Since pandemic restrictions started easing up in 2022, I’ve noticed something oddly exciting about Manila’s fine dining scene. Exciting, because it seems high-end dining is back with a vengeance, with a flurry of restaurants, both old and new, now crowding my Instagram feed, especially as we approach Valentine’s Day. Odd, because a large chunk of these establishments are anchoring their offerings in the most indulgent manner—via the tasting menu.
In my many years (close to two decades, actually) of chronicling Manila’s dining scene, I’ve never seen more than a handful of restaurants with tasting menus, some of which have since closed down or evolved into more flexible formats. But these days, there’s an embarrassment of riches—pre-pandemic stalwarts like Gallery by Chele, Helm, Toyo Eatery, Mecha Uma, Hapag, Metiz, alongside newer players like Alegria, Lore, Modan, a resurrected 12/10, as well as private dining spots Balai Palma, Linamnam and Lasa Supper Club—most of them offering menus upwards of P4,000 per person (ouch!), wine not included.
The tasting or “degustation” (from the French for “tasting”) menu is akin to a turbo-charged set meal, usually involving a minimum of six or seven courses, all the way up to 20 or even more, depending on the ambitions of the chef and their kitchen. The term “tasting” sums it up—a parade of small-ish portions, from amuse-bouche to dessert, that gives a broad sampling of the chef’s creativity and the kitchen’s capabilities.
The tasting menu usually showcases the restaurant’s greatest hits. Or else, it can be built around ingredients in season, the way Chef Bruce Ricketts of Mecha Uma changes his omakase menu based on the freshest seafood flown in from Japan. The tasting menu can also be thematic, a chef’s childhood memories for example, the way Gallery by Chele’s Chef Chele Gonzalez dreamed up last year’s Re-Encounters menu after an extended stay at his hometown in Cantabria, Spain. Or the menu can be inspired by a chef’s research into his own culinary traditions, as Chef Tatung Sarthou does with his Traditions menu at Lore, filled with references to his Cebuano roots, his forays in Mindanao, as well as Chinese, Spanish and Mexican influences.
The main conceit of the tasting menu is that the diner has little choice but to surrender to the dictates of the chef who curates the dishes, chooses the sequence and timing, and usually requests that the entire table order the same menu. In truth, I’m mostly happy to follow what the chef chooses because I get a thrill out of the unexpected. When ordering à la carte, we tend to choose based on our biases, sometimes unconscious, and ignore what we think seem too uninteresting or strange.
At its best, the tasting menu gently coerces us to eat outside our comfort zones and expand our palates. But the tasting menu can’t guarantee a 100% success rate. There will always be dishes I’ll love, dishes I’ll hate (not that often though), and dishes I frankly won’t remember. And when the menu features an endless number of courses, there’s no way to cut the meal short even if I’m already bursting at the seams by dish number seven, but with seven more dishes to come!
In the 1990s, the degustation became de rigueur at the most coveted tables around the world, from El Bulli in Spain, to The French Laundry and Alinea in the United States, and Noma in Denmark by the early 2000s. (Note that Japan had their own multi-course omakase and kaiseiki traditions long before.) It was just a matter of time before Manila restaurants started introducing their own tasting menus, influenced by how the fine dining scene was evolving abroad. While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when they first made an appearance locally, I recall that restaurants, especially hotel-based ones, started offering them for special holidays or private dinners, but not on a daily basis.
I believe the first restaurant in the country that made the tasting menu its focal point was The Goose Station (yes, a play on “degustation”) run by chefs Rob Pengson and Sunshine Puey in 2008 until 2016. Inspired by their travels, they introduced molecular gastronomy techniques and normalized “tweezer food,” jokingly referencing the kitchen tweezers used for plating that chefs can’t seem to do without these days. I especially remember the chefs’ Rizal menu that told the story of our national hero’s revolutionary journey in seven dramatic courses.
Throughout the 2010s, a smattering of fine dining restaurants in Manila started offering their own tasting menus, most notably Chef Chele Gonzalez’s Gallery Vask, Chef Cyril Soenen’s Impressions in Resorts World Manila, The Tasting Room in City of Dreams Manila, and Chef Josh Boutwood’s The Test Kitchen followed by Helm.
The tasting menu format also found its way into establishments that eschewed the white tablecloth and formal service of Western fine dining for a more casual Asian approach, like Chef Bruce Ricketts’ omakase-oriented Sensei Sushi and Mecha Uma and Chef Niño Laus’ Ninyo Fusion Cuisine. Of course, Chef Jordy Navarra’s Toyo Eatery pioneered a Filipino-oriented tasting menu, alongside Pepita’s Kitchen for private dining, Hapag and Metiz, each with quite different takes on local ingredients and techniques.
While The Goose Station, Impressions and The Tasting Room are no more, some retooled like The Test Kitchen and Gallery Vask (becoming Gallery by Chele), with all of them having to temporarily close down or radically adapt during the Covid lockdowns. But since 2022, the last two establishments are back with a vengeance, along with a slew of new restaurants that are breathing new life into the tasting menu.
The dining public, for its part, is also back with a vengeance, ready to spend upwards of P4,000 on meals that offer something that even the best home cooking or takeout can’t replicate—meticulously crafted dishes, every component made from scratch, artful presentation on custom tableware, and with serious wine and cocktail menus to match. For those who may balk at the hefty prices, there are real-world reasons for the high price tag: rent, labor, equipment upkeep, sanitation, and the ongoing challenges of sourcing top quality ingredients at skyrocketing costs.
I certainly can’t fault these restaurants for catering almost exclusively to the one-percent who won’t bat an eyelash at a P20,000 bill for a party of four. Their rationale would be that these meals can be considered a steal at under US$100 per person, compared to the hundreds of dollars tasting menus cost abroad. So if they can pay, then so be it, notwithstanding the country’s rising inflation and other economic woes.
Then how about those interested in all things gastronomic but without the expense account to match? Where can they go? There’s no easy answer really. But let’s be clear about one thing: the high-end market of chefs with their fancy tweezers and tasting menus is only one small, and arguably not that crucial, part of the Philippines’ entire culinary landscape. And perhaps the more interesting things are happening outside of that bubble.
Which reminds me of one such establishment which been doing its very own version of the tasting menu for much longer than any of the restaurants mentioned earlier. I’m talking of visual artist-writer Claude Tayag’s much celebrated Bale Dutung in Angeles City, Pampanga. As early as 2000, he started offering 10-course degustation meals in his home, bringing his sense of aesthetics, creative spirit and refined palate to Kapampangan cooking. An idea, he told me, that was 100% homegrown, without any specific influence from abroad. With no chef’s jackets and tweezers in sight, he and his wife Mary Ann have always put out a splendid table, enough for Anthony Bourdain himself to visit in 2008 for his TV show No Reservations. And guess what? More than 20 years later, Bale Dutung is still serving its famous multi-course meals, with their son Nico now running the show. Best of all, in prices that are, shall we say, slightly lower than the tasting menus you’ll find in Manila.