette, Apero features both ala carte dishes as well as baked goods, which can be had at the restaurant or for takeaway. The menu is surprisingly succinct for a restaurant that aims to cover the different times of the day, spanning no longer than a single page, though selections are mostly breakfast-centric—which fits in with our fondness of all-day breakfast anyway. Notably, the French influence of its predecessor is still present, but the offerings here are more familiar, with brunch standbys, home-cooked classics, and even Filipino favorites done with a twist.
I’m primed to be optimistic, as the restaurant seems to have a lot going for it: a brick oven as the centerpiece of their kitchen, which they use to bake (almost) everything from their entrees to their pastries; the inclusion of ‘free-range’,’organic’ ingredients in a number of dishes (though not across the entire menu); breads made fresh daily (I’m told that baking starts at 5 in the morning!); and Intelligentsia coffee. Most impressively, they make many of their components from scratch and in-house, including their nut milk, butter, and jams. It’s a strong premise that combines the best of many a modern joint, and I’m here to see if it’s one they can live up to.
A seemingly ingredient-driven approach works in the case of the Tomato Basil Garlic Grana Padano Firebrick Eggs, which the servers are all too eager to recommend – emphasized to us thrice as a “bestseller”. The prospect seems all too easy, banking on the simple comfort of baked eggs with an all-too familiar flavor profile, but properly highlights the use of free-range organic eggs—a prod of which releases a gush of the runny orange yolk. Meanwhile, I was surprised that their house specialty was, of all things, roast chicken. Here they use an 11-week old, free range, organic bird, which made for a few notable qualities: a pinkish inner hue (it’s cooked, I’m assured), tighter meat fibers, and richer chicken-y taste. I’m not too crazy about the soggy skin, but inside it’s moist and succulent, with a subtle ham-y quality from being brined for two days and smoked with apple wood.
There are dishes that show off their sheer creativity as well. A small section of the menu, for example, is dedicated to what they’ve deemed “porridge waffles”. Admittedly I was skeptical at the thought of what seemed to be yet another hybrid dessert – really, do we need another Cronut or Duffin!? – but was happily proven wrong. These waffles offer a bevy of textures: crisp on the outside, light and airy inside, and studded with a chewy, nubby mixture of grains, among which are oats, flax and chia seeds. Of the four variations, we went for the steak au poivre-esque French porridge waffles, topped with their house-cured Corned Beef (which in itself is a divine creation–more on that later). It’s hard to go wrong with the pairing of salty and sweet here. My only beef with this platter, pun aside, was the excessive use of pepper on the accompanying peppercorn sauce, but small dollops go a long way to meld meat and dough together.
Other inventive offerings, however, sound better on paper than as executed. Take for instance the arroz caldo-inspired duck porridge: while satisfyingly thick and generous on the toppings, the porridge itself fell flat and was bland. It’s not so much about missing the salt–you could argue that it’s meant to be a neutral canvas to be seasoned by the eater. Rather, what this one lacks is the deep, soul-enriching essence of good broth that forms the backbone of the rainy day staple. Besides, none of the prerequisite condiments were provided until we’d requested for them specifically.
And while I admire their dedication to going the DIY route, the results are mixed. Particularly excellent is their house-cured corned beef, which we had with the waffles – these come in sizable chunks, each tender yet robust with bold meaty flavor; their house-cultured butter is equally sublime. Of the jams however, the apple-clover variant is odd, literally resembling chopped fresh fruit swimming in thin syrup, and the grapefruit variant could use a lot less bitterness. The remaining raspberry-based ones fare better, though considering they’re making these themselves anyway, I can’t help but wonder why they couldn’t just utilize our local fruit. It is the ‘bakery’ half of the equation, I believe, that reveals their true strength. The selection isn’t quite as huge as, say, Wildflour’s, but is impressive in its own right, offering a mix of old and new. With a few exceptions – a lemon bichon in dire need of more filling, and canelle lacking in vanilla and rum – they’ve got some pretty solid offerings here. Country bread, which came with their baked eggs, was rustic and hearty, perfect for sopping up any sauce without turning mushy. An oatmeal-raisin scone is tender and fluffy inside, heavenly with a cup of tea.
Their duck fat pan de sal is also a brilliant concoction–denser and saltier than most contemporary versions, maybe closer to the traditional form of the panaderia staple, the inclusion of duck fat gives these a peculiar savory quality that mimics the “fried” taste of doughnuts sans the grease and sugar.
What really blew me over was the sourdough croissant, which was such a show-stopper I must dedicate an entire paragraph to it. Visually arresting in its behemoth size, this boasts an flaky exterior that’s crisp yet paper-thin it submits to a delicate shatter. Pulling it apart reveals the inner layers, each so tender and supple they resemble sheets of silk, with the opulent aroma of real, good butter. Be prepared to have shards fly all over – sophistication be damned, it’s a worthy mess. This is buttery bliss in every bite, from one doughy end to another.
Not that there’s any shortage of similar establishments on this side of Manila – comfort food paired with beautiful interiors seems to be the winning Northern formula–yet for many of these places, the Instagrammability comes at the expense of quality. Apero, on the other hand, lets the food speak for itself, and attention is given to everything from the building blocks to the polyphony and the embellishments that follow. Even at soft opening, they do a better job than other fully-opened, similarly-priced eateries I’ve been to.
Granted, there are still a few rough patches. Servers, still seem confused at times, or unfamiliar with certain items on the menu; when she’s around, though, baker Valerie Chua is more than happy to chat. I also can’t help but nitpick over the lack of an in-house comfort room; the nearest one is still within the building but requires you to go out the door and down the stairs. (Which screams first-world problem but can be a real pain in the ass—no pun intended—in certain, ahem, *emergency situations*.)
But these are small mishaps I’m willing to gloss over, considering they are a young restaurant. For now, it’s clear that they’ve got good ingredients treated with respect, and a strong baking prowess which they’re rightfully banking on. There is no settling for mediocre here, and it’s about time we Northerners get what we deserve. Apero might just be that gamechanger.