Five Inspiring Dishes from Manila’s Most Famous Chefs

From bread that brings diners back to their childhood memories to a stew inspired by a chef’s heritage, here are five signature dishes from the menus of some of Manila’s finest culinary professionals.

What makes a dish particularly memorable? For some, it would be the interplay of flavor and texture. For others, it would be the level of expertise involved in its creation – a sure-fire way of gauging a chef’s abilities. There are also some who say that it lies in the way that a dish’s quality remains consistent regardless of how many times it has been ordered and enjoyed. 

The five dishes in this list cover all three. Each of them features a beautifully curated interplay of flavor and texture made possible by the use of excellent ingredients, and each of them was prepared by a chef who has made his or her bones in the industry and has risen through the ranks to inspire others. 

1. Menudo Sulipeña: Gene Gonzalez’s Little Big Stew 

Considered as one of the country’s leading experts on both local and international cuisine, Gene Gonzalez is a known advocate for preserving the richness of the Philippines’ cultural heritage through the culinary traditions of different provinces. 

The Menudo Sulipeña, a rich stew made with oxtails simmered for hours until meltingly tender in a paprika-laced tomato sauce, is Gonzalez’s way of paying tribute to his ancestors from the Central Luzon province of Pampanga that is considered as one of the country’s culinary heritage sites. Robust and savory, it is – surprisingly – served as part of a decadent breakfast, dolloped generously over hot rolls and eaten between sips of rich Spanish chocolate. 

Sahnwich with souce white plate.
Gaita Fores is behind the casual dining icon Cibo and the more refined Lusso which both serve authentic Cucina Italiana. (Photo: Courtesy of Cibo)

2. Panino Porchetta: Gaita Fores’ Homage to Italy has a Filipino Accent 

It isn’t surprising that Asia’s Best Female Chef’s entry to this list is an Italian speciality, given how she is the woman behind casual dining icon Cibo and the more refined Lusso which both serve authentic Cucina Italiana. 

This incredibly portable sandwich of roast pork belly slices tucked into floury ciabatta rolls calls to mind lechon, the whole roasted pig served at large gatherings and celebrations. Tender meat and crisp crackling skin get the nuance from the addition of a spiced apple relish and a drizzle of savory jus in a dish that can be enjoyed on the go. 

Octopus grill with spices
The tantalizing “Octopus: Fresh shiso, sesame, and calamansi” menu from Savage. (Photo: Courtesy of Savage)

3. Octopus: Josh Boutwood’s Play on Flavorful Contrasts 

It is simply presented on Savage’s menu as Octopus: fresh shiso, sesame, and calamansiHowever, there is a textural complexity to Mr. Boutwood’s innovative personal spin on a Spanish classic which continues to win him fans among the local dining community. 

Slow-poached in a court-bouillon for 55 minutes to soften and absorb flavor, octopus tentacles are quickly charred on a hot grill, then plated up with peppery shiso [perilla] leaves, tart calamansi limes, and a piquant aioli. It’s another of Boutwood’s innovative uses of locally sourced ingredients and cosmopolitan techniques. 

Chicken breast grill with lime.
Chicken marinated in a mixture of calamansi, pepper, coconut vinegar and annatto, then grilled over hot coals while basted with the marinade. (Photo: Shutterstock)

4. Inasalna Manok: JP Anglo’s Play on a Street Food Favorite 

Inasal – chicken marinated in a combination of annatto oil, calamansi, and brown sugar before it is grilled over coals – is a specialty of the southern province of Negros that has become ubiquitous throughout the country. 

While there are fast-food and street-market versions of this cuisine, those in the know are aware that Negrense-born and US-raised chef JP Anglo’s version is the best. Anglo’s inasal was inspired by a vendor in Bacolod who taught him how to prepare the dish years ago. Less oily than most products but more flavorful, thanks to a longer time on the grill, the meat is tender, surprisingly succulent, and perfect with just a dab of soy, some chili, and a squeeze of lime. 

Freshly baked Filipino.
Freshly baked Filipino bread called Pan de sal or salted bread (Photo: Shutterstock)

5. Pan de Sal: Jordy Navarra’s Spin on Every Man’s Daily Bread 

Navarra’s Toyo Eatery was named one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants last year, but what keeps diners coming back for more is – surprise! – his pan de sal!  

Knotted rather than rolled into the classic round bun, Panaderya Toyo’s version of the traditional breakfast bun is leavened with a rustic sourdough starter or masa madre made in-house as opposed to prepared yeast. As a result, Navarra and his team have reinvented a classic that is more substantial texturally with a deeper, richer flavor that brings to mind childhood memories of being sent to the local bakery for a bag of the good stuff. 


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