Where pigs fly and fish are blue
By Julie Cabatit-Alegre
Updated February 26, 2009 12:00 AM
MANILA, Philippines – The first thing that you find appealing about the combo bistros, which opened recently at the ground level of the new Eastwood Mall in Libis, Quezon City, is their names — BluFish and The Flying Pig. The menu is just as creative, combining fresh flavors with western and Asian influences. “But I would not call it fusion,” chef Peter Ayson clarifies. “What we do is rustic cooking with a twist.”
“It’s the kind of food you’d serve at home to impress your guests,” says managing partner Raymund Magdaluyo, the young restaurateur who is also behind other popular eating places, such as Red Crab, Heaven and Eggs, Claw Daddy, New Orleans, and Fish Out of Water.
“Contemporary coastal cooking” is how it is described on the BluFish menu. “Think of the areas along the Mediterranean, the Italian Riviera, the French Riviera,” Magdaluyo says.
“It’s simple cooking, nothing sophisticated,” Ayson explains. “The highlight of the recipe is the freshness of the seafood itself. We like to source locally, such as our Visayan sea bass from Iloilo called bulgan, or apahap in Tagalog, so we get it really fresh, not frozen.”
Top on the menu is the Moroccan Sea Bass, which is steamed Visayan sea bass with lemon doukah (marinade made with Mediterranean spices), roasted vegetables and couscous stuffing. It is served whole, for sharing. “The fish is cooked immediately after it is ordered, not before,” says Ayson. “It is cooked whole, rather than filleted, to keep the flavor, which you get from the bones, and also the moisture and texture.”
Ayson, who grew up and studied at the International School in Indonesia where his father worked as an expat, received his culinary training when he returned to the Philippines from CCA in Katipunan in Quezon City, and CIA in Napa Valley in California where he mastered in regional American cuisine, “which is really more than just burgers and fries,” Ayson says. He also worked as sous chef at Orange, the popular breakfast place in Chicago. He says his idol is celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who is also a healthy food advocate. “I’ve thought about my social responsibility to my guests,” he says, alluding to healthy cooking and healthy eating. He does not rely on fat or butter to give his dishes flavor but rather on the freshness of the ingredients, keeping the cooking to a minimum so as not to overpower them.
The ceviche (or kinilaw) samplers are served in small trays of three shot glasses, each containing a generous mix of fresh seafood. The ceviche samba sampler brings together chipotle (Mexican peppers) mixed seafood in mango cilantro, and ahi tuna and grilled squid in coco water. The Ceviche Riviera Cruiser features ingredients that are less commonly encountered in your usual kinilaw, such as pampano with basil and candied orange rind, and seafood saffron ceviche. The Southeast Asian Kinilaw Sampler presents something more familiar, with our own tanguigue in coco cream, tuna laab (Thai) in lime, and mussels in Malaysian curry ceviche.
As a starter, the coconut chipotle gambas does a good job of opening your taste buds with the de-shelled prawns generously coated and propped on coco cream mixed with cilantro, lime and chipotle sauce. You will find the freshly baked fried cuapao, which comes with the dish, useful for soaking and finishing the rest of the sauce from your plate. And just like that, you have the flavorful mix of Spanish, Mexican, and Asian influences all working together in one dish. The shrimp and lobster bisque with a hint of blue cheese cream is as thick and creamy as it should be, and quite filling too.
BluFish shares the same kitchen as The Flying Pig next door, which features barbecue and American border cuisine. It has its own compact electric oven smoker using hickory and cherry wood where baby back ribs, jumbo belly chops, lamb ribs, and sausages are smoked for as long as 46 hours. Basting options include Creole blackened, honey pomegranate, and French espresso rub.
We tried the lager braised pig cheeks, which is beer braised kurobota pork cheeks (imported from Japan ) served with salted pork and leek risotto. It almost has the texture of tongue, tender but not “melt in your mouth.” Other interesting items on the menu under the heading “Swine Dining” include stuffed crispy knuckles, the flying meatloaf, and pulled pork lasagna. The playful titles given to the dishes echo the restaurant’s overall fun and whimsical concept, starting with its name, The Flying Pig. Magdaluyo’s four-year-old son, Rico, was fascinated by a metal artwork that he once saw. It was made from an LPG tank shaped like a pig with wings attached to it. Rico called it “the flying pig,” which Magdaluyo thought would also be an appropriate name for his restaurant, “the place where pigs can fly and diners pig-out!” Displayed on the walls are mounted cartoons of pink pigs with wings, and hanging from the ceiling are miniature gliders that serve as light source.
The interiors of both The Flying Pig and BluFish were designed by talented architect Cathy Saldana, who has worked on several other restaurants owned by Magdaluyo. “Cathy is very good at working with retail spaces,” Magdaluyo remarks. “She understands the limitations and meets the requirements of our restaurants’ leased spaces.” At BluFish, Cathy used ordinary silver serving trays hanging from the ceiling to reflect the light. Her use of natural stone on one wall, and glass panes for the façade reinforces the welcoming and relaxed, simple yet special ambience of the place.
Managing two restaurants with a shared kitchen is like commanding a whole ship, says Ayson, who changes the menu of the restaurants every quarter. The chef also taught at the Academy for International Culinary Arts a couple of years ago. There is still that part of him that likes to pass on what he knows to his staff, to his kitchen brigade, he says. His work as chef and partner in Magdaluyo’s various restaurant ventures has practically taken over his life, like an obsession, he says. And how does he unwind at the end of the day? He makes himself his favorite comfort food, plain homemade chili hotdog.