I have been passing by Restaurante Pia y Damaso at Greenbelt 5 for the past seven years, nonchalantly dismissing it from my choice of restaurant to dine in because, “It’s a Filipino restaurant so they’re probably dishes I could make at home,” “It looks expensive,” and “I don’t really like eating rice.” Also, I couldn’t get what “subversive Filipino cuisine” was supposed to looked like, let alone taste like.
So you could imagine my apprehension about meeting the chef and owner, Bambi Sy Gobio. What was I going to talk to her about with her? My utter lack of understanding for the subtle nuances that is Filipino cuisine? After meeting the lovely woman, I was delighted to find out that Bambi had more of a Western upbringing, much like myself, and developed a fascination with Filipino food after reading José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere – one of the obligatory novels for high school students who grew up in the archipelago – being positively curious about what everyone ate in the book. It was because this that she started her love affair with Filipino food done the way she’d interpret it through the prolific book, and named her restaurant after one of the most glutinous characters in there, the antagonist Padre Dámaso.
Funnily enough, although the restaurant was named after Padre Dámaso, Chef Bambi shares there is a dark humor in it as the Dámaso mascot actually looks like one of her relatives, which is kind of funny as she shares she’d get flak from the restaurant name when it first opened. I guess the moral of the story here is not to take everything so damn seriously and just enjoy the establishment for what it is.
I started lunch parching my dry throat with a soothing glass of Tubig ni Maria Clara (Php 300 a pitcher), made with fresh cucumber, ginger, and citrus water. I was also pleasantly surprised to see Damaso also served pitchers of Ginger Calamansi Smoothy (Php 180 a pitcher) on the menu, which was sweet and sour, with a little bit of heat that fizzles out at the end of your tastebuds. I make something similar at home, which is a simple detox aimed to cleanse your body of whatever it is you ate that day.
The Almond Stuffed Dates Wrapped in Bacon (Php 175) is a great way to start your meal, with smoky, sweet, and nutty flavors of the soaked almond and the salty bacon, beckoning you to get another, and another, and another. I could probably finish of a plate of these by myself if left to my own devices.
The Filo Tarts with Pork Asado, Apple Relish (Php 220) is a nice surprise, with the unassuming pan-fried flaky filo cakes stuffed with salty sweet pork and served with caramelized apple vinegar. Apples and pork just marry together so well, this was a simple, nicely thought out dish that I wouldn’t mind having more of.
You may think the Elias (Php 450) would be quite pricey for a salad, but this simple starter comes with big chunks of crocodile meat. Normally, I wouldn’t even have a bite, but seeing it marinated and presented with the colorful mixed greens, tomatoes, caramelized pineapples, and crisp shallots, served with a mango-cilantro vinaigrette, the crocodile meat from Davao was actually pretty good – it had the consistency of beef but tasted a lot like some kind of gamey chicken.
If you look closely, you can tell that the Croque Monja (Php 280) was happy to see me, as I the sandwich. This pan-fried sandwich uses Malagos goat mozzarella and smoked tinapa in between the crunchy sammie, which was slightly salty and sweet – the perfect companion for my Ginger Calamansi Smoothy.
Bambi talked about reading about Chinatown and Ongpin back in the Noli Me Tangere days of José Rizal, and the Kua Pao Pan De Sal (Php 250) is a tribute to just that – something she thought the Chinoys would probably have as a snack or to go with their noodles – two toasted pan de sal with soya, anise and garlic braised pork belly, crushed roasted peanuts, a sweet mustard leaf confit, and fresh cilantro leaves.
One the most interesting dishes at Pia y Damaso is the Nga Nga Beef Salad (Php 250), much like how one of the old women in the novel (and some old women up in the mountain provinces today) would chew on their betel nuts, this salad is presented in a way where you wrap up the salty sweet chewy beef flakes, green mango pickle, red onions, haw flakes, and cilantro in the arugula and lettuce, popping the whole thing in your gob, chewing it like your nan would. Once again, this hits all the right notes of sweet, savory, salty, sour, and bitter – it gets your taste buds excited and activates the salivary glands for what comes next.
For a quick yet memorable brunch, there’s the Smoked Tapang Usa (Php 450). Bambi sources the salted deer meat from somewhere in Nueva Ecija, and the sweet meat goes really well with the green mango pickle and roasted pepper omelette served on a bed of garlic rice.
If you’re tastebuds are searching for something more sweet than salty, the Smoked BBQ Mango Pork (Php 500) is probably for you. I liked this dish a lot more than the deer tapa, with its sweet and smoky combination of barbecue pork and mango marinade that’s served with spinach, apple, raisin, and pine nuts in garlic rice with the vital scrambled egg. This may come across as a little pricey, but you definitely get your money’s worth with the quality of ingredients used and the portion size.
The Fideos with Mussels and Chorizo (Php 360) had me confused for a minute there – it looked like the kitchen ran out of rice for the paella and threw toasted vermicelli noodles instead. Oops, it was intentional! Haha! Cooked in white wine, a seafood broth, and tomatoes, the noodles slurp up all that flavor, complimenting the thick slices of spicy chorizo and fresh mussels.
Speaking of paella, Damaso also has its version of a faux paella negra. The Placido Pentitente (Php 400) is made with a black rice risotto topped with cuttlefish and fish roulade. Give the whole thing a good squeeze of lemon juice and you’re in businesses! The best part about it? No squid ink teeth and having to double check yourself in the mirror after the meal.
For those with a heartier appetite, the Pork Belly with Chorizo and Chickpeas (Php 600) is filling enough and recommended to be split between two to three people. The combination of the seared pork belly, spicy chorizo de bilbao, olive oil, garlic, paprika, and garbanzos has a lot more Spanish influence than Filipino. This may be something the more ostentatious clergymen in the book would eat for a big celebration, perhaps?
Damaso’s take on the local favorite, bistek, uses the exotic ostrich instead of boring old beef. Ostrich Beef Steak with Guava Butter (Php 600) makes use of thick, seared ostrich steak that’s been marinated Tagalog beefsteak style with soya sauce, onions, calamansi, and black pepper, served with fried saba, sautéed cabbage and onions. I definitely prefer Damaso’s ostek over bistek any day, as this has a lot more attitude and flavor, and can be split between two hungry friends.
If you’re looking for something a little lighter to share, the pescetarian-friendly Sikreto ni Salome (Php 380)is a definite win. The dish uses king oyster mushrooms and wood ear mushrooms with maya-maya and mussels, making for a very interesting meal.
Its quite amazing that such a small restaurant could crank out such good food with all of them being original takes on classic Filipino cuisine inspired from one of the most controversial books in Philippine history. Equally amazing is Chef Bambi’s painstaking attention to detail, making sure that each dish is well thought out, well- researched, and as true to the book as possible, with her own subversive twist.
Restaurante Pia Y Damaso is located on the 2nd floor of Greenbelt 5, Ayala Center, Makati. For inquiries or to make a reservation, please call +63 729 5511.