MANILA -- Playfully plated in a black clay pot, squid ink laing balls sit in the gaps between white rocks. Sticks, fresh herbs, and edible flowers are arranged decoratively, creating a colorful bouquet. It looks like a centerpiece of a table setting but it's actually one of the dishes in a tasting menu.
“When they see the laing, some would ask, why are you putting a plant on the table? They don't know that's the dish,” shared chef Thirdy Dolatre.
This creative dish is one of the appetizers of Hapag's eight-course tasting menu. The small restaurant located behind a bulalohan along Katipunan Ave. in Quezon City, is a progressive Filipino eatery that plays with local ingredients and flavors.
Owned by three chefs, Dolatre, Kevin Navoa, and Kevin Villarica, it's a new dining space that challenges the norms of Filipino cuisine, through modern preparation and creative presentations.
The three chefs started with a private dining concept that offers their unique brand of cuisine -- a private catering business that they still do today.
“After our private dinners, people would usually ask us if we have a restaurant. At first we didn't want to open a restaurant because it's challenging. We were scared what would happen. When our customers repeatedly ask us, we decided to open a restaurant instead of the commissary,” explained chef Navoa.
The space on Katipunan was supposed to be their commissary but turned into a restaurant. The 25-seater restaurant's industrial chic design is minimal and sophisticated with bare concrete walls and floors, beautiful wooden furniture, nest-like pendant lights, and an open kitchen.
The minimalist interiors is a good contrast to the playful tasting menu. At P2,500 (+P800 for beverage pairing) per head, diners get one amuse bouche, five appetizers, one entree, and one dessert.
The restaurant is open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Their team at the restaurant is now eight including the three chef-owners. Each dish was carefully conceptualized to meet the standards of each member of the team. According to chef Dolatre, it's really a group effort. An idea starts with one and gets scrutinized and polished by the rest.
The result is a menu that is playful, unique, flavorful, and most importantly, filling.
“We wanted a tasting menu where a customer will not leave hungry. That's what we want to avoid,” chef Dolatre said.
Each meal starts with the Warek-Warek amuse bouche. It's a sisig-like dish with calamansi juice and sukang Iloko served in crispy baked wonton wrapper and topped with pickled onion and pansit-pansitan.
The second course is a simple sinuglaw dish. It's a small plate of kinilaw na tanigue with grilled pork, pickled vegetables and topped with herbs and edible flowers. Then the Oyster Bonete follows — fresh Aklan oyster in between a buttery bonete bun with adobo aioli.
Next is the Laing Stones then followed by the Ginataang Alimasag, which is a coconut squash, custard, crab meat, and prawn head sauce. Finishing the appetizer course is the Banans Heart Granola, slow cooked banana heart on a betel leaf topped with pinipig-cashew-raisin granola, served with black banana “bagoong,” and whipped cream.
Calamnsi sorbet immediately follows as palate cleanser.
CHOICES FOR MAIN COURSE
According to the chefs, they really played with the appetizer menu. The plates are presented in a rustic yet artful way and at the same time, featuring flavors are still familiar.
“I think what we're doing now is we're playing around with the appetizers more than the mains. At least a diner is not too adventurous, they can opt for the mains, which are safe. Our appetizers are a bit playful,” chef Navoa says.
For the entree diners have a choice between five dishes, which include: Kare Kare ni Lola V (oxtail flakes, peanut sauce, vegetables, bagoong multigrain rice), Litson Binagoongan (slow cooked pork belly, coconut bagoong sauce, pickled mango and eggplant, multigrain rice), Chicken Inasal (grilled boneless chicken, atchara, multigrain garlic rice), Bistek Tagalog (rib eye steak, onion puree, crispy onion strings, bistek jus), and Apahap Mayonesa (pan seared sea bass, malunggay and calamansi mayo, beetroot mayo, squid ink rice, dulong okoy).
To finish, there are two dessert options: first is The Tropics, which is a house churned coconut ice cream served wiith roasted pineapple, gluten-free polvoron, and latik with fish sauce (their local version of salted caramel). Then there's the Mangga't Suman, Guimaras mango semifredo with fried panutsa rice cake, meringue, and latik with fish sauce.
The chef owners describe their food as a combination of classical and progressive. While their dishes are plated in a more contemporary and playful way, the flavors are still Filipino.
“It's both progressive and classical. I think there are Filipino dishes that you don't want to touch like kare-kare, nothing to change there. We try to balance both,” Navoa says.
The ultimate goal for the team is to be one of the best Filipino restaurants not only in the country but in Asia. It's rare to see Filipino restaurants landing a spot on the best restaurants list but Hapag hopes to be on it in the future.
“Definitely, a personal dream is to at least be one of Asia's top restaurants. It's a bit reaching but why not? If you only have one life to live, go for it. Hopefully one day,” Navoa says.