Taza, Taal Vista Hotel review date: June 13, 2015
A mere 140,000 years ago, Taal Volcano was born. It’s a breathtaking sight and only 40 miles south (around 90 minutes, on a good day) of Metro Manila. As a result it’s a popular weekend and holiday getaway for urbanites seeking cooler climes and cleaner air. The venue which blazed the trail, and has just turned 75, was the aptly-named Taal Vista Hotel. Originally a lodge, it is now a 260 bedroom property hugging the edge of the Tagaytay highlands and Taal caldera.
When I opened the curtains, this was the view that greeted me, the volcano seemingly floating in the middle of the lake:
If there are balconies with views as impressive, I’ve yet to stand on them. But when it comes time to eat, Taal Vista also comes into its own. While their other outlets offer pretty standard hotel-level food, under the watchful eye of the affable Egyptian GM Walid Wafik their signature restaurant Taza has quickly and quietly morphed into one of the best places to eat in the country. It’s not traditional fine dining and there are none of the culinary tricks and alchemy you find elsewhere, especially the exciting new wave of fine dining. But that’s because when the preparation and execution of dishes is this good, you don’t need them.
Taza is smartly named, as it means both ‘fresh’ in Arabic and ‘cup’ in Tagalog. Unsurprisingly it’s a bright space given its 270 degrees of windows overlooking the manicured gardens and beyond to Taal volcano. Tables are well spaced out and very generously sized to encourage sharing of plates, family style. The only issue is that some of them are so good you’ll want to steal them for yourself.
Chef Jayme Natividad’s menu takes diners on a global tour. Given his time working in legendary New York restaurants including Balthazar and The Gramercy Tavern, it’s slanted towards modern American classics but Middle Eastern and North African favorites also feature heavily, courtesy of Walid’s influence. But no matter where his kitchen travels, Jayme delivers.
First up is a selection of Mezze. It’s a platter that you’d rave about in Beirut, Marrakesh or Dubai, let alone here in Tagaytay. Most importantly the bread is the real deal, thin and scorched, hot from the oven, comically moreish. A new take on the Spanish classic tapa boquerones comes from using local Galungong fish, like a mackerel. The marinade is so gentle and on point that you could close your eyes and find yourself in Cantabria.
In some hands, including occasionally my own, Baba Ganoush can be an oily, tahini-heavy gloop. At Taza it’s vibrant, bouncing off the palate with that telltale smokiness of aubergine but also a sour-sweet lift from a dash of vinegar. Trust me when I say you’d only want to eat this version from now on. If you’d like the recipe, one I cajoled from chef, tweet me and I’ll send it your way.
Golden hummus is the real deal, with occasional bite and gentle waves of garlic poking through. Chicken livers are fried off with fresh herbs, chicken jus and a touch of tamari soy:
The table then shares a selection of plates that confirm Jayme’s sure hand and dedication to quality local ingredients. Pork cheek ravioli bring light and thin parcels of home made pasta enveloping wispy strands of slow-cooked local organic pork.
A whole roast Lapu Lapu fish (fish name of the year?) is packed with Mediterranean flavours. As always, it’s in the balance, that happy medium of salt from the olives, the sharp from the roasted garlic and preserved lemon, the woody hum of the fresh thyme over an occasional subtle lift of chili.
We skirt the Mediterranean coastline to Tangiers for the next, a tagine of Moroccan chicken. When the elegant terracotta tagine is removed, the table positively hums with the flavours of the souk and medina, the telltale fragrance of myriad herbs and spices. Cardamom is the most noticeable, but others come through the tomato sauce that lifts the the grains of couscous:
The star of the show takes us back to the US, an outrageously-good Tomahawk pork chop, a beast of a cut that comes with caramelized bananas and onions. If that sounds an odd combo, trust me and try it. It’s one of the best plates I’ve had anywhere in 2015, the organic meat yielding to the knife, the sweetness of the bananas and onions rendered down to a glorious, sticky, caramelized cocktail that cries out to be finished.
It’s probably a good thing that desserts are light, a cannoli (there’s New York again) filled with ube, (the Philippines beloved purple yam) and jackfruit cream. To wrap things up, a great olive oil ice cream, smoother and sweeter than a Filipino covers band at midnight.
The consistency carries through the next day where brunch classics are thoughtfully and expertly executed, such as a Croque Madame where the béchamel is a study in French technique. It’s this attention to detail and level of passion from Chef Jayme and team which make Taza such a cracking find. For the world on a plate – beautifully delivered – head to the room with a very special volcanic view.
Taza, Taal Vista Hotel, Kilometer 60, Aguinaldo HighwayTagaytay City 4120, Philippines +63 (2) 917-8225 http://www.taalvistahotel.com/dining/taza