Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Manila Chinatown chow: six food stops in one day

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It started last Tuesday, just a little past midnight, when I couldn't seem to doze off. I opened my laptop and looked for a movie to put me to sleep, something somber and familiar, preferably with subtitles. I settled on Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, but instead of putting me to sleep, the film, during the scene where Mrs. Chan goes out for take-out noodles, only made me hungry. I snacked on a soft-boiled egg and wheat crackers to satisfy my hunger, but I was left with a really intense craving for Chinese noodles.

The magnificent Maggie Cheung as Mrs. Chan in In the Mood for Love.

There are several places I could easily go to for authentic Chinese food (Causeway and Yang Chow in Libis, for instance), but I've always wanted to return to Binondo since being taken there two years ago by my dear friend Seddy. So that's what I did in the weekend. With a special date. Albeit four days late to satisfy my noodle craving.

It was Saturday, and the heat, thank goodness, was bearable enough for commuting. One UV Express shuttle and two train rides took us from Pasig to Binondo just before lunchtime, and the very first recommended restaurant we came upon, based on a list I had compiled from the Internet, was The Original SaLido Restaurant located along Ongpin St. The place claimed to be "Home of the Famous Asado," so we ordered a small plate of the pork dish for P245.

The Original SaLido Restaurant's so-called asado.

The asado came surprisingly fast, though probably just because the pork, flavorless and lacking in tenderness, hadn't been mixed with the asado sauce yet. I felt like we had ordered lemon chicken only to be served a plate of breaded chicken fillet and a separate lemon sauce. We had to do our own dipping and mixing to get the flavor that we wanted. (Or maybe we were simply wrong in assuming we'd get the traditional Filipino-Chinese red, sweet char siu pork.)

Shanghai Fried Siopao, almost nondescript, so keep an eye out for it along Ongpin St. if you'd like some of their fried siopao.

We immediately left SaLido and walked along Ongpin till we reached Shanghai Fried Siopao. We each got a fried siopao (P18 per piece), which I've tried before but whose taste still surprised me, being used to the Bicol-style toasted siopao sold a few blocks away from my place in Pasig. Their similarity is that they both don't need any sauce to enhance their taste. But only the bottom of the fried siopao is toasted, and—a word of caution for those with food sensitivity—the buns are prepared and packed in plastic bags using bare hands.

Shanghai Fried Siopao doesn't just sell fried siopao but other Chinese delicacies too.

By the time we were finished with our siopao, we already had a hankering for a complete meal. So we headed to Wai Ying Fastfood, which was this hole-in-the-wall joint Seddy took me to before and whose white chicken with ginger-garlic relish still haunts my daydreams.

There are two Wai Yings in Binondo: the restaurant which has two floors, and the take-out joint.

Wai Ying had a lot that we could have ordered, but we were not yet done restaurant-hopping so we only got half an order of the white chicken (P190), no rice, and hakao (P80). I've had better hakao but I've never liked ginger in any dish other than in Wai Ying's luya relish, which I slathered on each cut of chicken I inhaled. To wash it down, I had cold milk tea while my date had cold lemon tea (both P55 a glass).

Wai Ying's white chicken and its luya relish, and hakao.

The chicken and hakao had already made us a bit full so we skipped having mami at Masuki Mami Restaurant, which was also just along Benavidez St. Instead, we went to Cafe Mezzanine, famous for their kiampong and Soup No. 5 and for donating all the revenue from their firehouse-themed restaurant to the Binondo Paco Fire Search and Rescue Brigade. We weren't adventurous enough to order Soup No. 5 so we got their xiao long bao, affordable at P180 for ten dumplings, and their wintermelon juice, priced at P65 a glass. We couldn't finish the xiao long bao, though that might have been because the dumplings' flour skin tasted a little too street siomai-like. The wintermelon juice, on the other hand, was delightfully refreshing and I enjoyed munching on the sweet wintermelon bits.

Cafe Mezzanine's xiao long bao.

It was drizzling when we left Cafe Mezzanine to line up at Eng Bee Tin for hopia. I had gotten addicted to Eng Bee Tin's hopia piƱa (pineapple) ever since my dad started occasionally bringing it home as pasalubong when I was a kid, so I bought six packs of those (P38 each) and four packs of their more popular custard hopia (P50 each). The place was filled with women hoarding various types of Eng Bee Tin pastries and making sure their purchases weren't going to expire earlier than May, so even though we could have eaten our hopia there at one of their tables, we opted to just leave for Lord Stow's for a proper dessert.

The crowd at Eng Bee Tin, all hungry for hopia.

Lord Stow's Bakery was also packed with women hoarding pastries that Saturday. My date and I ordered a small box of four egg tarts (P165, but bought individually an egg tart is P42) and ate them at the far end of the counter while listening to an old Chinese guy intermittently talk business on the phone. Considering how tiny the bakeshop was, it was loud. Eventually the place emptied out though, allowing us to finish our egg tarts in peace.

The cronut of Asia and the 1990s: egg tart from Lord Stow's Bakery.

Lord Stow's egg tarts may not be Chinese at all (Lord Stow's Bakery first opened in Macau, but "Lord" Andrew Stow is English and his inspiration for his egg tarts, pasteis de nata, is Portuguese), but its flaky, creamy and slightly sweet goodness was the perfect way to end our food tour in the world's oldest Chinatown.

Aside from Masuki, we also weren't able to go to several other food stops in my list, such as Quick Snack, New Po-Heng Lumpia House, Dong Bei Dumplings, LGA Estero (famous for their fried frog legs, which my date was thankful I wasn't keen to try), Ying Ying Tea House and Sincerity Cafe. Restaurants like President Tea House we deliberately didn't visit because they have branches outside Binondo anyway. My In the Mood for Love-induced craving wasn't satisfied, but we were surrounded by so much Chinese food in Binondo I forgot that noodles were what I had intended to eat there in the first place. All in all, costing just P600 for each of us (not including transportation and the pasalubong from Eng Bee Tin), it was a fun and satisfying but inexpensive Manila Chinatown food tour. I'll be sure to visit more restos next time. Maybe on another date.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Livestock and La Vie Parisienne

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There are days when after all the good food you've skimped on in favor of low-calorie, nutritious meals, you think you deserve to indulge. Yesterday for me was such a day.

My friends Cams and Aika met another friend and former colleague Ava last night at Livestock, a restaurant that boasts being ranked first in SPOT.ph's 2014 Top 10 Crispy Pata in Manila list. Ava often holds business meetings there but it was the first time for the rest of us, so we had her recommend some dishes.

For our appetizer, Ava suggested Livestock's Chicharon 3 Kinds (crispy bulaklak, bituka or intestines, and chicken skin), which was bite after sinful bite of pork crackling goodness.

To warm our stomachs, we had Seafood Laksa Soup, which was adequately creamy and spicy.

We also ordered their Salted Egg Prawns. I found it a bit redundant in itself because it was two kinds of salty in one dish, but it was good nonetheless.

We had two pork dishes: the crispy pata, naturally, and another restaurant bestseller, the Livestock Crackling Pork Belly. You can have the latter in either a 300-, 500- or 1,000-gram slab, but we ordered just 300 grams.

The crispy pata was so tender you can cut through it with a popsicle stick and fork, which was what our waiter did when he served it to us. It wasn't a challenge to eat at all, and with its spicy soy sauce and vinegar dip it tasted even better (though I'm still partial to Serye's boneless crispy pata). Between the crackling pork belly and the crispy pata (and the three kinds of chicharon we just had), however, we already had enough fat molecules threatening to clog our arteries and making us light-headed, so we didn't even try finishing the crispy pata but had the leftovers wrapped in a to-go bag.

Though Livestock is a great place to have drinks at, we went instead to La Vie Parisienne, a French bakery, deli and wine library at the ground floor of Hotel Rembrandt, only a couple of blocks away from Livestock.

La Vie Parisienne offers a great selection of breads, pastries and wines, all for affordable prices, and you can eat and drink them inside at one of their four tables, surrounded by all their cellared wines. I ordered an apple turnover and a coffee, while my friends ordered three small slices of cake, a croissant, coffees of their own and some takeaway breads.

Everything was delicious, especially the cakes, and the fruity sweetness of the Shanpelino sangria our waiter Gelo recommended later on was so addicting we had a hard time deciding to stop at just two bottles of it. (Ava and I brought home the empty bottles to use as home decor, along with a few other bottles the staff haven't thrown away yet.) It was a satisfying night of getting drunk in oil, caffeine, alcohol and good laughs.

Shanpelino wines are cheap (P290/bottle), though they don't look like it.

Livestock is a great place to commit the sin of eating fatty foods at, maybe even with a beer or four. It's at 34 Sgt. Esguerra Ave., South Triangle, Quezon City, and they're open from 11 AM to 2 AM. You can walk in and though there's sometimes a line to get a table, you don't have to wait very long. With La Vie Parisienne, on the other hand, you may have to call ahead to reserve one of their four tables if you plan to hang out. La Vie Parisienne is at the ground floor of the Hotel Rembrandt, along Tomas Morato Ave., Quezon City, and they're open from 7 AM to 2 AM. Visit them early to enjoy more freshly-baked breads and pastries.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Into the Woods and after "happily ever after"

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I usually make it a point to read or watch the original medium a movie is adapted from, not to be cool and be able to haughtily say, "I've read the book and here are the bajillion ways the film version ruined it," but so I understand what was so great about the original work that it had to be adapted in the first place. (And yes, sometimes to feel a little bit cooler than everyone else, but I don't say it out loud lest I be regarded as a douche.)

My friend Claire gave me a copy of the televised Broadway production of Into the Woods from 1991, and from the first minute of watching it, I was hooked. The story starts innocently enough, with your usual "Once upon a time" fairy tale opening, then the characters are introduced and their plights explained. Cinderella wants to go to the ball, Jack (of Jack and the Beanstalk) has to sell their cow, Little Red Riding Hood wishes to bring bread to his sick granny, and a childless baker and his wife yearn for a baby. Their paths, along with that of two princes' and another Brothers Grimm fairy tale character Rapunzel's, get intertwined by the workings of a witch who requires that the baker and his wife gather ingredients for a potion in order to lift the spell of barrenness she had apparently placed on them a long time ago. Into the Woods' first act shows us how the characters obtain their wishes, and the second act shows us what happens after "happily ever after." Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's masterful way of telling a dark story in a witty and enjoyable manne, combined with Chip Zien, Joanna Gleason, Bernadette Peters and the rest of the cast's singing and acting, made me stay through all two hours and thirty one minutes of the video. I even applauded afterward like I was actually in a theater.

Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien and Bernadette Peters as the 1991 Broadway production's Baker's Wife, Baker and Witch, respectively

Rob Marshall's controversial big screen adaptation of Into the Woods is enjoyable too, with an all-star cast consisting of Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine and Johnny Depp—all seasoned actors with experience doing movie musicals (with the exception of Emily Blunt and Chris Pine, whose first time it is with Into the Woods but may very well not be the last time). Meryl Streep is stellar (are we still surprised?), Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick are wonderful, and though I haven't seen James Corden anywhere before, he plays the role of the childless baker particularly well. Daniel Huttlestone and Lilla Crawford, actual children playing Jack and Little Red Riding Hood, are quite impressive. Chris Pine is charming and funny, and Johnny Depp is appropriately creepy in that very short scene of his where he sings, "Hello, Little Girl."

Johnny Depp, one of the film's selling points but who only has a minor role as the Wolf

Not as creepy, however, as the anatomically correct wolf of the theater version, played by Robert Westenberg in the televised 1991 production. Which brings me to the much-discussed differences between the stage and film versions (spoiler alert!).

Robert Westenberg as the Wolf (in an NSFW outfit) and Danielle Ferland as Little Red Riding Hood in the 1991 Broadway production.

Aside from the special effects and the powerhouse cast, the film version of Into the Woods had, well, a "Disney-fied" story. The scene between Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf ("Hello, Little Girl"), and Little Red's "I Know Things Now" bit with the baker were desexualized a little. Downplayed too were the affair between Cinderella's prince and the baker's wife as well as the death of Jack's mother. And Rapunzel lives! Rapunzel doesn't go insane and get trampled by the giantess but runs off with her prince against her mother's plea, making the witch's song "Witch's Lament" lose much of its intended impact. When the witch sings, "No matter what you say, children't won't listen," the movie makes you think, "You gorgeous but evil witch, you deserve to be left behind by your so-called daughter!" But in the play, you're left thinking, "It's true. No matter how hard you try to guide your kids, there's always a chance they won't listen." Which makes the witch's later song "Last Midnight" all the more powerful.

To quote this article I read that focuses on the topic of Rapunzel's survival ruining the film:

"...in the Witch's swan song, 'Last Midnight,' the Witch attacks the other cast members for their inability to make a decision and their need to pass the blame. She accuses them of the biggest crime of all: being 'nice.'

'You're so nice. You're not good. You're not bad, you're just nice. I'm not good, I'm not nice, I'm just right. I'm the Witch. You're the world. I'm the hitch. I'm what no one believes, I'm the Witch.'

And this stings, because well, she was right (to a point). Her accusatory tone about their ambivalence works because she's the only person actively parenting (for better or worse). Up until then, the Baker couldn't even hold his own child. Keeping Rapunzel alive is committing the very crime of being 'just nice,' and this play is smarter than that. What's worse, in the end the cast agrees with the Witch in 'No One Is Alone,' singing, 'Witches can be right.' But in the movie version, she's not really right about anything."

Bernadette Peters (1991 Broadway) and Meryl Streep (2014 movie) as Into the Woods' Witch

All these aside, there were two major changes I actually liked in the film version. One was that Cinderella's "On the Steps of the Palace" was sung while she and the prince were suspended in time and she was stuck on the steps of the palace. Another was that they gave the death of the baker's wife a bit more of the spotlight, because in the televised Broadway production it all seemed very abrupt. I also appreciated Sondheim changing the description of Jack's mother in the play from "Well, she was not quite beautiful" to "Well, she was at her wit's end" in the movie. Because it just makes more sense.

Comparing the stage and movie versions, you're really going to see a lot of differences, but I have to say the movie turned out to be a good Sondheim/Lapine and Disney compromise, managing to retain the magic and improve the sound, while keeping the body count to a minimum and still making the story appealing to children. If we're really going to be honest though, Into the Woods is not a tale for kids. The play is rife with sexual undertones and parenting advice and it destroys the illusion of happy endings. It says, "The cycle begins with a wish, and whether you get what you wish for or not, you'll likely be wishing for something more or something else again later," hence that one final "I wish" uttered by Cinderella at the end of both the play and the movie. So be careful what you wish for in the first place.

My tip to the uninitiated: Don't dismiss Rob Marshall's Into the Woods as a failed Disney adaptation. Watch the play first. Stream it or download it from the Internet...or watch the upcoming Upstart production of the musical at the Kasalikasan Garden, BGC. I know I will.

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