MANILA -- Foodies can now enjoy Ilonggo dishes at Cucina at the Marco Polo Ortigas Manila with its special Kaon ‘Ta Sa Cucina promotion.
“A big portion of our business is local business, and we change our Filipino section regularly with regional dishes. It’s good to introduce new dishes,” Frank Reichenbach, general manager of Marco Polo Ortigas Manila, said.
The promotion obviously works as the hotel restaurant was full for lunch on that rainy August day that we came to visit. Together with Cucina regular stations like the grill, seafood (where they sometimes have diwal on the menu), Japanese, and roast, the Ilonggo dishes were also popular options, even to foreign guests.
Authenticity was something that shone brightly in the buffet, as the dishes used recipes from Cucina’s Ilonggo executive sous chef, Rexson Abarquez. There was emphasis in using authentic ingredients -- some are even sourced from Iloilo -- and with almost all of the desserts done from scratch.
Some of the dishes were versions that this author was not accustomed to; for example, the kansi/beef pochero was soured with a light hand using batwan. When asked, the chef swears by this recipe, insisting that this is the way that kansi should taste -- not too sour -- which presented another interesting facet to the buffet, as it also celebrated the many possible versions of a regional dish.
So for something both familiar and new, here were some of the Ilonggo dishes we enjoyed in the buffet during our visit.
While there’s a DIY salad section, for the Kaon ‘Ta Sa Cucina, there was a table full of Ilonggo salads. Mostly soured with calamansi to not overpower the taste of the vegetable or the fish, these salads like the Nilagpang na Gurayan (lightly cured fish with chillies) and the Ginamos na Labanos na may Sibuyas Dahoon (radish with chives) were light and refreshing. For something more bracing, opt for the Kinilaw na Lato which used a housemade vinegar (sinamak) to dress the salty seaweed.
Pochero na Baka
2. Kansi or Pochero na Baka – Simmering for three hours made for tender beef and collagen-rich broth. As previously mentioned, this dish didn’t have a pronounced sourness that this author typically associates with kansi, but the batwan did provide enough of a counterpoint to the richness of the dish that it was never cloying during the eating. It was like a rich "nilaga" that you didn’t need to ask for patis and calamansi for. Joko Magalong-De Veyra
3. KBL – This was this author’s favorite dish in the buffet. KBL stands for Kadyos (black beans), Baboy (Pork), and Langka (Jackfruit). Stewed together, this dish turns the pork and jackfruit black, and creates a thin dark broth packed with flavor that goes so beautifully with white rice. Joko Magalong-De Veyra
4. Las-wang Utan na May Baboy at Hipon – It’s the quintessential vegetable stew of Ilonggos, where they take vegetables that are in season, boil them with protein and guinamos (shrimp paste) to flavor. In Cucina, it’s extra special, as they flavor the stew with pork and shrimp. Joko Magalong-De Veyra
5. Batchoy – One of the highlights of the buffet is the Batchoy Station. Choose your toppings to this Ilonggo market dish by heaping on liver, veggies, fried garlic, and even bone marrow onto your batchoy noodles (especially thin noodles that hold their texture very well even after being in the soup for some time). The chefs then heat it all up, top your bowl with broth and egg yolk, and have the service staff deliver it to you table. Comfort in a bowl. Joko Magalong-De Veyra
Afritada na Baka
6. Bakang Afritada – Beef is cooked in a broth with tomato sauce and pineapple with carrots and garbanzos and helped along with red color and flavor by atsuete. It’s a sweetish kaldereta sans the liver and spice. Joko Magalong-De Veyra
Paella cooked on-site
7. Paella Valenciana – This is not a Spanish Paella Valenciana. It differs in many ways. The rice is mostly malagkit or sticky rice instead of bomba rice, and it also uses pork pieces, liver and beef broth to flavor the rice. It only has peas and garbanzos as vegetable components, and it resembles a soupy bringhe that is flavored and colored by "kasubha." Hearty with strong flavors, this paella was designed to fill bellies toiling long in the fields, and had Cucina diners lining up for filling servings. Joko Magalong-De Veyra
8. Piyaya, Bayi-bayi, and Biscocho – Dessert and sweets are something that Ilonggos and that region is known for, and the Cucina buffet doesn’t disappoint with its delicious homemade offerings. Piyaya is a well-known Iloilo treat, and was one of the quickest to disappear in the buffet.
The biscocho, meanwhile, was crispy but wasn’t hard to bite and were buttered and sugared up so nicely that they were heavenly dunked into after-lunch/dinner coffee. Last would be the bayi-bayi. Not as well-known as the previous two sweets, this sticky rice dish wasn’t too sweet and had grated young coconut that you could taste in every bite. Joko Magalong-De Veyra
The Kaon ‘Ta Sa Cucina is available for lunch and dinner until August 18.