Among restaurant industry insiders, Chef Markus Gfeller’s name commands deep respect and evokes a sense of nostalgia. It’s hard to deny the discreet yet impactful contributions this Swiss-born chef has made to the Manila culinary scene these past 26 years since he first wowed Filipino diners at Grassi’s in the Benpres building in Ortigas, circa 1992.
From the serene opulence of Grassi’s, the minimalist classics at Soleil, to the steak-centric fare of Gaucho’s, and the well-curated wine pairings at CAV—his former restaurants have shown his deft understanding of and respect for changing consumer preferences without losing his classic European culinary identity.
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While the ever humble Gfeller will deny this fact, his restaurants paved the way for the popularity of certain dining concepts, like the enomatic wine dispenser at CAV which expanded the now ubiquitous wine-by-the-glass options, and Manila’s predilection for Argentinian-style steaks thanks to Gaucho and Pampas.
After CAV closed down a few years ago, Gfeller stayed quietly busy until his latest foray, called Pinot. Occupying CAV’s former spot on Bonifacio High Street in BGC, this intimate haven offers a more relaxed approach to fine dining, still upscale but with carefully curated set menus, displaying attention to detail in cooking and ingredients.
I caught up with Gfeller during a lull in his press launch preparations to talk about this latest entry in the dining scene. “Well, I am still here and I am fortunate that I can do what I like to do, that I am passionate about, and that somebody still wants to open up a restaurant with me,” he chuckles. “Obviously, we also have to evolve a little bit. We don’t just follow trends but we like what is going on in the industry. The game has changed tremendously for the last 26 years.”
The Pinot experience
Pinot promises to deliver the same fine quality that Gfeller has been known for since he burst into the scene in the 1990’s. For one, the menu reflects the strong relationship he has with his suppliers, showcasing a predominance of organic and sustainably produced local ingredients. “What is really nice with the growth of the industry is that it also brings a deeper appreciation for products and ingredients. For example, I have farmers now who grow specialty products for us while before, everything had to be imported,” he notes.
Gfeller was always well known for creating memorable signature dishes at his previous restaurants. He shyly admits, “I usually get flattered when people come in and tell me that they still remember my soft-shell crab dish. I am flattered that they remember the dishes I prepared and that I made an impact in the dining scene at that time. Hopefully, people will remember what we prepared here 20 years down the line.”
His sea bass entrée at Pinot harks back to one of his early signature dishes, Seared Chilean Sea Bass with Shiitake Mushrooms and Garlic Confit from Soleil, where he popularized sea bass when other restaurants opted for the more familiar salmon.
While Pinot aims for an unpretentious, relaxed atmosphere, the food remains luxurious and even indulgent, but with ingredients of more sustainable provenance. Starters include Tuna Crudo, Lobster and Crabmeat Salad, Duck Liver and Truffle Paté, Lobster Sago, and Seared Foie Gras. Main dishes run the gamut from Wine-Braised Beef Cheeks, to Rack of Bobby Veal and Kurobuta Pork Belly.
Carvings figure prominently as well, with US Ribeye on the Bone, Whole Roasted Maple Leaf Duck served two ways, Breast with Black Berry Coulis and Ragu à l’Orange with Coconut Adlai, and Rack of Lamb that is herb crusted with Ratatouille and Garlic Potato Purée.
Desserts are just as tempting, with one’s choice of XO Cognac Flan, Pineapple Colada, White Chocolate Flan, Praline Chocolate, Raspberry Semi Freddo, and Tart au Chocolate.
“What I realized is that around the world, and not just in the Philippines, people regard restaurants as experiences. You often have to be ready to reinvent yourself,” Gfeller muses as he emphasized that Pinot operates at a more personal and interactive level.
Team Pinot at your service
Gfeller is a big believer in taking care of his team, who have loyally followed him from his previous restaurants to Pinot. “It helps a lot that you have a core team that wants to come with you,” he adds. He ensures that his Pinot team has room to grow and learn as they help create unique dining experiences for their guests.
This belief stems from his earlier years in education, where he had the opportunity to share his knowledge with the next generation of hospitality workers. “As a teacher, I find myself in a beautiful moment in my life where you can share and give opportunities to other people, see them get into careers themselves. It is tremendously satisfying to help people and communities while doing something you like to do and being respected likewise in the industry,” he explains.
Pinot eschews the formal and stiff dining of old for a more personalized and approachable experience. And Gfeller still carries the same zest and passion from his old Grassi’s days, as he reinvents himself yet again for this Instagram generation. He shares, “As long as you have a good product and that you can express your passion with it, people with follow.”
Pinot, The Spa Building, Lane P, Bonifacio High Street, Bonifacio Global City, (0998) 586-4230, IG and FB @pinotmanila, open 5 pm onwards Mondays to Saturdays