No thanks to the worsening Manila traffic, I now rarely venture north of Ortigas Avenue to check out a new restaurant. But when more than two friends make an effort to recommend that I try this new-ish restaurant in Quezon City called Hapag Manila, I knew that I had to drive through the traffic to visit the place.
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Hapag Manila turns out to be a modern Filipino restaurant established by three 27-year-old chefs—Thirdy Dolatre, Kevin Navoa, and Kevin Villarica—whose friendship goes way back to their La Salle Greenhills grade school days. The three friends reconnected a few years out of college, after Dolatre opened the idea for them to combine their newfound culinary skills and work experiences to start something new together.
At that point, the three chefs were more than qualified to start a new food endeavor, with Villarica bringing in what he learned at At-Sunrice Global Chef Academy in Singapore. He also worked for a major restaurant group in Singapore before going home to Manila to handle his family’s jewelry business. Navoa lived 3 1/2 years in Kuala Lumpur, studying culinary arts at KDU University College before landing a highly coveted internship followed by a full-time job at Dewakan, included in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Dolatre, the instigator, brings with him a solid background in classic French cooking techniques from CCA Manila that he then honed at various local restaurants, most notably at Wildflour and at his first restaurant Alley, before leaving to intern at the famous Benu in San Francisco. It was Dolatre’s stint at Benu that inspired him to open Hapag, but this time, with his friends.
The three young chefs initially opened a private dining company in December 2017, concentrating on catering before opening Hapag as a brick-and-mortar restaurant earlier this year. Dolatre recounts, “We were initially just looking for a commissary space and not a restaurant space.” They were shown a space inside a small compound off the southbound side of Katipunan Avenue Extension, which used to be a burger joint, but they saw the possibilities for a permanent dining space. Navoa shares, “As we were doing our private dinners, customers used to ask often if we had an actual restaurant where they could dine in. So when we saw the potential (of this space), we went for it.”
Fueled by their desire to showcase Filipino food locally, and hopefully one day in the international scene too, the trio decided to focus on their own style of progressive Filipino food at their new restaurant. “We chose Filipino food because this was our food growing up and what we are most familiar with,” says Navoa. Dolatre adds, “Because we are familiar with it, we have more room to experiment and push the boundaries of what Filipino food can be.”
They call their cooking “progressive” in the sense that they use more modern cooking techniques to refine the flavors and play with the presentation. But, according to Dolatre, the dish “still pays respect to Filipino culture, flavors, and traditions.” This they try to do by using traditional ingredients and flavor profiles, but paying extra attention to each component to ensure better results.
At Hapag, diners can opt for an eight-course tasting menu comprised of six starters or Panimula, a choice of one entrée or Pangalawa, and one dessert or Panapos. They can also choose to mix and match dishes from the à la carte menu.
Most of the entrees come with a rice pairing, an important component of each main dish as the rice is sometimes flavored with an essential ingredient that completes the taste of a dish. For example, toyomansi rice is paired with the rib-eye Bistek Tagalog. Fair warning: skipping the rice may affect one’s enjoyment of the dish.
One of Hapag’s most popular and most Instagrammed starters is Laing Stones, where crispy squid laing balls are arranged in a claypot, hidden amidst various fresh herbs, that one can easily mistake for a table arrangement or centerpiece. One is encouraged to pick the herbs as a refreshing counterpoint to the rich laing balls.
Another popular starter, the Oyster Bonete or oyster slider features a fresh Aklan oyster sandwiched in between a housemade bonete bun that is extra tasty, thanks to the addition of adobo aioli and mulberry reduction.
The Ginataang Alimasag consists of fresh crabmeat encased in a rich coconut custard base flavored with ginataang kalabasa purée (squash purée cooked in coconut milk), a rich palabok-like sauce made from extracted prawn heads, finished with a sprinkling of chicharon crumbs for textural crunch.
Among the main dishes, the Kare-kare ni Lola V is the most popular entree. A deconstructed take on kare-kare inspired by Villarica’s grandmother, the oxtail is presented flaked and sautéed in bagoong or shrimp paste, alongside a selection of fried vegetables—fried eggplant, crispy kangkong, and snap peas—together with a smear of smoked eggplant purée. This is served with a side of their homemade kare-kare sauce and multigrain (combination of white, red and brown) bagoong rice.
My favorite, however, is the newest entrée called Lamang Dagat, featuring whatever is the catch of our local fishermen. Fresh seafood is simply cooked on the grill to highlight its freshness, before it is served on top of squid ink adlai, finished with taba ng talangka aioli, crispy garlic, and pickled onions.
For Panapos or dessert, the chefs present their take on traditional Mangga’t Suman, combining sticky rice cooked in coconut milk and latik with a mango semifreddo covered with delicious crispy wafer-like shards of melt-in-your mouth meringue.
Word on the street is Hapag’s take on progressive Filipino food is more approachable than other restaurants with similar profiles. So despite its location, this cozy restaurant tends to get full, whether on a weekday or weekend. So reservations are highly recommended.
Hapag Manila, 201 Katipunan Avenue, Quezon City, (0947) 560-1853, hapagprivatedining.com
Photos by Jar Concengco
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