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Like wine, these restos aged well

By SHARWIN TEE, The Philippine STAR Published Sep 01, 2022 5:00 am

In several fields, a lot of premium is placed on youth. Whether it’s sports, show business or even in some corporate offices, people look for the energy and vibrancy of youth. With so many restaurants popping up in the past 10 years, it’s easy to plan the weekend by looking for the “hot new” restaurant instead of going back to the old ones you’ve tried.

In cooking, however, “old” still matters. Fine wine, steaks, and fermented goods all benefit from being aged. Extended time adds complexity, enhances the flavors and builds legends. I thought perhaps that since they serve food, restaurants could be the same.

The OG

Szechuan House has been serving great food since 1977.

I’ll start my “old resto tour” with a personal favorite. In the Pasay area, I got to drop by classic restaurant Szechuan House in the equally classic Aloha Hotel.

Since its opening in 1977, I’ve found the place to be a no-frills dining destination with some deliciously comforting food. The menu is huge, so it would be tough to create a proper recommendation list without leaving out some delicious dishes.

I will, instead, share what I had that evening. The heavy rains outside made it a no-brainer to order soup and I ordered the fish lip and ham soup. Rich, thick and comforting, a touch of black vinegar livened up the already delicious soup. The fish lips were cooked beautifully, lending their gelatinous texture with just the slightest bit of crunch.

Steamed Fish with Tausi is a personal favorite.

Following the soup was the crab fried rice, cooked nicely with a faint wisp of wok hei or that distinct, smoky wok smell. Paired with the rice were beef tenderloin Chinese style — sweet, sour and tender beef tenderloin fillets — and steamed fish fillet with fried tausi or crushed, fermented beans.

I also wanted to order the cumin lamb but unfortunately, someone beat me to it so it was not available. Altogether, though, the food was truly excellent, enhanced with another classic drink, the green mango shake and the attentive but non-intrusive staff. Yes, the interiors do look a bit ’80s, but who cares? Great food is great food, no matter how the place looks.

Fish Lip and Ham Soup is perfect for the rainy weather.

The veteran

Next up was Old Swiss Inn, an even older institution that opened in 1946, I believe. After a fire in the 1980s, it was rebuilt in 1990 and, entering the place, the ambience really does feel like the ’90s. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. The place feels cozy and comfortable, none of the searing bright lights meant to enhance Instagram pictures or the loud music preventing quiet conversations.

Of course, a must-order would still be the Waatlander fondue, a well-curated mix of different types of cheese with a splash of kirsch. Served in a pot over a flame, it is still a magical experience to use those long forks to dip cubes of crusty bread into the bubbling cheese.

Waatlander Fondue has been a staple at Old Swiss Inn for decades.

I first experienced fondue as a kid and (not too many) decades later, I felt like one again. One can’t live on fondue alone (although what a life that would be), so I also ordered another classic, their fresh corned beef. Expertly cured beef brisket is braised slowly until tender and served with a touch of the cooking broth, along with braised cabbage and tournée potatoes.

While the beautifully shaped potatoes threatened to bring back all those hours of me turning and shaping carrots and potatoes while training in Canada, the corned beef brought only great memories and flavors, salty with a hint of sweetness brought on by the cabbage.

They’ve used their experience to keep their flavors delicious. Now, that is something worth celebrating.

I then balanced the two strongly flavored dishes with a bright chef’s salad, seasoned with their Italian dressing. Alternating bites between the zesty salad, the rich and creamy fondue and the savory corned beef, it wasn’t long before the table was empty.

Faint European music was playing in the background as I leaned back into my seat, slowly creeping into a food coma. A vacation to Switzerland continues to be on my bucket list, but a few visits to Old Swiss Inn will have to do in the meantime.

The classic

The halo-halo combined with the classic interiors of the Manila Pen make for quite an experience.

Finally, my last stop would have to be a glorious dessert. I had long heard about the halo-halo at The Manila Peninsula but somehow, I had never managed to try it. Seeing as the Manila Pen opened in 1976, this was serious dereliction of my duty as both a writer but also a gourmand (or a glutton, you decide).

Taking the chance after a wonderful dinner at Old Swiss Inn, I walk the hundred or so steps to the Manila Pen lobby and took a seat in the lounge. Despite the rainy weather, it really did seem like the perfect time to try their famed halo-halo.

I felt an uncanny excitement as it arrived. While the halo-halo itself contained no surprises, it contained a generous amount of nata de coco, saba, kaong, beans, and ube halaya, all clothed in unsweetened evaporated milk. Topped with a picture-perfect scoop of ube ice cream and a tremendously delicious piece of leche flan, the halo-halo was of course delicious, but perhaps it was the charm of the surroundings, with the amazingly beautiful high ceiling, the majestic staircase and the music that truly made the halo-halo experience special.

Age is just a number

There is definitely some logic behind celebrating youth, especially in fields where physical gifts like energy and dexterity are involved, or even in fields that value fresh takes and points of view. In choosing restaurants, however, flavor is all that truly matters. For older restaurants like these, they’ve used their experience to keep their flavors delicious. Now, that is something worth celebrating.