We’ve described the chef and restaurateur Charles Montañez as ambitious, hardworking, and exciting, and we’re happy to report he continues to be all three. The proof: his impressive new menu at his flagship restaurant Alegria Manila, the Alegria brand’s degustation spot at Uptown Parade in BGC. From the complexity of each dish’s making to the whimsy and creativity involved in their presentation, the 30something chef makes you feel as excited encountering each dish the way we imagine he and his team were while conjuring the new offerings in their heads.
The 11-course menu still speak of Montañez’s unwavering devotion to Asian and Latin American cuisine, and how the two when thoughtfully brought together can make a beautiful thing—not unlike one of the big paintings that hang on Alegria Manila’s walls, the one depicting a woman wearing a terno on one side and a Tehuana costume reminiscent of Frida Kahlo’s outfits on the other.
Consider for example an inasal-flavored chawanmushi dish contained in an open egg shell sitting on a stylized bird’s nest. We are told to carefully take a scoop of the gelatinous treat—which untouched looks like an egg with its yellow part intact—take it to our mouths and after the burst of savory flavor, follow it with a bite of the chicken flax tostada on the side.
Each dish is a lesson in Latin American cuisine: words unfamiliar to our ears keep cropping up as Montañez patiently, excitedly introduces each course to our table: salmuera, chicha de jora, tetela, moqueca. The first two are in a soupy noodle dish where the noodles are made of ubud. “Underneath is scallop cooked over wood fire, with truffle purée and what we call salmuera” which, continues the chef, is an Argentine salsa but here it consists of “smoked orange with burnt herbs soaked in butter and wine.”
The broth is a chicha de jora, “a Peruvian fermented corn beer,” says Montañez, but here the flavor is derived from prawn heads. As a flourish, the dish is finished with droplets of oil of oregano, basil, and parsley. And for an additional bespoke touch, our table is given a specially canned house-made caviar made of corn kombu and fish bones.
Another highlight of the new menu is the cod which, according to the chef, has been cooked over wood fire while wrapped in dahon ng saging. Garnished with a popular Maranao spice called sibujing, the fish sits atop a triangular stuffed tortilla, or tetela, whose roots, says Montañez, is Oaxaca, Mexico. The stuffing, however, comes from not very far: laing but with the added umami of mushrooms. The whole thing is brightened visually by a yellow sauce inspired by the moqeuca, a Brazilian seafood stew.
Listening to how the energetic Montañez seems to pluck ingredients and traditions from this or that region so confidently is all very amusing, and no doubt adds to the overall fun of the Alegria dining experience. And speaking of fun, this has loads of it: at one moment we are asked to pick from a wooden box filled with beautiful balisongs—the better to cut our Iberico pork with hiding under kale chicharon; at another moment, a waitstaff fires up a piece of paper to reveal our dessert of pineapple sous vide with muscovado sugar, rum and pink peppercorns, doused with coconut yogurt and sprinkled with grated tablea.
There’s also a special taco portion in the meal which us diners are supposed to “bond over.” (Trivia: the chef is a big taco fan, having grown up snacking on it a lot). He calls it a taco kit, consisting of blue corn tortillas and three different salsas: a salmuera, a salsa roja, and “an escabeche soaked in a tepache.” A tepache is like pineapple beer—according to the internet—or a fermented drink made from the rinds of pineapple. The piña in this particular tepache, offers Montañez, has been fermenting for a good nine months. Meanwhile, the star of the show, the meat element, is a chicken barbacoa, another one cooked while wrapped in banana leaf, this time with a variety of chilies like pasilla, morita and Chile de arbol.
Montañez says the current menu is a deeper dive into his knowledge of Asian and Latin American cuisines—as compared to Alegria Manila’s inaugural menu which opted for, at least to the Filipino palate, more popular-sounding and familiar-tasting dishes. That first one, however, introduced us to the spectacular talent that is Charles Montañez, and we still remember that October dinner as one of the more satisfying tasting menu experiences we’ve had in a while. This freshly launched menu, though, is just that more elaborate, substantial (filling both our tummies and knowledge banks), provocative, and—dare we say it—entertaining.
[Alegria Manila is on the Ground Floor of Uptown Parade, 9th Avenue corner 38th Street, Taguig City. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 5PM to 1AM. Diners can choose from a 14-course menu (PHP4,950++) or a 7-course menu (PhP3,600++). Each tasting menu comes with an optional cocktail and wine pairing at an additional cost. An ala carte menu is also available. For reservations, call 63-936-9089530]