Last year, the chef and the group behind Vask Manila had a pretty good run. They had two Michelin star chefs guest in their kitchen and was named Best Restaurant of the Year by Esquire Philippines, but 2015 seems to be an even bigger year for them yet. Chef Chele Gonzalez is largely responsible for bringing in Madrid Fusion, an international conference championed by the likes of Andoni Aduriz and Ferran Adria, to Manila in April this year. But first things first for this culinary team: a new, more accessible restaurant in Century City Mall called Arrozeria.
The place is exactly as the name suggests: it is dedicated to rice, a staple in the Philippines, and a food much beloved by Spain. While Arrozeria has a full menu, the highlight belongs to the paellas. You can have them served al dente and thin, which is traditional in Spain, or soft and wet, which Filipinos tend to prefer. There are also traditional versions which I haven’t seen in Manila yet: a Caldoso, which is soupy, and Meloso, saucy. Risottos and fiduea made with noodles, are all found on the menu too.
Arrozeria has partnered with the International Rice Research Institute, using a variety that is grown and common in the Philippines, ensuring you don’t feel guilty while indulging in your paella, which are all done incredibly well here. The chef at the helm of the kitchen was brought in specifically to deal with the rice dishes, to ensure that everything served here, is exactly how they would have it in Spain. The Valenciana is perfect when done al dente and thin, with that crispy tutong everyone scrambles for.
Abanda, with fresh seafood, has a broth which seeps into every grain of rice, essentially flavorful umami at its best. Fideua are standard crowd pleasers, with the Negra’s salty squid ink a favorite of visitors thus far. But the true standouts are the ones Arrozeria is introducing its diners to: the Caldoso and the Meloso. There is only one version of the soupy rice, and it comes dressed with snow peas and crab. The soup tastes so much like the crab and of the sea: a rich seafood bisque in essence. When I say soupy, it is even more wet than a traditional arroz caldo or congee, and is an experience in itself. The Meloso, with rice that has become tender and almost sticky from the sauce, has so many delicious iterations: we loved the Carrilleras with a gelatinous beef cheek, and the Cerdo Adobado y Boletus with the distinct funkiness of porcini mushroom.
Although the rice is the inevitable star, Arrozeria exercises the same careful restrain and skill when addressing the rest of their menu. There is a whole section dedicated to bocadillos or sandwiches, an affordable option for the lunch crowd. Starters come in hefty sharing portions, and are all reasonably-priced for their quality. Tabla de Pates comes with 4 patés made in house: campagne, cochinillo and mushrooms, chicken with pistachio, and a fish terrine. Each one had the incredibly smooth texture you required for paté, but with very distinct flavor profiles; our favorite was the fish and the robust and meaty campagne. Gambas con Gabardina is an aesthetic delight but is even better when popped into your mouth: a playful take on camaron and tempura, the crisp shrimps pair well with the thick mojo picon.
But some of the best dishes at Arrozeria are found in their mains: these are well-cooked, typical of the quality you’d see at Vask, but made more approachable to the casual diner. Pollo a la cazadora was cooked to perfection; chicken is often dry or the skin never crispy, but this dish had both juicy meat and shatteringly-crispy skin. Lomo de atun a la plancha was served the way tuna should be, with a pink, almost-rare center, whose flavor was only enhanced by the chunky tapenade. Best yet was the solomillo de cerdo, something I would come back for everyday if I could.
Pork tenderloin was at its most tender, sous-vide and served with a puree of pumpkin that had just the right amount of white chocolate to address the inherent sweetness of the vegetable. It was one of those simple dishes that you know can only be this good if done this well. I’d even have it over their cochinillo any day. Desserts here have some bright spots, like a goat’s milk dish that curdles into taho before your eyes, but seem a little disjointed from the rest of the brilliant menu. But in the end, after your heavy, gasp-inducing meal, it doesn’t matter any way.
Arrozeria, with its chic, ultra-modern interior, is the sort of casual restaurant that Manila will be buzzing for today. The menu still has touches of its more glamorous sister, but it is more approachable. There’s a rusticity to its paellas, which lets you eat the way one would in Spain, but there is also something very current about the concept. It transitions easily from day to night; you can have a paella for one at lunch, and share one at night with your colleagues after work, accompanied by an oversized jug of their version of sangria (I forgot to add that the cocktails here are good too, most of which are surprisingly fruity but still potent and strong). Let it work out its kinks, but even for a place so young, Arrozeria is already packing a very delicious punch.