There are many ways to show loyalty, but none are as permanent as tattoos. At Toyo Eatery in Manila, a number of the young and dynamic kitchen team have done just that, getting the restaurant’s discreet logo on their wrists and necks. Don’t get the wrong impression: this isn’t bravado or showing off by painful hipsters, adding to their sleeves of must-have tattoos to accompany their beards and leather aprons. They’ve taken the step because they love what they do, their project at Toyo and ultimately in respect to Jordy Navarra, the chef and inspiration behind it.
Softly-spoken, modest and unassuming, he’s a somewhat unlikely personality to be leading the new wave of Filipino cuisine. As an Arsenal fan, a love affair honed during his time at The Fat Duck, he has seen his share of a rollercoaster ride recently, but dinner a couple weeks back clearly vindicates his decision to bet the ranch on his own venture.
Karrivin Plaza, on the fringe of Makati, is quickly becoming a go-to destination with creative businesses sprouting at every turn. Toyo means ‘soy sauce’ in Tagalog – and is also slang for ‘crazy’, suggesting someone has ‘soy sauce on the brain’ – ‘May toyo ka?’. It’s very deliberately named, however, as soy sauce is not only a staple of Filipino cuisine but also a fiendishly difficult and time-consuming ingredient to produce. Months of labour and attention go into making it – a project the kitchen is still working on.
It all happens in a beautiful space, elegant but industrial, contemporary but distinctly Filipino. The kitchen couldn’t be more open and transparent, while the upstairs dining room features a breathtaking acacia table, seating up to 18, from one piece of wood. How they got it up there is beyond me.
Their tasting menu comes in at 2900 Pesos (HK$480) while the set menu is 1000 (HK$170). For cooking of this quality, from a chef who spent years at Three Michelin-starred restaurants The Fat Duck and Bo Innovation, it represents one of Asia’s best dining deals.
As you’d expect, virtually all the produce is local and the menus deliberately celebrate often overlooked ingredients. An amuse of tomato meringue with a monggo (mung bean) filling lays down a marker of quality, finesse and innovation that is replicated throughout the meal.
Burnt kalabaza (winter squash) comes with sea urchin and am orange kamote (sweet potato) chip, a beautiful balance of sea and soil, umami with smoothness.
A Navarra signature at his former restaurant Black Sheep was ‘Bahay Kubo’, a dish that references an iconic Filipino song that celebrates a classic provincial home made from indigenous materials and all the natural bounty that grows around it. The dish that Jordy serves contains all eighteen ingredients listed in the song and comes plated as a mound of soil (dehydrated eggplant with peanuts) with green shoots poking through, a bounty underneath of squash and beans, herbs and spices. The beauty is in the execution as he delivers a nuanced, textured dish that allows the composite parts to shine. But this is no gimmick of a dish where the story is made to fit – the dish is the story, one which is beautifully scripted and beautiful to eat.
The huge central grill is reminiscent of the cooking ranges in Filipino homes and provides three skewers that disappear in record time. The vinegars in cut glass decanters are so good that I down them, shot style, once they’ve served their purpose. Only the fish of the three lacked the kiss of the grill and smoke.
Blackmore Karubi, Talinum and Toyo Eatery Silog is a befuddling way to describe the main, a brilliant combo that could be simplistically translated as beef and rice. The tapa style beef was beautifully cooked, perfectly-plated and gone in no time, dressed by leaves foraged….from the parking lot.
Desserts were also nods to Filipino classics. Coconut, lychee and rose was a sublime combo, refreshing sweetness and occasionally sharp. Perfect for the heat of the city.
Sweets rounded things off, a brilliant little truffle with a drop of fish sauce – patis – for saltiness – and a charred cassava cake, the only dish all night that didn’t quite make the mark.
Overall dinner was another vindication of Navarra’s exceptional talent and another reason to take Manila truly seriously as a dining destination. Those tattoos were well worth the pain.