LUNCHING AT Bale Dutung (Old House), where couple Claude and Mary Ann Tayag has set up a successful dining outlet, requires one to commit almost a full day to the experience.
We traveled to Angeles at mid-morning and arrived at the Tayags’ at noon. By the time we traversed the NLEX to Manila after our lunch, the sky had turned leaden, for it was almost evening. We banished all thoughts of or desire for dinner.
As Claude, who is a multi-slashie chef/writer/artist/sculptor/photographer/collector tells it, most folk who drop by Bale Dutung think they have stepped into an ancestral home. In truth, he built the home only in the 1990s, “from scratch and scrap” when he felt he had collected enough “old stuff” to build the home of his imagination. “I sourced most of my materials from an old church that was being torn down,” he recalled, pointing to the limestone posts, brick walls and wooden panels.
On an earlier visit, I recall him telling us that he had sourced the floorboards of his second-floor living area from a bowling alley, which explains the patina of age and use that no amount of floor wax could duplicate.
Originally, said Claude, he had planned to use the silong or ground floor of Bale Dutung as a display area for his sculpture and furnishings. But since he was also exploring his culinary boundaries, he invited a group of Ateneo faculty, including the late great Doreen Fernandez, “dean” of Filipino food critics, to a “degustation” lunch in the silong. That first banquet was the first of many “by invitation” or “by reservation” meals that have been served at Bale Dutung.
It also marked the baptism of Claude’s signature dessert: a trio of balls (“I used to call it ‘Tatlong Bola’ until Doreen named it,” he says, laughing) of yema (custard), ube and macapuno in a mascarpone sauce that, upon first bite, caused Fernandez to exclaim: “Claude, this is Paradise!” And so “Paradiso” the dessert was born.
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I HAD invited myself to the excursion which was meant as a farewell feast for Micky Fenix who was leaving her post as editor-in-chief of Food Magazine (Nana Ozaeta, lately of Hinge Inquirer’s F&B World, is taking over). Until about a year ago, my husband Pie was Food’s creative director and he is still considered a member of the family.
To my surprise I found that Bale Dutung’s once-exclusive premises have since gone “public” in a big way. Apart from our party of 14, Claude and Mary Ann were hosting a smaller birthday party, two tables with relatives, and at least two other tables including some late walk-ins.
Still, the Tayags refuse to call their place a restaurant. Diners need to make reservations, and a minimum party of 10 is required. When I asked Claude how long a lead time one must allot for a reservation, he laughingly remarked “sometimes as much as six months,” since his schedule is erratic and he (often with Mary Ann in tow) travels abroad quite often.
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BUT THE experience of Bale Dutung is well worth the wait.
Our lunch began with the serving of dalandan juice over cubes of “muscovado ice,” actually calamansi juice sweetened with muscovado (unprocessed sugar) and frozen. The “muscovado ice” cools the fruit juice while ensuring the flavor isn’t diluted. Bits of crackers served with toppings of aligue sauce, buro and pesto served as appetizers, with Mary Ann, who served as the annotator of the meal, suggesting that we mix and match the toppings to explore the blend of flavors.
This was followed by a salad of pako (fiddlehead ferns) with tomatoes, quail’s egg and a mango vinaigrette dressing. Time was, said Mary Ann, when pako was looked down upon as a mere weed, adding that her lola would be amused today to know that the ferns now command much respect.
Fried lumpia ubod encased in a lettuce leaf was our next appetizer, with Mary Ann entreating us to “give us the first bite,” that is, taste the dish without any sauces or embellishments, before fine-tuning the dish with vinegar or chili sauce. Next came roast chicken cooked “inasal” style and served with a small serving of aligue rice, liver sauce and a small pan de sal. After we were all done, the servers passed around platters of a kind of lumpia: buro and slices of fried hito encased in a mustasa (native mustard) leaf; as well as Claude’s take on sushi, nori-wrapped rice topped with a dollop of aligue and a sliver of kamias. The contrast between the salty/fishy aligue and the tang of the kamias was surprising and refreshing.
Then we were asked to stand up and serve ourselves. First was to the long table where the “bayabaisse,” the Tayags’ humorous take on the bouillabaisse, was being served. The dish consists of a thick broth made from mashed native guava (“We refuse to call it sinigang na bayabas because you might expect sourness,” said Mary Ann), into which one could include slices of bangus belly, ulang (river shrimp) and vegetables. The other long table served what my husband dubbed “Pampango shawarma,” actually a dish that included influences from various cultures: tortilla onto which one spooned re-fried slices of lechon belly, topped with kimchi, onions, tomatoes, pesto and wansuy (coriander).
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BY THIS time, our bellies were full to bursting, but would you believe, we heroically made room for the main dish: sea food kare-kare that came presented in an attractive arrangement of mussels, squid and prawns in a bed of vegetables and rich orange sauce.
“Paradiso” capped our meal, and I was glad to find that it hadn’t changed since I first tasted it over a decade ago. Still, the Tayags had one more surprise for us: small towels drenched in scented water and frozen, giving us a most refreshing close to an epic epicurean experience!