I have never heard of Filipino fine dining before.
Growing up eating adobo, kare-kare, kaldereta, and chopsuey, I just couldn’t imagine how comfort food that looks like an oily, brownish-orangey (delicious!) mess could be dressed up to look like it came out of a Michelin kitchen. But after paying APU: Authentic Filipino Cuisine a visit at the City of Dreams in Parañaque, I’ve changed my mind.
Ironically, the food consultant for the Filipino restaurant is one of the Dutch owners of the upscale destination restaurant in Alabang called Caviar. Frank van der Walle found love in Pampanga, falling in love with the food as well as his wife, and shard his passion by incorporating good food with tasteful décor – luxe leather chairs and tables made from locally-sourced wood that he designed himself.
Frank put together an interesting assortment of dishes that encompassed most favorites from all around the Philippines which made for quite an interesting (and very long) lunch.
Out of all the salads at APU, the Pako Salad (Php 350) is my personal favorite and very Kapampangan, made with fiddlehead fern, salted egg, crispy bacon, slices of sundried tomatoes, thinly sliced shallots, toasted nuts, and a tangy honey-calaminsi vinaigrette. Whilse most salads using fiddlehead fern use the stem with the leaves still curled up, Kapampangans use the leaves sans the stringy stems, making for a started that is both light and fresh.
Another highly addictive appetizer is their Dagupan’s Bangus Tinapa Pâté (Php 290) made with smoked milkfish and herb cream cheese, mixed together until they’re almost a mousse-like consistency, served with lemon to cut through the cheese as well as toasted crostinis.
Chopsuey (Php 385) is something that one would usually find at home alongside your main meal, so it was quite surprising to see something that was seemingly quite simple on the menu. APU takes it up a notch, with the generous bowl filled with fresh seafood and quail eggs along with fresh, stir fried vegetables, turning it into a meal unto itself instead of a side dish.
The Philippines prides itself on having the best, sweetest mangoes in the world, and that is evident in the Filipino restaurant’s Ensaladang Mangga (Php 350, a refreshing mango salad tossed with chunks of tomatoes, shallots, and local bagoong – a kind of Filipino sambal or shrimp paste.
When I was a kid studying at a British school in Dubai, we’d have a yearly international food day where parents would put up stalls celebrating their favorite local cuisine of their homeland. Being one of a handful of Filipinos attending, I was always amazed at how fast our spring rolls would sell amidst the more popular traditional English, Irish, Indian, and Australian favorites. At APU, they offer tall stems of Fried Lumpia (Php 340), spring rolls filled with a pork dumpling mixture and wrapped in crispy, rolled up sheets and served with a vinegar and soy-ketchup sauce with a little chili. This was polished off in 5 minutes flat, it was so good and definitely better than most. It is such a head scratcher how this was made by a Dutch chef and not a Filipino one.
The Fried Lapu-Lapu (Php 1,088) at APU almost looks like a small dragon coiling up to protect its treasure of pineapple tidbits, it’s scales decorated with julienned vegetables and spruced up some more with Chinese parsely and lemon, a nod to the vast Chinese-Filipino community.
Catfish is also popular, and the slow-fried Fried Hito (Php 590) looks equally compelling on the plate, served with blanched vegetables and vinegar in a parrot green dish with a banana leaf instead of parchment paper for native flair. Oddly, I prefer to partake of the fried catfish with a dab of mayonnaise instead of the the sour vinegar – so to each his own.
One would see a lot of inasal restaurants around Metro Manila, a dish that originated in the Western Visayas region using chicken marinated in a mixture of lime, pepper, vinegar and then grilled over hot coals while basted with the marinate. APU somehow injects more flavor into their Chicken Inasal (Php 450), using chicken thighs marinated in fish sauce and calamansi, grilled with beautiful char marks but still juicy, and served with a homemade gravy and atchara.
Visitors to the Philippines are sometimes surprised about how “foreign” some of us look and not Asian, forgetting that we were occupied by the Spanish for over 300 years – I like to joke that we’re the Mexicans of Asia. A culinary gift left by our Spanish forefathers is the kaldereta. The restaurant’s mildly spicy Lamb Kaldereta (Php 640) uses braised lamb shank and is served in its rich sauce made with tomatoes, potatoes, spices, liver, olives, bell peppers and hot peppers, served in a small caldera.
The typical kare-kare recipe (a sort of Filipino satay-type dish that uses crushed peanuts) uses ox tripe, chunks of beef, and sometimes bagnet for that extra crunch and texture in the creamy sauce. This place opts to use simpler ingredients, making the most of all the water that surrounds our 7,107 islands with APU’s Seafood Kare-Kare (Php 750). The fresh shrimp, prawns, and squid are grilled added into atsuete-flavored peanut sauce made creamy with first-pressed coconut milk served with Baguio beans, aubergines, and accompanied with homemade bagoong.
Another interesting shrimp-based dish is their Gambas Aioli (Php 385) that makes use of fresh white shrimps sautéed in spiced olive oil and lots of garlic with a touch of Spanish paprika. This makes for a great appetizer while you wait for the rest of your meal or something to pair with a cold beer to share as pika-pika with friends… with more beer.
As the owners of this restaurant proudly hail from the food capital of the Philippines, Pampanga, it’s no surprise to see APU’s Sizzling Pork Sisig (Php 390) on the menu. Served the original Kapampangan style, it is made up with finely chopped pork bits (mostly the face, snout, and ears), onions, and peppers , this is served on a sizzling plate where an egg is then cracked onto the dish and mixed thoroughly ’til cooked though. I know the image of chopped pig’s face will naturally make one feel squeamish, but I promise you, unlike the balut, ya’ll are going to enjoy this!
The region of Camarines Sur is known for its chili, and their Bicol Express (Php 685) is definitely not for the faint of hearted (but not the Thai fire-up-your-nose hot), with crispy pork belly served with green chilis in a creamy coconut curry with cherry tomatoes to help with the spice. I think I finished at lease half of this by myself, only stopping once I had realized I had run out of rice. And water – to cleanse my palate of the heat!
If you haven’t already noticed, most Filipino dishes are either fried, creamy, and overall quite indulgent. For those of you who are watching what they eat, the Steamed Tilapia (Php 450) is probably for you (and not me). This big freshwater fish is simply rubbed with minced garlic and served with blanched broccoli and carrots. I cannot really appreciate steamed food – unless we’re talking about dumplings – and stuck to my fried lapu-lapu, picking at the vegetables every so often.
Definitely #NotMamasBistek, the monstrosity that is APU’s Bistek Tagalog Family Style (Php 4,500 for 1.2kg) is certainly meant for big groups of people – like your immediate family, your titas, titos, cousins, grandmas, and grandpas. I think my dog probably weighs less that this steak! Grilled to utter perfection every time, this giant steak has the perfect charring and is usually served medium well, with all the juices practically oozing out of it, and served with slices onions and forest mushrooms, along with the slightly tangy and smoky bistek sauce on the side. Have this with rice or fries and make sure to make it a long lunch or dinner – you’re going to be at it for a while.
After going through probably three-fourths of APU’s menu, I was curious to see how their dessert would fare. Their Magalang Lumpiang Turon (Php 240) was visually stunning and beautifully plated, made with sweet plantains and jackfruit wrapped in lumpia wrapper and brown sugar, served with a tablea chocolate dipping sauce. the turon was crunchy and sweet, as expected, although I don’t quite agree with the price when I look at the portion size.
The Brazo de Mercedes (Php 220) is Filipino roulade made of a lightly-flavored merengue sheet, rolled up hiding a rich egg custard filling in the middle. While you can buy this dessert at most bakeshops, one can see and appreciate how this is made from scratch, the custard practically oozing out onto the plate. Cutting into it with my fork, it was like cutting into air, and the filling was rich and sweet, as expected.
Offering elegant and contemporary fine dining, experience the authentic Filipino dishes prepared with seasonal offerings from the restaurant’s own farms and local producers, I find APU to be a brilliant introduction to Filipino cuisine for any tourist, expat of balikbayan coming to pay a visit.
APU Restaurant is located at the Upper Ground Floor of City of Dreams Manila, Asean Avenue corner Roxas Blvd. Entertainment City, Parañaque and is open daily from 10am – 10pm. For inquiries and reservations, please call +63 2 887 1651.