Of all the lunch invitations I’ve received in my 12 years with Cook, the invite to Bistro Manuel was probably my most anticipated. The chef, Ariel Manuel, is one of the few truly legendary chefs we have locally. Along with Chefs Billy King, Tonyboy Escalante and Jessie Sincioco and, of course, Norbert Gandler, they are the few who have molded and influenced how fine dining has evolved in Manila in the last couple of decades.
Chef Ariel Manuel rose to culinary prominence with his restaurant Lolo Dad’s in the early-2000s. Located along Quirino Highway in Malate, it wasn’t really at the center of the fine-dining scene. But very quickly, through word of mouth, his reputation for fine cuisine spread and people made a beeline for his restaurant. As someone who was starting to get interested in the hospitality industry around that time when Lolo Dad’s was making a splash, I knew I had to come and try the food. But because of a fresh grad’s budget constraints and then eventually an employee’s meager wages a few years later, the plan to visit Lolo Dad’s for a meal kept getting postponed until one day, we heard it closed down. Maggie, our managing editor at Cook, and I would sometimes pass along Quirino and tell each other that we’d go next payday. That went on for a few years, which is very typical of how we plan things, until we couldn’t because Lolo Dad’s was no more. Regrets, regrets until fast-forward to a month ago when good friend Nana Nadal messaged me to say that we were getting invited for lunch at Chef Ariel’s new place.
Although I didn’t get to try the food at Lolo Dad’s, I knew of it from articles and stories. And for someone who is classically trained, the food Chef Ariel served is what proper food is. Having gone to a French cooking school in the early 2000s, my ideas on what fine dining is and what chefs are supposed to cook is quite different from what I normally see today. I know that it’s only been 15 years since then, but somewhere in the mid, to late-2000s, there seemed to have been a shift toward a more modern, more “scientific” approach to fine cooking. Even the plating of food, how they are sauced, the textures, there was such a marked difference. To my mind and in my culinary heart, this shift transformed cooking from art to science, from kitchens to pseudo-laboratories that produced novelties rather than proper meals. For me, the shift seemed to feed curiosity more than it did the palate, and it seemed wrong.
My first few bites of food at Bistro Manuel confirmed what I’ve been thinking all these years.
Very few chefs cook and think the way he does anymore. For the young chefs of today, it seems like cooking something you can’t cook at home is enough reason to dine at their places. It’s as if immersion circulators, liquid nitrogen and pressurized canisters that turn sauces into foam are what fine cooking is all about. Either that or plate something artfully and sprinkle a few edible flowers and turn whatever liquid into beads and, voila!
Our meal started with an assortment of small bites, canapés of pate, a tomato relish of sorts and cheese. There was also the Baked Brie with walnuts and served with croutons topped with a tomato marmalade. Then came what must be my favorite seafood preparation of all time, Lolo Dad’s Café Baked Oysters with Foie Gras. The melted cheese and bit of pasta underneath made the oyster appetizer a bit more substantial. I actually plan to go back just to have a few of those baked oysters. A few salads were served too, most notable of them was the Spinach and Warm Mushroom Salad. Simple, but the flavors and textures work. After a few spoons of palate-cleansing Calamansi Sorbet, we were off to the mains. Crowd favorites like the Herb de Provence Rack of Lamb, Duck Confit and Seared Scallops and Scampi were exquisite as expected. As someone who is a proud carnivore, it was pleasantly surprising that the entrée I enjoyed most was the Baked Chilean Seabass with Blue Crab Mash and Sea Urchin Foam. Decadent fish, briny crab, rich buttered mash and salty-sweet sea urchin all made for the most pleasurable bites. As I am not much of a dessert person, I still enjoyed the sweet ending served. After such an indulgent meal, the Lemon Meringue Pie seemed to work best for me, as the tartness of the lemon custard seemed to wash away all the rich bites I had. It was definitely a lunch I’ll remember for a long while. On top of the food, a long chat with the very humble Chef Ariel Manuel was icing on the cake.
More than the decadent food, more than the familiar tastes of French techniques and ingredients, dining at Bistro Manuel served as a homecoming of sorts. It was as if I was back in 2002, at the kitchens of Le Cordon Bleu in London, tasting new flavors, learning new techniques and wondering why we can’t eat this way all the time. Chef Ariel’s food is all about ingredients, proper execution and service. There are no gimmicks, no novelties. It’s just about really good food, cooked well. Rambling on and on about what good food should be and how they should be cooked is pointless. There will always be diners who want novelty just as there will be those who appreciate the classics. Whichever side you’re on, you owe yourself a visit to Bistro Manuel. Thank me later.
Bistro Manuel is at Six Axis Center, 4347 B. Valdez Street, Poblacion, Makati City. Call (02) 8718566 for reservations.