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The dinner that lured me out of quarantine

By SHARWIN TEE, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 25, 2020 4:00 pm

I just had my first night out in seven months. Apart from the wonderful food, I got to converse with friends live. I have to thank the fine folks at Gallery by Chele for that.

I tell you, quietly living in semi-quarantine not only blurs time in that you forget what day or month you’re in; it also blurs time in that more than half a year goes by before you realize it and you haven’t had a haircut or a night out with friends and family. Am I making sense here, or is it just me?

In any case, I recently received an invitation to dine at Gallery by Chele to not only try their menu, but also see the safety measures they have undertaken to adjust to the pandemic.

LITTLE TOUCHES

On the morning of our reservation, I received an email from Gallery and it was the standard checklist to make sure I wasn’t experiencing any symptoms. The questionnaire also had me include all my contact information to make contact tracing that much easier.

I appreciated the gesture because this questionnaire, now a standard for most restaurants, still takes a few minutes to fill up, and filling it up outside a restaurant can sometimes result in a crowd forming around a table, sharing pens, pretty much giving up on social distancing right from the get-go. With the form filled up a few hours before, I walked into the restaurant, stepped onto a sterilizing mat, and headed for our table. 

Inside, I found that tables and chairs had been set up to keep diners socially distant while maintaining the wonderful ambiance they have grown accustomed to over the years. They also provided a Manila envelope in which I could place my mask. Meanwhile, off to my right, I spotted a new contraption that chef Chele explains helps filter the air to keep the indoor dining air as safe as possible. To be perfectly candid, I had been nervous accepting this invitation, but any remaining anxiousness I had was reassured by these little touches. With that cleared up, I felt I was ready for a wonderful dinner.

 My personal favorite was a simple crab salad with clean flavors

AT THE TABLE

I did not have to wait long for that dinner to come to me. After a refreshing welcome drink that featured tamarillo, a succession of interesting small bites arrived my way. First off was cochinillo and salsa in a betel leaf, followed by some sea urchin on a crispy cracker. Both bites provided great contrast, one juxtaposing sour and salty flavors, while the other combined creamy and crisp textures. We were off to a great start.

Chef Chele got to show a bit of playfulness in the next few dishes, with house-made yogurt with beets and berries, and a “Tortang Takoyaki,” octopus and charred eggplant balls served in a paper takeout box.

What had me smiling, though, were the next two bites that followed: a meringue and chorizo sandwich that was a wonderful, sweet and salty mouthful, and the “Kare Kare Balls,” which when dipped into a bagoong mayo, truly tasted like a spoonful of the kare-kare you get at your neighborhood fiesta, back when we could all still gather together in groups.

A charcuterie board followed next, which featured homemade sourdough bread; mackerel and clams both cooked in olive oil; smoked duck and a pair of local fruit jams also made in-house. While I have not been to Spain — and this pandemic has shattered any notions of me going there anytime soon — this board helped me at least fantasize about that time when I can finally go there. When I do, and the food there is similar to the food I got on this board, I plan on gorging on every tapas bar I can find, stopping only when I pass out and going right back to gorging the moment I regain consciousness.

Amid this wonderful spread, what turned out to be my favorite dish of the night followed. While it may look like the simplest, I thoroughly enjoyed the salad of crab, pineapple sorbet, and native greens. It was simple, with the flavors bright, fresh and clean.

It was then followed by a wonderfully strong, curried shellfish, and then balanced out by a perfectly cooked fish with a subtly sour purple broth.

The main course lived up to its billing: a perfectly cooked, mind-blowingly tender beef tenderloin with a sour and savory sauce. Paired with an adobo rice with a perfectly poached egg yolk, it was the culinary equivalent of a hug, which, let’s face it, we all need right now.

  The star of the night was this adobo rice with poached egg.

THE FINISH

The meal finished off with a trio of sweet treats: one that reminded me of a Pavlova; a champorado with crisp rice and local chocolate; and a bibingka cheesecake served warm over a cute little grill.

As the table enjoyed the dessert and I furtively tried to steal all of the crispy rice, chef Chele joined us at the table to check on everything. After assurances that the food was great, as usual, we got to talk shop a little bit, discussing how the pandemic has ravaged the food industry and yet we have learned to fight back by adjusting. One of the things we talked about was that, while staying home as much as we can is what’s most recommended, a night out once in a while, done responsibly, is something we all need as well.

Stomach full and finally home, I headed straight into the shower to clean up. I had to smile as I realized that I just had my first night out in seven months. Apart from the wonderful food, I got to converse with friends live and not through a video screen. It was something I never knew I needed. I have to thank the fine folks at Gallery by Chele for that.

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You can catch Sharwin on his YouTube channel “chefsharwintee” and on the Sini Gang podcast on Spotify. Follow Sharwins food adventures on Instagram @chefsharwin and for questions, reactions, recipe and column suggestions, you can contact him on www.sharwintee.com