Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Accidentally in Love with Lolo Dad's Cafe

My happily ever after at Lolo Dad’s Café
Words by Abby Lim
Photographed by  Greg Mayo (his actual photos are in the mag itself. these amateur photos are mine)
Art direction: Chelsea Lim
Special thanks to Appetite editors Nina Daza-Puyat and Viel Luis who helped me on this feature

It is with reckless abandon that I fall in love at first bite.  I crave and rave,  only to find out that it was mere culinary infatuation.  Then I am ready to move on to the next target delicacy.  I thought it impossible to fall absolutely and forever in love with a dish outside of home.   Until I met Lolo Dad’s Café.

Unexpected love affair
 If I didn’t know that it was one of Manila’s best restaurants, I would probably think of Lolo Dad’s Café as another house on the streets of Malate.  And indeed, from 1941 until early 2000, it actually was.  General Manager Ding Ayuyao says that the restaurant is a tribute to their deceased father Conrado Ayuyao who they called Lolo Dad. It also used to be the ancentral home of the Ayuyao family.  Look around and you’ll easily spot vestiges of the restaurant’s Spanish roots in the hardwood floors and beautifully detailed wooden furniture. 

Open kitchen at Lolo Dad's
You might think that this crossing over from historical to gastronomical is a natural offshoot of the family’s common love for meticulously-prepared food.  Nothing can be further from the truth. In actuality, what has been recently dubbed as Manila’s Most Romantic Restaurant was initially planned to be a modest take-out food stall.   I was incredulous upon learning this, but it’s the humble truth.  The take-out place was supposed to be situated at the house’s lanai, but the universe had bigger plans for the Ayuyaos.  While the family was thinking about their small  venture, it just so happened that their neighbor had to dispose of a large island stove.  Not wanting the stove to go to waste, the family decided to turn their food fling into a fullblown passion for fine dining.  The rest is gastronimical history. Today, Lolo Dad’s Cafe seats fifty people and is run by Ding and four award-winning chefs. This roster includes multi-awarded Chef Ariel Manuel and his wife Carminia Ayuyao Manuel who is also a pastry chef.   

Smile! Appetite EIC Ms. Nina Daza-Puyat and Graphic Designer Chelsea Lim
take a break from watching the going-ons in the kitchen 

The accidental chef
I believe that the food is only as good as the hands behind them.  I was a bit nervous talking to such a topnotch Chef highly esteemed by his peers.  It was pretty amazing to find out that Chef Ariel was very accomodating and easy to talk to.  He says that he started out waiting on tables and didn’t receive any formal training in cooking.  It was upon seeing the plated dishes at the Hyatt Hotel that the then-architecture student’s creative instincts for food first kicked in.   Without any air of arrogance, the Chef says matter-of-factly, “I felt that I could do that better”.  And indeed he did and still does.  The accidental chef has now garnered international awards in the culinary world, but remains surprisingly humble.  When asked what his favorite food is, he sheepishly tells us, “Corned beef”.

Chef Ariel was awesome. I just had to have a picture with him...

...and so did Assistant Editor Viel

My Rendezvous with Lolo Dad's
All the talk about Lolo Dad’s unplanned beginnings got me excited.  Like a lady out on her first date,  I didn’t know what to expect.   What sumptuous offerings would greet me from Chef Ariel’s kitchen?
February 14 is a special day for Lolo Dad’s Café since it was on the same day in 2000 that the restaurant first opened its doors to the public.  The choice of Valentine’s Day as the opening day didn’t hold any significance other than it being a good day to open a restaurant. The romantic in me was imagining the opening date to be connected to Chef Ariel and his wife’s  grand love story; it was more of a perfectly arranged marriage though.  Looking at  the grandiose Valentine’s menu, I couldn’t help but think that Lolo Dad’s and Valentine’s went so well, the heavens must have conspired to put them together.  Faithful to its romantic reputation, Chef Ariel prepared a 6-course tasting menu (P2600/person) that’s sure to romance lovers on Valentine’s Day.

Photographer peek-a-boo: Chef Ariel is busy in the kitchen

 The Chef says that he likes to add a distinguishing factor in his dishes, something that would set them apart from other world flavors.  One would notice that this special set had an Asian or Filipino twist in them, albeit their European roots.  Take for example the Hoisin glazed Rast French Quail breast, which was served with Adobo of Crispy Leg and the Seared Foie gras on Duck fat fried Potato rosti.   Or the big serving of Roast Rack of Lamb and Kaldereta of Wagyu short rib in crepinet served with Parmesan Cheese Risotto, Shallot confit and Asparagus.  You may also be familiar with the Chef’s Vanilla Almond Ice Cream creation.  The dessert was all dressed up with Thai Basil, Strawberry Feulitté and Spiced White Chocolate Burst.

French Quail breast with Adobo of Crispy leg

    I particularly liked the cool Citrus sorbet that prepared my tastebuds for Chef Ariel’s other creations.  To balance the meaty viands, there were two seafood dishes: the Gingered Raw Salmon; Tuna and Grouper with Moluga Caviar, Baby Eels and Capellin Sardine Terrine; Cucumber and Tomato Gazpacho jelly with Cilantro vinaigrette; and the Lobster and Sweetcorn Chawan Mushi.

Chawan Mushi is an egg custard dish from Japan

Okay say this as fast as you can: Gingered Raw Salmon; Tuna and Grouper with Moluga Caviar,
Baby Eels and Capellin Sardine Terrine; Cucumber and Tomato Gazpacho Jelly with Cilantro Vinaigrette.

The Perfect Ending
     I thought my date was over, but Chef Ariel wanted to introduce my palette to their ala carte menu.  As Ding emphasizes, Lolo Dad’s Café is a place to go to for any occasion, romantic or otherwise. Chef Ariel likes to keep his menu updated for regular goers looking for fresh eats.  For starters, I had the Romaine Caesar salad with Grilled Chorizo, Crisp Pancetta and Eight Minute Boiled Egg.  I particularly delighted in the Pan-fried fillet of Seabass with Blue crab Potatoes and Smoked Salmon-filled Mushrooms in Oyster cream sauce. The seabass was tender and the blue crab simply invited you to stay for more.     
  Blue Crab Potatoes, Smoked Salmon-filled Mushrooms in Oyster Cream Sauce and  Pan-fried Fillet of Seabass
             Finally, it was time for another round of dessert. I have higher standards for dessert than for any part of the meal.  The last thing I put in my mouth has to be perfect, so that I could go home contented.  I soon found out that my perfect ending was waiting in Lolo Dad’s all along. The Dark chocolate and Almond layered cake with  Quenelle of White chocolate mousseline and Vanilla Almond Ice Cream was delectable.  Take a bite, and the cake crumbles and melts in your mouth at the same time. I would go back to Lolo Dad’s just for that.

I fell in love with this: Dark Chocolate and Almond Layered Cake
Every girl dreams of a happily ever after.  It was by accident, or better yet, it was by fate that I had mine at Lolo Dad’s Cafe.         

Lolo Dad’s Cafe is located at 899 Pres. Quirino Ave. Cor. Leon Guinto St., Malate, Manila. For information and reservations, call 522-2941,  524-2295, 496-6646   or +639228125971 . 

This article was published on Appetite's February 2012 issue.
Grab a copy for more romantic escapades!