Every new dish created by chef Chele Gonzalez is highly anticipated by gourmands who frequent his Manila restaurant, Gallery by Chele, so when a new restaurant of his, Samira, opened recently at Anya, the luxury wellness resort in Tagaytay, you can imagine how his followers and foodies in general have started trekking down south.
The resort itself, one of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, is a haven of serene, lush gardens, making Samira, meaning “cool breeze,” a welcome addition indeed. The standards that Anya is known for had to be matched by its premier restaurant, providing that memorable experience that would keep guests coming back.
For Anya general manager Mikel Arriet, who is also a chef, Chele was perfect for the job. They had already met in culinary circles in Spain, where famous gastronomic experiences like those in San Sebastian inspire them to this day. Chele just came from a culinary tour of Spain recently, in fact, which also provided new ideas.
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Santi Elizalde, president and CEO of Roxaco Land Corporation, parent company of Anya, also shared similar perspectives given his family’s Spanish roots and love for fine dining.
But they wanted something completely different. “It had to be interactive, creative and fun,” according to Arriet. For Elizalde, it had to be “an exquisite gastronomic offering unique to Tagaytay.”
With his Manila restaurant already listed as one of Asia’s 100 Best Restaurants for 2022, Gonzalez was up to the challenge of creating a gem of a dining destination in the south. For years, the chef had been traversing the Philippine archipelago, discovering the intricacies of local ingredients and the traditional cooking methods of farmers, fishermen and home cooks, trying to salvage practices that have been lost or are soon to be forgotten. Inasmuch as he has developed a love for Philippine heritage, he and his team never felt bound by it but instead have used it to creatively develop unique dishes that utilize global techniques and technology that they have learned through the years.
These cross-cultural creations are evident in the six-course set menu, which we tried for lunch with wine pairing that came as an option. The amuse-bouches were delightful innovations as well as revelations. Divine French foie gras came in balls atop a waffle with Philippine mangoes. It looked as delicate as a painstakingly assembled millefeuille pastry. The exquisite richness of the liver is complemented by the mango’s tart sweetness. It was wonderful with the Bohigas Extra Brut Gran Reserva Cava’s slightly fruity aroma giving a fresh finish.
Next came the Seafood Crisp Rice crackers, which gave a fresh burst of sea flavors from mussels and shrimps in a creamy base mixed with mushrooms and topped with fresh slices of strawberry. The crunch of the crackers homemade from heirloom rice provided a counterpoint in texture without overpowering the mélange of flavors.
The Chorizo Donuts gave us a chuckle, coming in a ceramic version of an egg tray. It was also a fun combination, mixing the Spanish tapas favorite with the American high-calorie classic, contrasting smoky-salty with sweet and fluffy. There was also the added layer of caramel from dates.
The tribute to the Tagaytay must-order bulalo stew came in a novel Tex-Mex fusion of tacos with the shredded beef shank blending well with frijoles, jalapeño and corn topped with sprigs of cilantro.
The first course of Fresh Coconut Ceviche was made and served with aplomb in front of our table by Roxanne, who expertly cooked small cubes of fresh snapper in Tiger’s milk and calamansi mixed with coconut, roasted cashews, corn and basil. A hint of siling labuyo added that extra kick. The Josmeyer - Fleur de Lotus white wine from Alsace was refreshing and a perfect accompaniment with a slight floral note and touch of honey.
Next course was a star: charcoal-grilled octopus, tender to the bite, with a creamy paprika parmentier made more interesting with a sprinkling of black ink breadcrumbs. The homemade aioli added another dimension, enhancing the pulpo. It went well with the 2018 Bodegas Señorio de Barahonda’s Shiraz with a light oak scent and full-bodied bouquet.
A pan-seared salmon, soft and juicy, followed. It had a torched ali-oli layer with crisp squares of the fish skin as the topping, citrus mayonnaise and puréed cauliflower on the side to make a delightful, surprising mix of flavors and textures.
Bringing memories of Italy to the table was a Duck with Porcini Risotto with shavings of summer truffles. The sweetness of the vegetable rice had the right touch of earthiness from the porcini and truffles, an excellent accompaniment to the duck that was grilled to pink tenderness.
Not to be outdone was the US Angus Beef, grilled to perfection with sidings of Parmesan mashed potato and charred red cabbage. A truffle and mushroom jus complemented without dominating the buttery meat. This carnivore’s dream was made even more heavenly with the Cuatro Rayas organic Tempranillo, its intense aroma with hints of ripe forest fruits matching splendidly.
There was almost no room for dessert, but chef Chele’s homage to the Tagaytay favorite pasalubong, Buko Pie, was too irresistible: Fresh slices of young coconut meat and crispy versions were folded into a velvety panna cotta, served on a bed of croutons that were sweetish like meringue. If this wasn’t decadent enough, a topping of latik ice cream provided a counterpoint reminiscent of the way the caramelized coconut enlivens kakanin. It was simply divine and a fitting finale to a sumptuous meal that engaged all the senses.
The whole experience definitely sparked joy and was something we couldn’t stop talking about. We can’t wait to come back to try the many tempting offerings on the a la carte menu, including the Cocido Set Menu.
The way Chele reimagines dishes and meals is a culinary experience that should be worth the trip to Tagaytay.
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