A brand new restaurant in Cebu showcases Filipino meals at its most interesting

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 Produced by SilverKris for UHRI

Know the land, know the food. In the Philippines’ southern city of Cebu, the local cuisine is above all defined by its terroir, the unique qualities imparted by the combination of soil, sea, local ingredients and cultural habits that can’t be reproduced elsewhere.

That means every meal here takes cues from the Philippines’ access to the sea, a cultural affinity for rice and the traditional need to preserve food in the tropical environment. It’s why Filipinos love sour and salty flavours, contributed by the cane vinegar and sea salt that help prolong cooked food’s freshness. Cebuanos also adore katam-is, or sweetness, whether from fresh fruit or rich egg-based desserts.

“There is a balance across those three flavours,” says Chef Martin Rebolledo, head chef of NUSTAR Resort and Casino’s signature Filipino restaurant FINA, when asked to explain the heart and soul of the food he prepares. “If you’re a fan of these three notes, you will surely love Filipino dishes.”

Simple, flavourful, hearty and fresh

FINA’s menu reflects local ingredients, age-old Cebuano cooking tradition, and the city’s historic trading relationships with Mexico, Spain and China. “I truly enjoy the Cebuano take on these global dishes,” says  Rebolledo. “Simple, flavourful, hearty and fresh – especially the seafood.”

Few local dishes encapsulate those principles like FINA’s kinilaw na tanigue: a ceviche-like dish of raw Spanish mackerel dressed with vinegar and flavoured with ginger, onions and chopped chili peppers. The vinegar “cooks” the mackerel meat to remove most of the fishy odour while retaining that just-out-of-the-sea freshness. Cebuanos also like to add gata, or coconut milk, to balance out the acidity with a sweet, creamy finish.

FINA’s bellychon, on the other hand, reflects the “flavourful and hearty” dimensions of Cebuano cuisine. It’s derived from the fiesta favourite lechon, a whole pig stuffed with herbs and spices and roasted over hot coals. Bellychon is lechon scaled down for Fina diners, using tied and roasted pork belly instead of going whole hog. The result remains true to the original: a crisp and juicy dish that pairs exceedingly well with rice.

Cebuanos don’t share the northern Tagalog predilection for liver sauce, insisting that a vinegar sawsawan (dipping sauce) should be good enough for Cebu lechon (and by extension, bellychon).

The tangy and refreshing kilawin at FINA showcases Filipino cuisine’s love of fresh seafood

No shortcuts allowed

The chef is careful to capture authentic flavours from Cebu and the greater Philippines, staying true to authentic elements of the dish without resorting to shortcuts. “Every ingredient for us is important – if we lose one, it’s better for us not to serve the dish,” he explains.

FINA maintains those high standards in mains like kare-kare, an oxtail, tripe and beef stew with a peanut-based sauce coloured with annatto oil and thickened with pulverised rice. Martin calls it “one of the best-kept secret recipes of our ancestors”: a dish with few equivalents in Southeast Asia, supposedly evolving from the curries brought over from a failed British invasion in the 1760s. Filipinos love to eat kare-kare with plenty of rice and a dash of fermented shrimp paste (bagoong).

Kare-kare is also fiendishly difficult to make from scratch, with multiple steps involved – but Rebolledo prefers to make it the old-fashioned way.

“All flavours that you taste from Fina dishes are truly natural,” he tells us. “We make our own sauces based on real meat and vegetable juices – all our condiments are homemade. We don’t use MSG, chicken powder or even heavy flavour enhancers.”

A complex and beloved dish, the kare-kare at FINA is made the old-fashioned way

Elevated dining with a sense of place

Filipino food has only belatedly found its footing on the world stage, having long been overshadowed by its Thai, Japanese and Chinese counterparts.

The cuisine has found champions in brash newcomers like Manila’s Toyo Eatery and Chicago’s Michelin-starred Kasama. Chef Rebolledo hopes to lift FINA into this rarefied list, by representing high-quality Filipino culinary traditions in a refined setting.

This calls for more than just plush interiors, although FINA certainly delivers in this department: the solihiya (woven rattan) finishes and tropical artwork creates a sense of place that complements Chef Rebolledo’s excellent local fare.

The interior design at FINA is a luxe blend of art deco touches in the tropics

It’s a backdrop where Chef Rebolledo feels free to be both experimental and deeply personal: through dishes like FINA’s crispy dinuguan (a pork-blood stew where the traditional offal has been replaced with crispy pork belly; “the meaty taste is enhanced by adding more crunch and texture,” Chef Rebolledo says) and the indulgent localised crème caramel dessert known as leche flan (“It’s very nostalgic to me – when I was a child, oftentimes I helped my mom prepare this dessert”).

The FINA culinary adventure fits right into the premium lifestyle offered by Cebu’s NUSTAR Resort and Casino, a luxury hotel and gaming complex rising from the gleaming new South Road properties. FINA is front and centre among NUSTAR’s five-star dining options, complemented by luxurious suites and the Philippines’ largest entertainment floor outside Metro Manila.

For more information about NUSTAR Resort and Casino and to book a table at FINA, visit the official website.

 



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