Pepper 2015 Food Review: Digesting the Year That Was

August 3, 2020

In the never-ending search for the best restaurants of the previous year, we drew a big fat blank. Could a mere top 10 food list truly delineate the last 12 months? Instead, we went a different way, and focused on some of the food moments that defined it. From the biggest heartbreak to the downright most tormenting tease, here is Pepper’s take on 2015.

Crowd FaveIt’s always the simplest ones that get it right, and Taco Vengo is proof of that. While other restaurants that opened last year worked with specific cuisines in mind, Vengo zeroed in on just three things: tacos, burritos, and nachos, making them possibly the best they could be in Manila. Corn tortillas are rolled out daily, and crowned with hills of things like pork cheek confit and shrimp tempura. There are also Nachos for Machos, served with a poached egg trembling by the corn chip ridges. With endless snaps and posts in praise of the Pasig native, it isn’t hard to see why anyone outside Kapitolyo would make the trek for it. -Michelle V. Ayuyao

Biggest HeartbreakFor years, fine dining of the old school, white tablecloth sort was only ever ascribed to Metro Manila’s grand hotels. As restaurants came and went, in a flurry of trends and one-offs, there was something about the classical that made these bastions of cuisine remain sacred. However, change is inevitable, and just as the Mandarin Oriental before it, the symbolic Intercontinental Manila shuttered its doors, and with it, Prince Albert Rotisserie. The restaurant served luminaries and dignitaries for decades, and at its pass, welcomed some of the Philippines’ most respected and well-known chefs (Billy King, Cyrille Soenen and Jessie Sincioco among them). To say goodbye to such an icon is always bittersweet; Prince Albert’s tableside service, crepes Suzette and prime rib will stay firmly in memory. – Pamela Cortez

Legazpi VillThe rise of food villages and streets in Manila are the best foodie fuck-you to our growing staid culture of malls and high-rises. Based around mostly local or homegrown concepts, these areas thrive due to a much less manufactured vibe, and a sense of community built by the people who frequent them. They are characteristic of their regulars; Aguirre for example, is as laidback as the South can get, while Maginhawa and the streets of Teacher’s Village have a young and frenetic energy thanks to the mix of students and artists that have turned it into their watering hole. Last year saw Legazpi emerge from the shadows of its oft-lauded counterpart Salcedo, with more local spots refining the selection in the area. Older haunts such as Blind Pig, Stockton Place, Yardstick, Your Local, Ba Noi and more, saw young upstarts Nikkei, Rural Kitchen, Monopole, Mandalay, and Belle and Dragon join the mix. Brunch staple Wildflour, and crowd favorite Sarsa have also graced the village with their presence, and with more places such as coffee stalwart Toby’s Estate opening doors soon, Legazpi’s moment will last much, much longer.- PC

Odd EatsOffal had its Manila moment in 2015, and it was realized most fully in yakiniku joint Yokohama Meat Kitchen. Going against the trends that littered the city, the restaurant opened quietly early last year, and has become an instant word-of-mouth classic. The decor is nondescript, the atmosphere maybe a little too stoic, but none of that matters here where it is all about simple, incredibly delicious odd eats. There are more recognizable odds and ends for the unadventurous, but rewards come in the form of such cuts as the diaphragm, a gelatinously fatty piece of meat that is cheap for the Wagyu-type marbling it gives. Intestines here put even street food favorite isaw to shame: plump and gorgeous, their high quality speaks for itself as they are tender and removed of that dirty funk. Maybe a little more daunting are the sashimi liver and tripe, but with much care put into the sourcing of their meat, offal at Yokohama Meat Kitchen is the best introduction to the divisive fare. -PC

Best Food MomentThe last few years in Manila saw a big boom in culinary curiosity. When the Department of Tourism worked on bringing in Madrid Fusion, Spain’s most imperative gastronomy congress, it only ratified that engrossment. Last year’s conference welcomed the likes of Elena Arzak and Andoni Aduriz showing off their culinary prowess. Sharing the stage with them were representatives of the local restaurant community, such as Vask’s Luis Gonzalez and Mecha Uma’s Bruce Ricketts, who demonstrated their dexterity in the kitchen as well. The congress may have given us a look into what the food world out there is skilled in, but it’s given outsiders a glimpse of the culinary capabilities that the Philippines is nurturing. -MVA

Franchises A quick search will show anyone that imported restaurants were big in 2015. As far as eagerness goes, it was two franchises in particular that had people waiting intently in the wings: Michelin-starred Din Tai Fung and street cart Halal Guys. It’s hard to decide which one had more hype. Both had intense build-ups, were originally slated to open earlier in the year, hence leaving many fans waiting impatiently for their first branches to break ground. Din Tai Fung is known for turning the xiao long bao into a global staple, with quality and precision being the key to operations in its 100 or so branches from Taiwan to Australia. Halal Guys on the other hand, has built its reputation solidly around its street cart in New York City, churning out gigantic silver dishes of meats and rice with their magical sauces, only expanding outside of its Manhattan roots in 2015. Both were apparently worth the wait—massive lines still snake around Din Tai Fung, while Halal Guys has opened a stall along Bonifacio High Street only weeks after its first branch rose, and initial response to both were positive. -PC

Unexpected Trend Board game cafés seem to be taking in the limelight as of late. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia attached to the wooden boards with plastic pawns, and sound of laminated cards being shuffled around. Perhaps it’s the fact that you can pair your competitive streak with a pint of beer. Or perhaps, everyone is just so damn tired of partying it out already. We’ve seen the emergence of board game cafés such as Ludo, Puzzles, and Dyce N Dine divide and conquer, while other cafés such as Moonleaf and Mrs. Graham’s apply the same format. A welcome respite, and a silent worker, this fascinating fad seems to be working so far. – Mikka Wee

American BBQ What is it with our obsession with the American south? Two years ago, somehow, chicken and waffles graduated from mere trend to Filipino comfort food staple, and last year, rather stealthily, southern barbecue became more than a passing craze. A quick look at most of the restaurants of 2015 will come up with a hilariously generic play on restaurant titles—seemingly from an online idea generator—which have made these identikit places hard to separate from one another. There are apparently three schools of thought here: one has a penchant for articulating size (Big Daddy Jay’s All-American BBQ, Big Daddy’s), another seems to believe that the word smoking authenticates their Southerness (The Smoking Joint, Smokin’ Pig Legendary Rib Joint), and one that decides both ways make for an even better name (Fat Daddy’s Smokehouse, Big D’s Smokehouse). Although it is becoming increasingly difficult to go through all the dedicated barbecue places in the city, there’s zero doubt that the fascination with the smoky grub will carry on well into 2016, with an inevitably sunny forecast for brisket, ribs, and pulled pork.- PC


Or, how JP Anglo made 2015 his bitch. He became a household name with MasterChef Pinoy Edition and Kris TV, but his ever-expanding list of accomplishments—two new Sarsa branches, Kafe Batwan, product endorsements, TV appearances, a cookbook, and pop-ups with his equally in-demand buddies—have made him a ubiquitous part of the country’s burgeoning Filipino food scene. It’s also his affability and social media savvy that draws people to him; he’s part of a new breed of chefs whose presence reaches far beyond the confines of the kitchen. Just ask his 67,300 Instagram followers, most of which reach out to him for cooking tips, recipe requests, travel notes and, occasionally, the hormone-driven profession of love. It looks like we’ll be seeing more of this guy in 2016—JP is the new brand ambassador of Globe Platinum AND he’s currently working on Hungry, a travel and food series for CNN Philippines. Leave some for the rest of us, man. -Chloe Romero

Z Hostel 1 In 2015, it seemed as if there was only one place to go: Z Hostel. While specialty bars were opening left and right, and speakeasies seemed to still be the watering hole of choice, a hostel in the middle of perennial hotspot Poblacion was home to a bright idea. Enter their rooftop bar, devoid of airs and flashiness, with cheap drinks, a varied crowd, good music, and even better conversation. Key to its success is its ability to transition from a sunset drinks spot, to a dynamic late-night hub where every demographic has a place to imbibe. In this day and age, where bars are often built for those who want to be seen, Z is the relaxed, and unpretentious answer.- PC

Matcha Popularized in the 12th century by traditional Japanese tea houses, the vibrant milled tea has been around for a long time. With the boom of Japanese influenced ingredients, it was inevitable that the distinctly flavored tea would make it into the hearts of the Filipino people. A few years ago, the only association with matcha were the overlooked lattes and the token single scoops of ice cream served at the end of a Japanese meal. Croissants laced with matcha, cookies and milk infused with matcha, matcha soft serve, and finally entire restaurants dedicated to the green tea. Nowadays, there is no escaping it even if you wanted to. Both fine dining and casual joints have embraced the ingredient. Its presence has been relentless and delicious, but I think we’re all hoping to see it a little less in the upcoming year. -Monica Yang

Something to Brag About Those included in the San Pellegrino Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants are decided on by a group of over 300 restaurant industry leaders across the continent. So when Antonio’s made it to the list, it wasn’t just an achievement for owner and chef Tony Boy Escalante, it opened new possibilities for Filipino chefs. After being overshadowed by other Asian restaurants since the list began in 2013, Antonio’s proved that we have both the skill and talent to make it in the global landscape. It’s a sign that the Philippines is moving up in the culinary world—or at least, for the time being, Asia. – Miguel K. Ortega

Japan banner

Food Destination of the Year- Japan

For more than a decade, Hong Kong was the transcendent out-of-country destination that was pretty easy on the pocket, and that wasn’t too far from Manila’s spot on the grid. Then seat sale options suddenly came up in favor of cheap flights to Japan. Enough of you, Hong Kong, time for a change. It was undoubtedly the year to start discovering Japan, and eliminating all prior notions that you had to break the bank to do so. Though travel plans may normally consist of asking previous visitors for restaurant recommendations, Japan so far has proven to be the place erupting with too many. Instagram feeds were flooded with shots of train station ramen bowls, Dotonbori street food, and Tsukiji market sushi breakfasts. There were oysters a hand’s width big, and strawberries the color of cream. To truly understand the gravity of the country’s indulgent food scene, one would have to dive right in and get lost in it. And even then, it might not be enough. -MVA

Most Ubiquitous Restaurant Trend- Japanese Influences

Japanese food has always been a front runner for Manila’s dining scene. Mentaiko, unagi, and raw loins of tuna were once only found in distinctly Japanese restaurants. Tasting menus are seeing more raw fish, hush puppies are covered with bonito flakes, and uni pasta is becoming a staple. The growing influence is undeniable but no one is complaining. Marrying Japanese ingredients into a multicultural hotpot seems to be working, and it makes sense. Familiar flavors paired with new and creative profiles was an almost predictable frenzy that’s probably not going to fizzle out very soon. -MY

Short-lived Trend: Japanese Whiskey

Japanese whiskey used to be on top of the world. It was a time when a younger generation started opening up to drinking scotch and the fascination of having an Asian brand steal the throne from the Scots sparked a drinking frenzy. After hovering around the global best lists for a couple of years, the entire planet yearned for Suntory and Nikka whiskeys—so much so that their age-defined bottles are threatened with extinction. But by 2015, the Japanese had already been dethroned. Taiwan’s Kavalan took the top spot as the World’s Best Single Malt, and people started rethinking which fancy alcohol they should be imbibing next. Recently, Canada has taken the lead with its Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye. With Suntory time over, what are we going to drink now? – MKO

Japanese Franchise Round-up

The Japanese have invaded us once again but this time in the form of franchises. From appetizers to dessert, our neighbors from the northeast had us covered last 2015:

With over 300 stores in Japan, it was inevitable that this popular restaurant chain known for its “authentic okonomiyaki experience” would find itself in the Philippines.

An Omotesando staple, Maisen landed in the country with both old and new tonkatsu offerings—and that damn Katsumabushi set.

Despite being inconspicuously tucked in the crowded food courts of Landmark and SM Makati, Kumori is one of, if not the destination of choice for anyone with a cheesecake craving.

Originally a confectionery shop, Hattendo began incorporating European-style pastries in its repertoire in 1960s, and has since become known for creating arguably the best cream buns in the world.

Nadai Fujisoba
The Filipinos’ affinity with noodles plays a great role with the success of Nadai Fujisoba, which focuses solely on udon and soba—a refreshing respite from the countless ramen places around Manila.

The Nobu brand equates to worldwide decadence, with Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s fusion Japanese holding presence on nearly every continent—with the addition of Manila to its Asian contingency.

Coco Ichibanya
Coco Ichibanya‘s name is synonymous with Japanese curry—thicker and milder than Indian curry—all over the globe. Currently there a total of 1,425 branches around the world, four of which can now be found in the Philippines.

Genki Sushi
Thanks, Japan, for all your technology. Apart from creating multi-talented toilets, they’ve come up with places like Genki Sushi that send sushi zipping out on little train sets.

Tempura Tendon Tenya
As the most successful tendon chain restaurant in Japan, Tenya is all about the best that tempura bowls can get—from the crisp breaded outer shell of the shrimp, down to the steamy rice that rests below it.

Danish Bar
Known for their eponymous bars and Danish balls, the chain has arrived bearing their crispy taiyaki-like filled pastries, with another branch soon opening in the Fort BGC area.

Paper Moon
Lady M’s name has become synonymous around the world with the crepe cake, with stores all over Japan, and even a boutique in New York and Hong Kong. Now Manila can enjoy her delicious airy layers of cream and crepes in cafes across the city.

Ruby Jack’s Steakhouse and Bar
A steakhouse from Tokyo can only mean excellent meats and precise cooking. Judging by its stellar reviews thus far, Ruby Jack’s formula of classic flavors executed well is engaging and exciting Manila diners.

Ramen Kagetsu Arashi
Yet another addition to the ramen shops invading Manila, Kagetsu Arashi is known as one of Japan’s most popular chains, boasting 120 varieties of the beloved bowl, including their famous garlic tonkotsu.

Worst Kept SecretAll fingers point to social media. The revelation of things meant to be kept hush-hush stand no chance against anyone with a smartphone. Of social secrets, certain hidden drinking spots. On a weekly basis, there will be at least one person that will take you into a convenience store, past a man dressed up like a senator at the State of the Nation Address, through dimly lit stockroom, and finally at a bar set up in organized wreckage—all in the span of a 10-second Snap. Then there are the Instagram posts about it, and its inclusion in perennial lists of the city’s speakeasies. This is Bank Bar, whose secret identity was lost to Manila’s nightlife in its first month of operation. The assortment of bottles there put some liquor shops to shame, while the offerings for midnight munchies require no excuse for binge eating a second dinner. If you’re only finding out about it now, then you’re extremely late to the party. -MVA

DD Opening a beloved franchise amidst the catty online foodie climate of Manila was never going to be easy. People with pitchforks—and forks—are bound to compare the local version to its origins, and you will hardly ever see a public satisfied with what’s on offer. But Dean and Deluca came with much hype, and much promise. The premise of a deli-cum-grocery with odd and exciting procurements, and a short-order, fast-service restaurant that served only the minimal best, was anticipated for months. But pesky rumors of fallouts, delays, and major changes persisted, and doors opened to a full-fledged restaurant, with only the barest bones of its American counterpart. Food and service have hardly changed, and a year later, disappointed netizens—at least in this case—still remain right. -PC

Specialty Bars For some time now, Manila has been hooked with cocktails. From the “authentic” classics to ostentatious new concoctions, the bar scene had relied heavily on mixed drinks for inebriation. But last year saw a different trend, one that was both resurgence and retrogression: specialty bars. Think of it as eating a loaded dynamite roll and then rediscovering the beauty of tuna by itself. Whiskey has been the more popular alcohol, giving rise to the likes of Lit Manila, Mandalay, and Rye Tasting Room. Bonbon Club, meanwhile, sets aside the tonic and focuses on the gin. And even the everyday beer gets its own stage at The Bottle Shop. As interest is drinking neat is further piqued, we can expect more specialty bars to stir (or shake) up the market. -MKO

Local liquor The Philippine liquor market used to be limited to cheap rum, gin, and beer; generic ones that remain to be staples at places that range from upscale restaurants, to the dingiest of sari-sari stores. But the previous year brought on a resurgence of new ways and tastes for getting drunk. A long list of beer breweries, both old and new, now dot the archipelago producing an ample supply of ales and lagers. The seasoned Destileria Limtuaco has also been introducing new distilled spirits such as the Manille series and, more recently, its Ilocos-inspired wines (one of which is called Imeldifique Cooking Wine). The fledgling Don Papa on the other hand, with its remarkable packaging, is proving to be a world class rum, with France as its biggest importer. And recently, a prepubescent version of the rum was released into the market, the Don Papa 10-Year-Old. All in all, it’s a sign of progress. Filipinos are developing a wider palette in their pursuit to get hammered. – MKO

new Normal While third wave coffee has seen immense progress in our now highly-caffeinated beverage scene, restaurants have adapted the third wave rule into their establishments as well. Restaurateurs are rapidly ditching just plain brewed coffee, for high-quality caffeine to serve their diners. The mentality behind this could still be associated to the third wave trend, but as our palates are becoming more refined with the ever-present specialty coffee shops in the city, we can’t wait to see how restaurants will further elevate the scene. Maybe more roasters? Maybe more varietals? But what we know for sure is that specialty coffee is at its prime. -MW

Biggest Tease “We’re coming back. Start roasting a pig slowly,” said Anthony Bourdain in a report by ABS-CBN last September. These words stroked the culinary boner of every Bourdain-enthralled devotee in the nation. Radio silence followed in the three months after, only to be roused again by news in mid-December that he was seen in a Korean place somewhere in the city. This first bit baited a couple of fans, but it’s the photo of him gorging on Jollibee Chicken Joy that sent the country into Facebook hysteria. The hunt for Bourdain was on. One evening he was seen at a sidewalk ramen stand in Adriatico, but just an hour later he was supposedly spotted at the airport. The next day there were reports of him in Davao—one even claiming she was on the flight there with him—while some had allegedly seen him grabbing a drink in Malate. In spite of press sites even listing where you could possibly see the mystery man, it seemed no one was hot on his trail, save for a few of the lucky ones that were at his locations by chance. Anthony Bourdain may have flown across the world to film an episode about the Philippines, but his magical unicorn nature quickly made him modern Manila mythology. -MVA

4 comments in this post SHOW

4 responses to “Pepper 2015 Food Review: Digesting the Year That Was”

  1. Sab says:

    Really great read! Great change from other 2015 lists out there. Looking forward to more of these,!

    • Michelle Ayuyao says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Sab. We realize the list is completely out of left field but everyone in Pepper is strange anyway!

  2. DEEZQUS says:

    I remember the time I had to make calls to friends for the look out so I can just get a glimpse of his highness Mr. Bourdain. Good read!

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