By Jessi Singson
I try to always look on the bright side of life, but happily find that there are often moments where a little rain and shade are equally as beautiful. This past weekend, we had planned a big trip to Anvaya Cove. Having been in winter in Melbourne for the past handful of months, I was excited for any chance to finally get some sun, and trade in my pale skin for a glowing tan. But the winds were not in my favour, and plans fell through. The weather forecasts warned of rain and cloud cover, and some of our friends couldn’t make it anymore. The few of us left still itching to get out of the city made the decision to make the most of what remained an open weekend.
We made the drive to Tagaytay, a beloved refuge of pleasantly cooler weather, cleaner air, and al fresco dining. Tagaytay is close enough that a spontaneous trip is never a headache (it’s an easy 60 to 90-minute drive from Manila), and yet also far enough to escape the smog, traffic, and often stress, of city life. We had nothing planned – my typical list of must-try restaurants was nowhere to be found, and neither was any semblance of an itinerary. We welcomed the drizzles of rain, the chance to cosy up in light knitwear, and the coffees sipped while watching the world go by. We chose restaurants on a whim, and by some supreme benevolent force, hit gold with each one.
On our first night, we ended up at RSM Lutong Bahay for dinner. One of our friends had eaten there before, and promised it would deliver far better than any of our other options for the evening. It’s easily spotted on Aguinaldo Highway, which is littered with restaurants that offer a great view of the Taal volcano, but doesn’t ring a bell quite like the many other franchises on offer. “Lutong bahay” means home-cooked food, and it was the exact comfort we had all been craving!
The restaurant itself is massive, and extends quite deep into a garden area with water fountains and gazebos that house various sizes of tables for diners. We each had our say in the dishes to be ordered for the table, and I finally got my request of pork sisig! A guilty favourite that I often miss while I’m away from home. And of course, we couldn’t play shy and pretend we didn’t want our own cup of garlic rice each!
We ordered adobong kangong with garlic (water spinach cooked with vinegar, soy sauce, and garlic), adobong pusit (squid cooked with vinegar, soy sauce, and garlic), crispy crablets, sizzling pork sisig (boiled then fried pork jowls, ears, and liver), and pork barbecue sticks.
We were smitten when all our food arrived. The smell was intoxicating. Of course, I admit that I am biased in my love of Filipino cooking and its accompanying powerful odours, but how could one deny this smorgasbord of local favourites? Everything was on point. The squid was well cooked and not rubbery. The crispy crablets were indeed very crispy, and unceremoniously dunked in vinegar and quickly devoured! The pork barbecue was sweet and sticky and reminded me of our childhood parties, or any Filipino celebration, actually! We could not want for more flavour or texture because each dish delivered.
Although, I assume in an attempt to serve everything all at once, the sisig was brought to us sans the revered crackling and sizzling from a scorching hot plate. One of my favourite things about ordering sizzling sisig in a restaurant is the delayed gratification that comes with watching, hearing, and smelling the meat singe and crisp up in front of us. Stomach grumbling, yet playing coy – it’s a mind game of how long I can last before digging in to that steaming hot chaos that I love so much. What can I say? The reward of that added texture of crispiness far outweighs the wait that seems to last a lifetime.
The next evening, we miraculously ended up at Chateau Hestia. I say miraculously because it was not the most straightforward find! We went down three different streets past the landmark indicated on the map we were given, one of which led to our car being chased by angry dogs! The restaurant is charming and romantic – a haphazard mix of wooden tables and chairs, plants and chalkboard menus. It is very intimate and warm, full of little touches of art and memorabilia, and it is surrounded by a garden! It was too dark for us to be able to fully appreciate, but gives us even more reason to return some time soon.
The complimentary breadbasket had their homemade bread and eggplant dip. They sell these at the deli that extends from the main restaurant, which also has all sorts of cold cuts, cheeses, and European fare for sale. We spotted bottles of homemade limoncello (their version being made with 50% calamansi and 50% dalandan) and vin d’orange as well – impressive! I asked if I could order some limoncello before our meal, and they gave me a shotglass-ful on the house. It was very strong and flavourful!
Again, we ordered a handful of dishes to all share – Hestia’s onion soup, salmon salpicao, grilled seabass with buttered vegetables and penne, pasta di mari, and a half margherita (tomato, pesto and mozzarella) and half romano (tomato, olives, anchovies, capers, and mozzarella) pizza. I don’t even know how to begin talking about the soup and salpicao, because they left us speechless. Pure comfort in a bowl, the French onion soup was far from bashful, and quite full-bodied and savoury for such a light texture. I think it was a good choice not to cover the entire bowl with the croute and cheese, so as not to detract from the honesty of the caramelised onions and stock. The salmon salpicao came as a surprise! We weren’t too sure on the order, but found the plate almost empty within minutes! Chateau Hestia gives us a much lighter version of the ever-favourite beef salpicao, while still maintaining the integrity and essence of the original dish – full of saucy, garlicky savouriness that keeps you going for seconds and thirds.
The seabass was average – nothing I’d recommend. It was on their specials board, so wouldn’t be on the regular menu anyway. It was quite overcooked and under seasoned, but luckily we had all the other dishes to share and enjoy. The pizza was good, we found nothing to complain about, but it did not wow us like the other dishes. The thin crust was a little undercooked as well, ending up quite soggy.
Our pasta di mare was beyond delicious. The menu reads “A combination of scallops and prawns in perfectly-simmered pomodoro sauce”, but instead of scallops we had gotten fish. It would’ve been nice for the server to notify us about the change in the dish, even though I’m sure they meant well in making the replacement. Regardless, the fish was cooked beautifully! The prawns were juicy and plump, and the pomodoro sauce was so fresh and sweet! We could tell that they used whole tomatoes because of the mashed tomato chunks in the sauce, and from how it wasn’t that rich red that we often find in canned tomatoes, but rather a lighter, pinkish sauce.
Overall, it was a beautiful dinner. The ambiance, the company, the very accommodating service, and the delicious food were a killer combination! It’s a little pricier than RSM Lutong Bahay, but paralleled in the sense that they are both unpretentious garden venues that make you feel like you’re enjoying somebody’s lovingly home cooked food. Both seem to be hidden gems that can be easily overlooked, and both gave us food full of sincerity and warmth to comfort even the rainiest of days.