Chef Ariel Manuel is Back in the Kitchen at Newly Opened Un CuencaJanuary 22, 2016
The general public has been missing out on chef Ariel Manuel’s cooking for over two years now—since Lolo Dad’s closed down—and it has been, as I would think, far too long. Thankfully, he’s wearing his apron again and has fired up the stoves, dishing out impeccable tapas at Un Cuenca. “We’ve been planning this for a very long time,” he tells me, and by “we” he’s referring to Susan Cuenca, his restaurant partner, from whom the restaurant owes its name. The place opened in Molito last December and, well, it’s about damn time.
Hungover from his trip through Spain, from which he drew his inspiration, Manuel cooks up a simple and mostly traditional lineup of tapas. Well made and done right, the dishes are an ideal example of how simple food—when cooked and presented well—is all you really need. The gambas has just enough pop in each bite to know it’s fresh. The boquerones in white wine vinegar—plump and still carrying that oily kick—has no indication that they skimped out and served fresh out of a tin. The angulas is treated with much respect, limiting its interactions to nothing more than garlic and olive oil.
Manuel, whether aware of it or not, has a childlike air about him. Like a kid intentionally coloring outside, and often far from, the lines of an activity book, his creations in the kitchen never seem cookie cutter in nature. For instance, one of his pintxos that piles on kesong puti with bits of bangus belly, or a drink called the queimada—a mulled wine with coffee, traditionally consumed hot—served chilled, with a head of brandy on fire, and sweetened by molten bits of White Rabbit candy.
The highest recognition, however, goes to the Pugon Lechon; pork bellies fired up in a brick oven. Smoky and crisp with just the right amount of fat, the lechon is Manuel’s adequate (maybe even better) substitute for the Spanish cochinillo. Taking advantage of that prevalent local love for all things pork, smoldering bits of the lechon are incorporated throughout different dishes on the menu. They creep their way onto tapas plates or bowls of pasta. The Lechon Carbonara, for instance, is a slop of egg yolk-emulsified cream on pasta, with smoked bits of salty pork rising above, in place of the standard bacon. Or in the form of pintxos, sitting upright on a piece of bread with orange jam on top. Then it comes alone, in some solitary quaver, with nothing but a pot of supposedly average lechon sauce—except this one is has a subtle bite, kissed faintly by a touch of heat. But for Manuel personally, his preferred way of having it is with a heaping mound of plain white rice. It seems lechon is to Un Cuenca, what foie gras was to Lolo Dad’s: a highly addictive conversation piece, in pieces.
For a tapas place, Manuel reiterates profusely that it is not a Spanish restaurant. It is a place inspired by Spain’s flavors and techniques, but the menu is peppered by so many local elements. There is tokwa’t lechon, fresh lumpiang ubod with local garlic sauce, bistec encebollado, lamb caldereta with dried mangoes, and an assortment of arroz plates—Valencia, squid ink, adobo—which are pretty much paella, though Manuel insists that he isn’t in the place to call it that.
It is refreshing, as always, to see the kind of modesty Manuel genuinely possesses, even years after he has made a reputation for himself in the city. He owns up to being more promdi than anything else, even admitting his utter unfamiliarity with Alabang and its establishments. It’s this same energy that courses through Un Cuenca: laid back and devoid of any pretension. While the set-up might be a little confusing—whether bar, bistro, or art gallery throws you off—what I do know is that the place is built on good food. Specifically food that is well thought out with a solid foundation.
Wine From Ralph’s: They don’t have a wine menu, but you can get from their next door neighbor, Ralph’s. Alternatively, if you’re in Ralph’s, food from Un Cuenca can be ordered.
Corkage: Bringing your own bottle results in a consumable corkage fee of PHP 600.
Make it Special: Pugon Lechon can be ordered to-go at around PHP 1000 per kilo.