MANILA, Philippines - Nestled in the hills of Antipolo is an artists' haven that offers a dream venue for food and art connoisseurs alike.
The Pinto Art Museum is located on the sprawling grounds of the Antipolo weekend retreat of neurologist and art patron Dr. Joven Cuanang.
It houses major paintings of some of the country's best contemporary visual artists, part of Cuanang's formidable collection of artworks he's been acquiring since the 1990's.
The museum, as well as Cuanang's weekend home in Antipolo, takes on a Mediterranean feel. Antipolo-based artist Tony Leaño made the most of the existing landscape, working around the uneven terrain to preserve much of the natural vegetation. With its wide open spaces, the natural canopies and foliage, the relaxing ambiance can undoubtedly feed artistic inspiration.
Leaño himself, who gave [email protected] a tour, said American novelist John Irving was so taken with this place he found his own little corner on the rooftop to read a book.
|Chef Ricci and Irene Gurango of Laya
Seeing that the museum did not have an in-house cafe, husband-and-wife team Irene and Chef Ricci Gurango decided to open Earth Cafe, an all-day cafe that offers visitors earthy food options.
"We serve sustainable food, organic coffee, dishes made from organic ingredients," Irene Gurango said.
The Gurangos run Laya, a unique, private personalized dining experience offering a full course cooked up by a personal chef. The Gurangos started Laya in 2009.
This month, Laya has also found a home inside the museum grounds.
Laya's new home
"The museum is where you want to see what the art in Rizal is like. There's so much to see. Sometimes the afternoon isn't enough to see all the artworks displayed here," said Irene.
"It's interesting because now everywhere you look, it's beautiful, visually arresting, almost like you're pressured to make the food beautiful. It's great that we're now part of the Pinto Art Museum. A lot of people can come here and experience more than just dining," Irene said.
|Laya serves themed dinners at Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo City.
"Laya started out as a private kitchen. We opened it first to our family and friends. Not even a month after that we started getting reservations from people we didn't know. It developed into a weekend dining experience," Irene added.
But while they started out with a revolving menu, mainly of a southeast Asian theme, their clients also developed favorites.
"We have a set called Laya Signatures which is our best seller that's available every weekend. And [we have] another set which changes every weekend," Chef Ricci said.
Laya offers themed dinners on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 6 p.m to 9 p.m. They design their themed menu based on available ingredients.
"We have our Antipolo fiesta. It's composed of kasuy (cashew), suman, mangga. We have the Antipolo dessert composed of caramelized suman, caramelized mangoes and top it off with mantecado ice cream. We serve it in May, the month of Antipolo, but many request for it so we serve it many times throughout the year."
As for the revolving menu, Irene said it gives them room to experiment.
"A popular favorite is spiced prawns in tom yum emulsion," Irene said.
Given Chef Ricci's training in Thai cuisine at the Blue Elephant in Bangkok, many of the dishes they prepare, said Irene, are infused with Thai herbs and spices.
Laya's His and Hers menu
Two of their best sellers are the cashew crusted salmon and ginger honey and grilled steak with red wine sauce. These items are the main course in their Valentine's His and Hers menu.
|Cashew crusted salmon and ginger honey
"The salmon is a Norwegian salmon, cashew-crusted and pan-seared. It has a honey-ginger sauce and comes with saffron-rice pilaf. The steak is a US hanging tender steak. It comes with spiced crushed potatoes and red wine reduced sauce," Chef Ricci said.
Chef Ricci said the 5-course meal begins with a pre-appetizer or amuse bouche--melon balls with sea salt topped with cherry tomatoes and cilantro pesto served on a stick. It is then followed by a trio of appetizers including a pork, shrimp, chicken wonton bag, then a Thai tomato basil soup topped with cilantro foam.
The honey-ginger sauce plays wonderfully with the cashew crusted salmon.
The dishes, which bear a southeast Asian flavor, complement each other. A dessert of chocolate tart with ginger candy decked with basil-infused creme closes this fantastic meal. Chef Ricci told us that the male visitors often end up sharing dessert with the ladies.
|Chocolate tart with ginger candy decked with basil-infused creme
"It's loaded with aphrodisiac ingredients: wild honey, ginger, dark chocolate. It's going to be very romantic," Irene pointed out. "It was a conscious decision to put ingredients like that into the food... You'd like for everybody to get in the mood for love."
Laya's Valentine package
Irene and Chef Ricci recommend that couples enjoy the full Laya package in a romantic setting framed by Antipolo's famed sunset.
For Valentine's Day, Laya offers a complimentary glass of organic French rose wine, and free entrance to the Pinto Art Museum.
"We suggest the guests come early, spend the whole afternoon just appreciating art, the relaxing ambience. And, at sunset, we serve cocktails on the rooftop," Irene added.
"Start by having a quiet lunch. Spend the afternoon reading a book or being surrounded by so much beauty, art, nature, quiet conversation over a pot of tea, then dinner. What else can you ask for?" Irene said.
|CASHEW CRUSTED SALMON WITH HONEY GINGER SAUCE AND SAFFRON RICE PILAF
To cook the cashew-crusted salmon:
Drain salmon and coat in ground cashew.
Coat with flour. Then fry in oil until golden brown.
Garnish with asparagus, cucumber, crispy sweet potato strings.
To make the honey-ginger sauce:
Combine light soy sauce, vegetable oil, wild honey, ginger sauce with ginger zest and lemon.
Heat over low flame, and allow to thicken.
Drizzle over the salmon.
To cook the rice pilaf:
Steep the saffron in hot water to release the flavor until the water turns yellow.
Saute chopped onions in butter.
Add jasmine rice and mix. Season with salt.
Mix in the saffron-water, cover and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.
For inquiries or reservations contact Laya at (0917) 846-4322 or e-mail [email protected]
Pinto Art Museum is open from Tuesdays to Sundays, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. at Silangan Gardens, 1 Sierra Madre Heights, Grandheights, Antipolo City, tel. no. (632) 697-1015, and e-mail: [email protected]
"Taste Buds" is a food segment that airs Tuesdays at 10:30 a.m. on [email protected]. It features some of the country's most sought-after chefs and their latest food creations.