It started with a message from a friend. “Are you free later tonight?” she asked, “Come by for a tasting at The Red Light, it’s near El Chupacabra.” “Sure, I’ll be there,” was my quick reply. Only to be totally confused on the way there, as El Chupacabra was in Makati’s actual red light district to begin with.
The Red Light is the cheeky name for a pop up shop in the are of the same name and from what I hear, is also Erwan Heusaff’s studio kitchen when he films videos for his blog, The Fat Kid Inside. When the red light reads ‘On Air’, you’ll know there’s the hair god is in. Not that night, though. That night was 10-course tasting dinner for their newest restaurant concept, Bait’s Seafood Restaurant, headed by talented Chef Joseph Margate, a US-raised Filipino who has just moved to the Philippines to cook amazing food and discover more of his rich heritage in the process.
The night started off with a liberal dose of libations, featuring concoctions that may just make it to the cocktail menu at Bait’s. A sweet drink that smelled and tasted like Christmas is Starfish, made with spiced gin, Sevilla Orange Bitters, lemon juice, melon juice, and syrup; if you’re looking for more of the taste of the tropics, there’s Reefer – a mix of rum, dalandan, lemon juice, and coconut milk; and for the folks looking for something stronger, there’s Boulevard Felipe made with Johnnie Walker, vermouth, St. Germain, Grapefruit Bitters, and Campari.
The Red Light looks more like a really small dive bar, with the prep stations and cooking apparatuses taking up most of the small space with a grey counter surrounding the open kitchen for guests to sit and watch the chef cook. The bar is situated outside, with its own little prep area and sink, and there are a few cocktail tables positioned outside for folks who want to drink, smoke, and enjoy the cool January weather.
The all-seafood tasting menu of Bait’s uses whatever Chef Joseph finds at the wet market that day, focusing on using only the freshest ingredients to create exciting flavors that awaken the senses. Sitting at the counter looking at the crew work, one can appreciate all the different aromas wafting from the stovetop of all the different types of fish, scallops, and crustaceans that would be plated and served later on in the evening.
The tasting started with a simple plate of boquerones with Sky Flakes. The Spanish tapas uses fresh anchovies that are marinated in olive oil, diluting the saltiness of the fish and plumping them up – a nice first dish to ease us into the all-seafood tasting menu.
Chef Joseph had a very French take on fresh tuna tartare, drizzling the raw meat with a little bit of lemon oil and adding a sprinkling of pickled mustard seeds before being garnished with finely julienned watermelon radish.
While everyone was tucking into the tuna tartare, the chefs were busy preparing the next dish: a red snapper crudo with a spicy sambal base, the heat of the Indonesian paste only slightly diluted with green tomato water, and served with delicate flakes of katsuoboshi. Being the spiciest dish on the menu that night, this was definitely a favorite of mine. Plus points for using maya-maya, which for some reason isn’t used as much here are it ought to be.
Another Mediterranean dish that was the squid a la plancha that was plated on a bed of sofrito and served with chicharrón. Playing up on the different textures, it’s surprising how the pork rinds actually complemented the tender pieces of grilled baby squid, which in turn complemented the mildly spiced refogado.
An Italian dish with Mediterranean influence, Chef Joseph prepared fresh pasta made in-house and hand-cut for a more rustic presentation, served with bottarga and broccoli for a pop of color, all plated with a sprinkling of bread crumbs, giving the already delightfully chewy pasta even more texture. This was simple, homey, and a dish I wouldn’t mind ordering a few more plates of when Bait’s finally opens its doors.
Chef Joseph has worked extensively around the Uited States and Europe, and his ode to Boston is a delicate mussels chowder served with refreshing chopped apples, potatoes, and chives.
Another favorite of mine is the Moroccan-inspired dish of tilapia marinated in turmeric, served with cauliflower couscous, fresh herbs, and a pat of nước chấm. Ok, so the last ingredient isn’t exactly Moorish in origin, but it did bring the dish together nicely, with flavors coming through being that of the fish and the dill.
Probably one of the prettiest dishes that night was the teal plate of bright orange grilled prawns on a bed of white beans sprinkled with finely chopped parsley, sprinkled with chili flakes, and finished with chicken skin. It tasted as good as it looked, with all the ingredients adding to the grilled flavor of fresh prawns.
If you ever wondered what Greece would probably taste like, I feel it would be something along the lines of a refreshing octopus and pork belly salad, with a deliciously light salsa verde to cut through the flavors of charred tentacles. A boring salad, this definitely is not.
Playing on color, texture, and flavor was the meaty torched mackerel, served with red lentils infused with Indian spices, finished off with thin strips of crispy pig’s ears. This dish is also visually appealing, with the cerulean-hued plate bringing out the bright pops of canary-hues in the pulses.
Lastly, there was the Latin American-inspired grilled tuna with a fresh salsa criolla and fried yucca. The simplest looking dish at the tasting, I was surprised at how much flavor there was in the simple slab of tuna, and just how well the yucca was made – it’s definitely not something you find in the Philippines (although I really think it should).
At the end of the night, I was happily full from chowing down on the seafood-centric tasting dishes that Chef Joseph and his team had meticulously prepared. All the dishes were fresh, flavorful, and exciting, and I am really looking forward to seeing the team again at Bait’s Seafood Restaurant when it finally opens its doors in Makati.