I can think of only two Filipino influenced restaurants outside of the Philippines that I would like to write about because my meals there were both pleasing to the palate and so cleverly conceived. Le Servan of the Filipino-French Levha sisters in Paris is one of them, the Filipino influence appearing as just hints of flavor here and there. The second one is Bad Saint, in Washington, D.C., which has received numerous accolades in the American press since it opened three years ago.
My first visit to Bad Saint was in the late Spring of 2018. Bad Saint’s take on laing, made with kale, lobster, and coconut cream, seemed so “wrong”, yet it was so mind-blowingly smart and so delicious that I vowed to eat everything on the menu and return for more. We literally tasted the entire menu of 9 to 10 dishes on that visit, beginning with a surprisingly clever and mouth-watering starter of radishes served over a bed of burnt coconut cream. Only the burnt coconut hinted of anything Filipino, but there was much more to come. A seemingly everyday dish of ampalaya with egg was tricked up with black beans, lots of garnishes, and fried shallots, resulting in one of the best ampalaya dishes I have ever tasted. Adobong sugpo slathered in a veritable oil slick of what I incorrectly thought was squid ink, turned out to be an unctuous sauce/paste made from black garlic and bay leaves and several other ingredients. It was brilliant! And yes, I appreciated the unlimited rice. We also enjoyed a crispy pork dinuguan, a gorgeous dish of Manila clams with Chinese style chorizo, and a platter of pancit. There was a stew sent our way as well as a vegetarian sisig that was clever and tasty, but it wasn’t a favorite of mine. Nine out of ten dishes absolutely hit the spot!
But this isn’t your typical Filipino “kinilaw, sinigang, adobo, lechon meal”, and that is precisely the point! As Chef Tom Cunanan said rather clearly that day, “I never set out to cook fiesta food” implying that lots of Filipinos cook great Filipino meals at home, but that isn’t what he is about. Having grown up in the U.S., eating Filipino food cooked by his mom who passed away too soon, and spending some of his career working with Chef Jose Andres, Cunanan took the Filipino influence and infused it into his own creativity, using ingredients readily available in the Washington, D.C. area. He also took great pains to re-create flavors from home like ginamos, bagoong, etc. using other proxy ingredients. What came through loud and clear was not only a chef with brilliant taste buds, but one with a refreshingly intellectual approach to his food. Adventurous and experimental, young and brash, he has some misses for sure, but OMG, he has far more brilliant hits!
Filipino cuisine is perhaps one of the first truly fusion cuisines, what with the layers of influences and ingredients from India, Southeast Asia, China, Spain, the Americas all melding into the hodgepodge of dishes like Pancit Malabon (noodle from China and achuete from Mexico), Kare-Kare (possibly from Sepoys left behind after the British departed), and even halo-halo from the Japanese pre-World War II. And now that millions of Filipinos have emigrated to all corners of the globe, it is only natural that our food should evolve further, in new contexts and with new ingredients in the varied places folks have settled in. It is in this vein that one must consider Filipino-American chefs who are breathing new life into a cuisine in a setting with so few of the traditional ingredients available for their use. Chef Cunanan makes no apologies for the benefit of Pinoys who might find his approach something short of “authentic”. My view is, if the food tastes brilliant, and it possesses a respectful reference to a key Filipino flavor profile, then it is a success, period. I have never been a fan of fusion food that takes disparate ingredients and methods and tries hard to do something different, resulting in an insult to the original dish. But Chef Cunanan’s food isn’t this at all.
So last month, on a return trip to Washington, D.C., we managed to secure a reservation for Bad Saint’s special Christmas holiday offering, dubbed “Pagdiriwang”, a Filipino Feast. A totally different menu from our meal last spring, this fixed menu included a rockfish kinilaw with satsuma oranges and amaranth seeds that was refreshing but perhaps more reminiscent of a Peruvian ceviche, followed by a sinigang of flaky black sea bass resting on a thickened, near bouillabaisse-like broth, heady with lobster and seafood flavors and soured with brown tamarind paste (I am guessing, as it wasn’t a greenish unripe acidity), and a bubuto or Mexican-style tamales with crab fat and salmon roe. I enjoyed the sinigang the most—having cooked at least 20 kinds of sinigang myself, this one had the West in its sights, but had a soul that was purely Pinoy. An absolute stunner.
The chef sent out a “Pinoy spaghetti” that was beautifully crafted (handmade noodles, air-dried beef, sausages) and a nod to modern Filipino holiday food, which tasted very good if a tad salty. But I much preferred the off-menu thinly sliced massive fish liver served almost “Milanese-style” topped with a salad and served over a bed of ginamos flavored mash and sprinkled with fresh anchovies. He said he was influenced by Chef Margarita Forés, who merged Filipino and Italian ingredients and techniques. This for me, could have been the best dish of the evening, just slightly edging out the sinigang. We finished with the chef’s take on lechon with beautiful thin crackling, served with playful sauces like “Mang Tom’s” and a fresno banana chili sauce. Almost too full at this point, it was hard to resist his delicious version of puto bumbong, unlike any version of the treat you’ve seen before.
All told, I managed to taste some 20 dishes at Bad Saint in just two visits and it boils down to this—beautiful, intelligent, palate-pleasing food that warms the soul and challenges conventional thinking about Filipino cuisine. Actually, the holiday meal brought me back full circle to the concept of Filipino food as the original fusion cuisine, because where else could one pull off a meal with South American, French, Mexican, Italian, Spanish, and Asian influences than in a “Filipino” restaurant in Washington, D.C., around Christmas time? Kudos to Chef Tom Cunanan, and to Genevieve Villamora, one of the co-owners who charmingly manages the front of house, and all the other folks at Bad Saint! I will definitely be back for more!
Bad Saint, 3226 11th Street NW, Washington, DC 20010, USA, www.badsaintdc.com
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