I think it has a lot to do with that Time Magazine cover.
I’m sure you’ve seen it—stark black, with nothing on it but a gorgeous lick of butter, curled up as it usually is, after you take a knife to the golden block. It came with a tagline that seemed to be a blatant middle finger to everything we’d ever known and everything we’d ever been told: that scientists labeled fat as the enemy, but they were wrong. This cover came in 2014, at the height of all things kale, of healthy desperation, and of the call to turn organic. Until now, Manila is still in the throes of that adage, with ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan’ and ‘organic’ and ‘healthy’ the choice words on menus and the driving force behind many restaurant concepts in the city.
Chef Kel Zaguirre is a visible antithesis to this movement, as shown in his first venture, Locavore. The restaurant in Brixton has become known for Filipino dishes with the volume turned way up; sinigang is no soup, and is instead, beef short ribs covered in a thick gravy with the noticeable sourness of tamarind; sisig uses oyster with an unapologetic smudge of mayo. In his latest outing, Fat, Zaguirre takes what we know as excess just the little bit further. Here, as the name unsubtly tells you, fat is everything but the enemy. It is everywhere.
Inspired by his background in French cuisine (plus books and studies that have turned around what scientists were eager to peddle back in the 90s), Zaguirre ensured that the restaurant’s indulgent food is made the concept’s forefront. Whereas Locavore seems to pile on excess after excess, Fat surprisingly uses all of this to clever restraint. There is butter, there is fat, but Zaguirre puts them all to proper use, showing off a deft hand. It is the technique in the dishes that brings out the maximum flavor of fat, without ever feeling greasy, heavy, or overbearing. Each dish is composed in a way that there is acid, heat, or something that cuts and complements it, never exhausting your palate. How Zaguirre achieves this, I can only admire. I’ll do all the eating.
From start to finish, Fat is strong. There are a few stumbles, but minor and forgivable; we had 14 dishes after all, and there’s no doubt that there will be both favorites and ones not as well-loved in the crowd. Snacks are an incredible start. Throughout the meal, the chicharon sprinkled in green tea salt remained memorable, which is saying a lot for a stellar line-up. Two gigantic pieces come puffed up as if ready for battle; Zaguirre says these were the product of a kitchen mistake, which is often how some of the best dishes come to fruition. They are dehydrated for hours then deep-fried to create that beautiful color, and the texture which makes it dissolve almost immediately in your mouth. Do not forget that mixture of fermented pinakurat mixed with sweet honey—this is what makes it sing. For the hedonists, there is poutine bone marrow, too. The giant marrow’s crevice is filled with fries that are crisp on the outside with a molten interior, and lardons of bacon and nuggets of cheese.
From the starters, the pigs ear en croute was much more stunning than the unagi with beet lavosh, with the ears so tender and a welcome respite from all the deep-fried appendages I’ve had before it. For mains, there was a beautiful slab of porketta on top of whipped potato—maybe a little too dark, but I know many who will indulge in the crackling and layers of luscious meat. A burger used half beef and half duck for its juicy patty, and just when you thought it couldn’t be pushed any further, on top rests a slab of foie.
Next, a Moroccan chicken came with a skin so well-spiced, I wanted to rip it all off like an animal and leave the tender meat alone. This dish showed Zaguirre’s ability to balance more than any other; the bird came with that innocuously simple Vietnamese dipping sauce of lime, salt, and pepper, which added so much zest and nuance to the plate.
Two mains were instant classics: a salmon carbonara that came with an egg , which was as slow-cooked to perfection as I’ve seen it, and the fish was cooked the way it should be—still pink and soft in its center. It was ingenious, with the cream and the golden yolk coating the pasta, and crunchy salmon skin adding a different dimension. The Korean beef stew reinvented that ubiquitous beef, egg, and kimchi rice combination, giving it a spark instead of fitting in with other tired renditions. The short ribs were so fork-tender and fatty, you could almost forget that foie gras was sitting there. A concentrated broth with the flavors of Korean beef stew was poured over, which had a slight undertone of heat that you never knew you needed from the traditionally sweet dish.
Desserts might not have stayed as memorable, but there was still much to rave about. Donuts used choux pastry instead, so that the outside remained golden and crisp, while the dough’s interior was so custard-like, you couldn’t tell it apart from the soft banana filling. The white chocolate cheesecake was almost demolished in its entirety because of its savory bacon crust, and an intelligent addition of candied orange peel, which lent both bitterness and tartness. An added plus to Fat is the overall aesthetics: the place is stark gray, and all plates and surfaces white to make the food stand out. Most of it is a visual feast.
You might think that I have been too heavy-handed with my superlatives, but I’ll go a step further and say that this is one of the better restaurant meals I’ve had in Manila this year. I have been looking for a new place that would fit in with my staples, one where I could fully recommend without the risk of disappointing anyone. I often look back on my meals and find things to nitpick, and even in a few hours, the magic of the food might have been instantly lost on me. But what Zaguirre has here is exciting. He is foregoing trends, and is thinking of the food first, rather than ‘gastropub’, or ‘healthy’, or whatever craze has arrested our fancy at this moment. Fat is all about what he knows and what he loves, which, really, is all we need from a chef.
Fat opens its doors to the public today. Tell us which of the dishes you are most eager to try with a comment below.
Pepper.ph was invited to feature the above establishment. Therefore, the feature includes no rating whatsoever, which can be influenced or biased.
FAT by Locavore
Address: 29th St. cor Rizal Drive, Forbestown Center, Bonifacio Global City