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Music & Magic At The Restaurant

1 Aug


So I walked into this joint called Exit one night. ‘Twas dark and mysterious – the only source of light was from the backlit bar.

The wait staff just killed it – they were sharp. They spoke well, and they looked great in their ties and white jackets. Classy.

It was quiet at first, with music wafting softly in the air – unobtrusively so, yet almost too quiet. As my ears slowly adjusted, I heard and got to listen to the music – that which was to set the tone for the evening: The Black Keys, some classic rock, soul, blues. Eclectic, esoteric, sometimes even sexy, and sometimes even bordering on stuff I didn’t quite like (and I listen to everything!).. but oddly enough – so REFRESHING, and even foreboding in a way.. an aural starting point for the tomfoolery to follow as inebriation sets in.

Welcome to modern day Manila and its burgeoning food scene. Hip restaurateurs and bar owners – well travelled and fed well – have FINALLY caught on that music does matter and can affect the concept of what you want to be.

About time, I say. I’ve spoken to people about this topic – something I’m very passionate about simply because I love my music, and the playlist can and often does dictate if I’m gonna go back to your joint or not – especially if it’s a bar.  Suffice to say – people have confirmed to me that they are listening.

No disrespect to her, because I think she’s a talented lady, but there is NO EXCUSE these days for a trendy, breezy, airy new restaurant to simply pop in a Sitti CD and let it play for the duration of their operation hours. No.Freaking.Excuse. She’s got talent, but I don’t want to hear 80s nuggets like, say, With Or Without You bossified one more time. Mercy, please.

Air Supply (“Making Love Out Of Nothing At All”), Kenny Rankin (“Hiding Inside Myself” – the ultimate “kill me the fuck NOW” song), Joey Albert (“Tell Me”) and the rest of that salvo of AM love song hits we seem to love so much… that doesn’t really belong to a restaurant where you want to be happy and satisfied. Again, no disrespect to them – but hey it might be better off in the quiet of your office while you work on your Excel sheets. (shudder.)

I’m not being a snob here, alright? No. Far from it. I mean, if you want to play some Color Me Badd at your fancy French Bistro, go right ahead. I’m  definitely not dictating what you should and shouldn’t be wafting out of your speakers. I’m just saying don’t be a lazy ass and rip every other restaurant’s playlist and not care.

Mario Batali is famed for playing Led Zeppelin and REM at his flagship restaurant Babbo in NYC – at a volume that can definitely be heard, but where people can still talk. But here’s the rub: it’s calculated, studied – and it works, because the buzz is amah-zing.

And that is exactly the point I’m trying to say here: know and embrace your concept, discuss what sound levels you want to hit (hopefully you sound engineered your restaurant BEFORE you finished building it), and don’t be afraid to play stuff that people don’t know, as long as it SOUNDS right for the experience you’re trying to achieve. There is so much music out there – overwhelmingly so – be playful and enjoy the hunt for tunes to play.

And worse comes to worse – stick to formula (no shame in that!) but do it with style and panache: Sinatra and standards (or gee, Joe Mari Chan and his jazz album, or radicals like Radio Active Sago Project to support OPM) in a steakhouse always works. The Rolling Stones, Juan dela Cruz, The Jerks – they will always rock your roadhouse type bar more than LMFAO. Broken beats, soulful house – perfect for your lounge where people start the night or are eating light supper. K-pop in a Korean joint, Ryuichi Sakamoto in a sushi bar, blues in a barbecue joint, and yes, I wouldn’t mind hearing current Chinese pop in a dimsum house. Rock it, whatever it is – the music is an extension of what your want your place to be. It almost always guarantees a good experience, and will make people want to come back and re-live those good times.

Hitting the beach for some quiet R&R? Pass me the Sitti please.

Capsule Review: Ginza Bairin (and other Tonkatsuhans!)

1 Aug

hire:rosu set

How do you make hot breaded pork stand out in a sea of others who’ve come and planted their flags before you?

As in all cool things – do it by thinking it through and by respecting the details.

I’m talking about the subject of today’s capsule review: Ginza Bairin.

Now, let me be transparent wit’ you (because I’m a responsible “food blogger” that way. THAT’S how I roll. Harhar!): I was invited by their marketing team to meet the owners and taste their grub. All in the name of research, of course… hehe. Yes, I got the first class treatment here – but I always do when invited to these things, and it doesn’t necessarily mean I will be a frequent guest to an establishment either. **note: I’ve come back once since then, and things were still pretty cool to me**

Ok, now that I’ve confessed that to you – Ginza Bairin is a tonkatsu restaurant that dates back to 1927. It originated and is still located in the posh Ginza district of Tokyo (think Greenbelt Mall and multiply by 100) and has specialized in this dish and it’s variants for generations.

As of today it opens in Glorietta 2, facing Palm Drive, beside Wee Nam Kee. They’re opening another branch in this new Ayala Mall near Meriam College.


GB owners and chefs

Having met the Japanese owner of the chain and had a great conversation with him, it was good to know that he was a typical Japanese dude: very thorough and meticulous – some of their best traits. That means they cared a LOT about where they sourced their pork, their eggs, breadcrumbs and other ingredients. Only the best quality they could afford. And it definitely shows.

I got to try several things: their pork cutlets are tender and perfectly fried (to me, at least) as they were crisp and practically greaseless. Two of the Japanese chefs are still in the kitchen as of this writing, so the challenge is to keep up this level of cooking when they leave.

But as I questioned at the beginning – how do you stand out when you have other katsu houses like the mighty Yabu, Saboten, and even smaller players like Tonkatsuya in the playing field? All these guys do tonkatsu quite well – to varying degrees, of course, and subjective to your tastes and experiences.

You shine with the OTHER stuff.

The Secret Sauce

Take, for instance, their tonkatsu sauce. This is leagues away from the stuff that we all grew up eating – the infamous Bulldog sauce, which I find cloying and too “rough”. GB’s sauce is a proprietary recipe from the man who started the biz. Made at their home base in Japan, it’s shipped out to all GB outlets. One pour and you will spot the difference: lighter in color and viscosity, it has many flavors running through it. I tasted a bit of umeboshi – Japanese dried plum – but I can’t be certain. It certainly beats out Bulldog for me. You don’t actually NEED this sauce – actually, I like it with a squeeze of lemon and some sea salt (which they have on the table) – but it IS good, especially when paired with some hot Japanese mustard.

katsudon special

A must is their katsudon special (tonkatsu in a special sauce over rice, topped with an egg). The first thing you’ll notice is the beautifully orange egg and the taste of the sauce base, which is made by simmering pork for hours. It is in my book the most thoughtful version of katsudon I’ve tried here so far. Pop the egg yolk, and let it dribble over your rice .. dip a katsu slice in it and use it as a secondary sauce. Comfort and bliss in a bowl. It’s won awards in Tokyo, and if I’m not mistaken the reason why owner Scott Tan fell in love with GB in the first place.

sando set

If you’re not doing rice for sexy time purposes, they have a tonkatsu sandwich on white bread. Trust me here: it doesn’t look like much, but they did their research with the bread they use for this, and it works aces. It’s a fine sandwich, and a welcome and refreshing alternative to the big katsu sets.

unagi katsu

The diva of the show, so to speak, is the unagi tonkatsu. At close to P800, it’s their most expensive set, and also probably their most unique. It’s unagi fried katsu style (duh.) and best eaten with ground sesame seeds with sea salt. Just a light dip will do the trick..let them sweet and salty flavors become friends in your maw. It took me by surprise how much I liked it – this, to me, is really good shit, and great for the occasional splurge.

mixed set

They also have katsu curry bowls, seafood (prawns, scallops, white fish), as well as gyoza and edamame. Oh, for all you takaws out there – it’s unli rice, pickles and cabbage.

Now, let me make a brief comparison to the OTHER katsu joints that have popped up and who are doing brisk business. This is how they stack up in my eyes:

Ginza Bairin is the cool kid you like to hang out with. Likes wearing cool clothes, listens to cool music, and pays attention to the little details. GB is probably a graphic artist or an interior designer.

Tonkatsuya is the street smart guy with swag. He knows what he’s doing and wants to bring his talents to a wider audience. Krumping is his specialty. Hahaha! (Tonkatsuya is run by this Japanese fellow who’s been at it for years making the same thing. I’ve only been here twice, but his prices are unbeatable – in the 200 range – and for the price, the quality is excellent.)

Yabu is the OG of the lot. A celebrity with talent and eye candy to boot, Yabu can bring in the crowds. (Mainly because of generally excellent food, great graphics and details inside the shop, and a loud energetic buzz.)

Saboten is kind of like your steady uncle, with lots of attention to detail as well. More formal than casual, he’s a tailor who can make a mean “bespoke” suit. (I say this because their food is also excellent, with their own tricks up their sleeve like a killer snow crab croquette. Also, they have this very Zen like serenity in the room, and actually BOW to you in a deeply respectful way when they present your check and all. Obviously trained by a Japanese hospitality person, this makes Saboten quite the transporting experience. And that’s a good thing.)

And no, I wasn’t smoking anything when I wrote this, lest you think otherwise. 😛


Hmm.. nothing out of the ordinary so far. I think they MIGHT have a problem if they become too popular, as the room is a bit small.


As I exited the door during my second time, at around 750pm, there was a wait outside. I know it’s not GB’s fault, but waiting outside is never good. Oh, maybe they can offer chairs to the inevitable line.


Address: G/F, Glorietta 2 (along Palm Drive)

Tel. No. +632.5537350

Hours: Sunday – Thursday 10am -11pm; Friday – Saturday 10am – MIDNIGHT, BABY!

Price: Tonkatsu regular set – P345, large set P395; Sando (sandwich) a la carte – P215, set – P325; mixed set – P425; special katsudon – P395 …. More or less you’ll spend P500 or less, which is about the going rate with the better katsu houses, with the exception of Tonkatsuya

Capsule Review: LES Bagels New York Deli & Bakery

19 Jul

LES for bagels!

The bagel is one of those iconic foods of the world. To me, it’s New York on a plate, right up there with a nice cheesy slice, and the street cart hot dog.

Toasted, with schmear (cream cheese, in various flavors) it is the quintessential Manhattan breakfast-on-the-go. Take a walk down the avenues at around 730am, and you will see countless people headed to work, headphones blasting Jay Z (or gee – show tunes!), and munching on a sesame bagel.

However, if you’ve had the good fortune to try exceptional versions of this Jewish treat, finding a decent one here in Manila is like looking for Waldo. Once upon a time, there was an American family who had a bagel shop in Filinvest, but sadly, it closed, together with our collective bagel cravings. Everything else was like eating a brick, until now.

Here’s my latest capsule review: LES Bagels New York Deli & Bakery.

The Good:

Well, they’re still on soft opening, so as of this writing, TODAY, July 19, EVERYTHING is 50% off. JUST FOR TODAY. They close at 10pm, so haul ass there now!

It’s a – dare I say it – cute little space. Cute because it’s tiny – there are a few tables upstairs on the mezzanine, but I think takeout or al fresco on a breezy day is the way to go here. Unfortunately, today was not a breezy day. Hehe!


The counter (check out the sandwich selection!)

But if you’ve had the chance to enter an NYC neighborhood deli, it all looks sooo familiar: bagels of various flavors (onion, sesame seed, plain, pumpernickel, among others), different kinds of schmears (cream cheese, baby! Veggie, herb, garlic, caramelized onion, bacon & cheddar, jalapeño & cheddar, strawberry, apple cinnamon), bialys (another Yiddish treat – similar to a bagel but with an indentation in the middle, usually with caramelized onions), rugelach (sweet Jewish pastries), AND, according to their menu, a myriad of deli sammies — from smoked pepper turkey and Havarti on a hoagie roll, to Ruebens on rye, to good ol’ egg salad. All these are the handiwork of a man named Cuit Kauffman, the same guy behind the pizza slices of Nolita in High Street Central.


Today’s schmear selection

I walked in this morning with Paolo Vasquez (the fine gent behind Longboards Manila) and the wife and we immediately zeroed in on the star of the show. Between the three of us: a sesame bagel with jalepeño & cheddar, an onion bagel with bacon & cheddar, and a plain bagel with plain cream cheese.


Spoilt for choice! What’ll it be?? Paolo can’t seem to choose..


Talk to the hand while I eat my plain bagel. tsk.

The verdict? A definite hooray! Chewy, just the right kind of dense, and great schmear flavors – nice and satisfying, and guaranteed to fill you up for at least a couple of hours (like all good bagels should! Hehe)


Sesame bagel with jalapeño & cheddar schmear

There’s soooo much to try still, and that’s always a good thing. They have stuff like matzoh ball soup and even egg creams! I kinda envy the people who live around here, because they have all these fun dining options at their doorstep.

Oh, and fine.. PS — Upon recommendation, I bought an oatmeal maple cookie sandwich. I didn’t take a pic because……..  I ate it. tsk. It’s good with coffee. We haven’t tried a lot of stuff, but my gut tells me we’ll be getting quality. Always a good thing.

New York just moved a few steps closer.

The Bad:

Well, it was our fault, I think – we forgot to have the bagels toasted. We’re all big on the crunch, so toasted it will be next time around.

Also, I wish there was more shade outside, but well, that’s just me. It was a bit hot this morning. But don’t get me wrong —- it’s a casual place to go to in your shorts and sneakers, so eating al fresco should be quite pleasant most of the time, especially in the late afternoons to evening.

The Swangit:

The only real complaint I have about this whole area is universal to all the restaurants here: parking. I’ve been told there will be spaces somewhere, but the I will tell you now that the existing ones are few and far between, and once all the big guns are up and running (like Ukkokei! Shudder) parking will be absolute war.

Oh, and you know what else is swangit? The feeling you’ll get after more than one bagel. Tread carefully, my friends. haha!

The star of the show!

The star of the show!

LES Bagels

Upper McKinley Rd, Tuscany, McKinley Hill (beside B&T Mexican Kitchen)

Currently on soft opening — M-Sat, 8am-10pm; no phone number as of yet


– bagels with schmear (Php 140-180); bagel sandwiches (Php 60-420 for one with lox and scallion cream cheese); sandwiches (Php 250-580)

Popped and Loaded

26 Mar

Where it all went down

As we greet the sun kissed months, the ever morphing local restaurant scene seems to be getting THAT much more interesting.

Like, for example, never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that a place like the vaunted International House Of Pancakes (that’s IHOP to you, bud) would show up on our shores. A US diner chain in the middle of urban BGC, with people queuing up for hours to eat there is absolutely crazy! (Have you lined up yet? Because I haven’t. haha!)

And for that matter, how crazy is it that US West Coast burger giant In-N-Out went and did a one-day test run to dip their toes in our food obsessed waters? Considering that they’ve gone on record saying that they hardly have plans of expansion in the US, that they bothered showing up in Southeast Asia at all is just a bit shocking (they did this stunt in Singapore and Hong Kong as well).

Many more chains are popping up like mushrooms: Cold Stone Creamery, Saboten, Paul Patisserie – all just around the bend.

Not that I’m complaining, of course. Bring it on, chain restaurants – Manila is a hot place to be now (literally and figuratively!)

It’s a really interesting time to be a diner in Manila – many new local joints are popping up as well, with some of them pushing dining into new directions, which is fantastic for the dining community. Check out spanking new places like VASK and Grace Park.

Speaking of “popping up”, just last night, I found myself in a pop-up concept in Salcedo Village. My buddy Jeremy “The Delicious In Mr. Delicious” Slagle just texted me saying he had extra seats to this event by a group that called themselves Pop Up Manila, so I jumped at the chance. The pop-up restaurant, in case you haven’t read about it yet, is basically a restaurant within a restaurant: a cook, often one without his/her own place yet, takes over another restaurant’s kitchen on it’s quieter night, cooking his/her brand of food.

Yes, we are goofballs - but that just makes us fun!

Yes, we are goofballs – but that just makes us fun!

Does that make sense? Well, let me just say it’s pretty fun.

The people behind this – Erwan Heussaf (who doubled as the waiter. Saan ka pa?!), Dee Jae Pa’este (well, that’s his Twitter handle..haha!) and some members of the Concepcion family (Michael, is that you behind this?) – hooked up with young chef Bruce Ricketts (yes, he’s related to Ronnie..) formerly of the now defunct Robot and currently of his own place called Sensei Sushi in BF Homes. The food concept: Latin American via Vietnam.

With Erwan The Waiter (oh fine..he’s also an instigator)

Dee Jae – another instigator

Did you get that? Again, let me just say it’s pretty fun. Mind you – it’s not the time and place to expect haute cuisine. No, son, you come here to enjoy the ride.

Called Barba Cua, they decked out this small Thai restaurant along Valero with DIY attitude: South American posters, sombreros, rice paddy farmer’s hats, and ukuleles – and presented a cool little menu of small plates – perfect for sharing.

Le menoi, showcasing their logo for the night

Being the adventurous peeps that we were, of course we just proceeded to order most of the menu (research, my friend. All in the name of research.)

Our fellow researchers

Besides, the small plates concept – like tapas with international flair – is a great way to eat without feeling like you’re going to rip your jeggings.

A lapu lapu ceviche type thang came with little cubes of watermelon, crab, citrus bits and fresh dill.

Raw, baby

Shredded oxtail and lengua rode in on a slightly greasy garbanzo based tortilla and topped with salsa verde and pickles. This was one of the tastiest stuff we ate. High on fat it seemed too (which may explain why it was so good.)

Oh mama..

Some rolled and fried bits of pig head, topped with a little salad and some pig ear bits, was quite over the top. Did we like it? Well of course! Wouldn’t you?? But this was the kind of food that you could only eat a few bites of, and it begged for an ice cold beer which unfortunately was not available. (They had a cocktail menu instead – which I think could have used a bit more booze. Apparently I can be a lush too.. heehee!)

Kulit mo, Mr. Delicious.

Kulit mo, Mr. Delicious.

Piggy in all it's glory

Piggy in all it’s glory

2 kinds of punch – they were quenching, but I think they needed more punch, though. 😉

The slightly more virtuous smoked tofu came with a nice “relish” of cauliflower, raisins, carrots and other veg in a nuoc nam (fish sauce) based dressing and would’ve been great with rice, with the other vegetarian offering crispy tamales (more like a veggie and quesong puti taco of sorts) being equally tasty as well.

Virtuous? Nah...

Virtuous? Nah…

A steak and eggs with black garlic, and an avocado sauce was good – something every meat loving Pinoy will take to like a moth to a flame – but it was the lone starch dish of rice cooked in what was probably crab stock and topped with uni and prawns that took it all home. All in all, pretty loverly stuff.

For the meat lovers in the house!

For the meat lovers in the house!

Seafood orgy on a plate: crab stock rice, uni, prawns

Considering that this was probably a bitch to pull off (when we do dinner events like this with Pinoy Eats World, my body definitely takes a beating!), I gotta hand it to their team for producing a fun, let down your hair sort of evening. I had no expectations whatsoever – which is probably the frame of mind you want to have entering events like this. The food was pretty good, the room was pretty vibrant, there were lots of celeb sightings (well, Anne and Solenn, plus fashion icon and provocateur Rajo), and my company was great. (A side note: Rajo introduced me to Solen, and she said she remembered me!!! Of course, I don’t think we’ve ever met. I would’ve remembered by now. Sorry Erwan. You probably get this all the time.haha!)

I can’t think of a better way to close out the weekend. The Manila Pop Up guys and gals throw a great experience our way – just the kind of thing this town needs more of. I’m looking forward to seeing what else they have up their sleeve.

My buddies Rajo & Nix – next time I should ask Solenn and Anne for a pic too! 😛

The guys behind FoodLab (cheesecakes galore @ Legaspi Market) aka The Bears! 🙂

Ok fine – we *did* manage to sneak in a pic of THE Anne Curtis (sorry Erwan) – she was cool, btw!

I come clean: we got Solenn too (sorry again Erwan!).At some point we literally rubbed backs. haha! AND she said she remembers me! O HA! (We may have met…in my dreams!)

Pop Up Manila is on Twitter. Follow them at @PopUpManila to find out about their next gig. Pareng Erwan said sometime in April – wait for their announcement!

Coffee, Tea, or Me (..with Coffee)?

20 Mar

Latte Art from Craft Coffee Workshop

My love affair with coffee is like one of them super colorful relationships, filled with twists and turns, long stretches of both true passion and empty, meaningless MOMOL sessions. O ha.

Back in the day, I used to frequent this Japanese coffee shop: a dimly lit, often cigarette smoke filled cafe with old movie posters of James Dean and Humphrey Bogart (I’m not even going to say which it is. You’ll figure it out – and it will date you. haha!). On the menu was everything from chahan (fried rice) to tuna sandwiches, and of course, coffee (or rather, coffee concoctions): sweet drinks filled with chocolate and cream and honey and whatever else you could pile on there – plus some coffee. Emphasis on the “some”. Yeah they were basically milk shakes.

Of course I loved it, as did the girls my buddies and I took there. It was the perfect place to chat with the ladies (*shudder*) and get to know them, and is definitely the starting point of a lifetime of “having coffee”. I felt very cool sitting there in that dim room, reeking of “yosi” (cigarettes), and with a steaming cappuccino, albeit one that tasted like candy. And thus the said affair began at this “getting to know you” stage.

By senior year of high school, during our last retreat as classmates, my buddies and I would pounce on our classic breakfast of red dyed hot dogs, cold eggs sunny side up, and rice – and wash them down with a very potent (and seemingly adult-like) instant brew with a shitload of sugar in a Styrofoam cup, its color lightened by a heaping spoon of powdered “creamer”. That certainly kept us up throughout the weekend.

Coffee became a “friend” of sorts.

At some point (I forget when), the juggernaut known as Starbucks marched into town and made quite a splash. I won’t deny – I was crushing on that mermaid pretty bad.

And how could you blame me? Their flagship at 6750 was gorgeous! 2 stories, full of couches and obscure background music and the heady aromas of coffee – it was seductive. The seduced came in droves, like zombies, and learned to sip….. frappuccinos. In their best clothes, too – I remember spotting couples out on prom night dropping by for a mocha frap.

At that point I tried to up my coffee game by trying the more “serious” offerings: apart from my staple cap, lattes soon entered my vocabulary, and – when I thought I was ready and following the footsteps of my Pops – an espresso (con panna,though, with that dollop of whipped cream smoothing out the rough edges). I felt so dirty and macho. Yes, yes, this was definitely a MOMOL moment.

It went on for a long while, all this emotionless making out with coffee. The mighty S had become a de rigueur hang out space, even a place to see and be seen. Lots of pretty young things doing their hair toss, all the while displaying their cute little frothy cream mustaches from their fraps. Cute.

Even during my travels, I’d make a beeline for Starbucks to beat my drowsiness, or any other place that served coffee. No deep feeling, no emotions. Triple espressos, usually after a long haul flight. The coffee equivalent of the walk of shame.

The day I fell I love was special. Down right torrid, even. I was in the Bay Area, and had read about this newly opened place called Blue Bottle Coffee. C and I, both intrigued, gave it a go.


I had an espresso, because my gut told me so. With no sugar sachets in sight, they pretty much discourage you from putting any sugar in their drinks – though there is a container of really nice Japanese sugar crystals if you insist – so I didn’t. It had the thickest crema I’d ever seen (that head of brown froth that forms after the barista pulls a shot) that didn’t go away and dissipate in 5 seconds. One sip of that stuff, smooth and not bitter, with a finish of chocolate, took my breath away. I sipped C’s cappuccino – even THAT made me curse out in it’s deliciousness. We went back for more: New Orleans style coffee with chicory, flat whites, lattes, even a mocha. Best I’ve ever had.


Bay Area coffee lovers

And it was the place itself – the baristas who all looked like displaced hipsters (even before I even knew what a hipster was!) all tattooed up and moving with purpose; their rows of sleek machines, grinders, and siphons (something UCC had going even before them, I might add); and one of the funkiest things I’d seen – hand filtered coffee, where you put coffee in a special filter and hand pour the water in a steady stream to produce one of the cleanest tasting cups you’ll ever sip. Apparently this was how coffee was done waaaay back in time, and it was just a method that was being reintroduced.


Blue Bottle barista doing his thing

This was when coffee and I left the MU stage and just went for it. The Third Wave of coffee is the movement where Blue Bottle was smack dab in the middle of – a time when coffee obsessives opened shops, sourcing the best beans often straight from the people who planted them,  and trying their best to extract the most flavor they could from various methods. These guys treat coffee like fine wine, and that concept just blew me away.

The only problem was that the Bottle was all the way in San Francisco. I don’t know about you – but I hate long distance relationships. I tried my best not to think of it, but the separation was unbearable. Worse, I got spoiled by it too. Where o where was I going to find someone to pull that kind of shot for me?

That quest went on for a loooong time. My espresso connoisseur father and I would order an espresso in every local restaurant we would visit. Time and time again, we were let down by watery shots, some found in the best of restaurants in the city. Restaurant peeps – you really should consider upping your coffee service game – it’s always disappointing to have a great meal be drowned out by bad coffee.

Then during my travels, I chanced upon Fuel Espresso in Hong Kong. This gweilo (Canto-slang for “white dude”) hangout, a New Zealand chain owned by a couple of Kiwi gents, made KILLER espresso and only did espresso-based drinks. Their flat white (ristretto with milk, no foam) was really fuel for me, putting a bit of strut in my stride, and their iced latte cooled me and boosted me during warm days. Every trip I made to the Fragrant Harbour made me visit Fuel every day, sometimes twice a day, even if it was out of the way. My only gripe with them was that they forbade me to take pictures of their location –although it was a great set up, I don’t get how they think it’s so “unique”. There’s nothing there that hasn’t been done before! But well gee – who cares, right? It was the coffee I was there for.

A way cooler experience came last year, when a coffee blood brother of mine – Nicco Santos – happened to be in Singapore the same time I was (see my “New Order” post) and wanted to take me to this special coffee temple, knowing that I was hooked on the stuff.

We took the subway and emerged in the middle of nowhere, walking in a neighborhood I had never been to before. It looked like the Singapore ‘burbs, if that’s possible. Nicco then pointed to this high gate, like something you’ll find at a big home in, say, New Manila, and entered.

Chye Seng Huat Hardware then proceeded to greet me like we were old lovers. Yes, torrid. Super. Where was this place all my life?

Located in an old (duh) hardware store, this was so my kind of place: airy, chill, full of light – the main room had a long bar where all the coffee magic happened,; a few cozy tables; a music corner with a vintage turntable, speakers and vinyl; a wall full of coffee machines, gadgets, grinders.. like all cool places that get to me, the atmosphere was intoxicating. And the coffee…  well, let’s just say they knew what they were doing. Like Blue Bottle, they had it all – shots, pour overs, siphons, and a new creature for me: cold brews. Cold brewed coffee is simply coffee that is filtered for a loooong time (24 hours or more!) and chilled. The result is akin to sipping the cleanest iced tea, but with a mild hit of coffee at the back of your mouth. Delicious! But don’t be fooled – this shit will keep you up spinning and dancing if you fool around with it at night. The caffeine level is through the roof.


The lovely lady baristas of Chye Seng Huat Hardware



Beside the main room was an area for roasting (because that’s how respectable Third Wave shops roll!) and arguably an even cooler spot than the main room called The Annex. Basically a room with equipment and a small bar, it was used to hold coffee classes, as well as what I went there for: pairings and tastings. Nicco’s cousin, Andre Chanco (who works there as a barista) and one of his colleagues (whose name escapes me right now) did the session. I left smiling, like I had found something I had long been looking for. That was the closest I had gotten to my Blue Bottle experience, and I went home with a wealth of knowledge too.


Pinoy barista Andre Chanco


Where coffee education happens – CSH Annex


Coffee is now in session


You may have seen these before


The idea is to use coffee in as many ways as you can

However, Singapore and Hong Kong still aren’t in the vicinity, obviously. It’s not like I can drive over and ask for a date to Tagaytay and have dinner at Antonio’s. It was still long distance. My heart ached, and longed to listen to some balladic Journey. I needed some Faithfully. In a dark room.

But fret not, dear reader (and THANK YOU if you’ve read this far! Haha!), because this does end with a Happy Ever After.

The Third Wave has landed on our shores, in case you didn’t notice, and hopefully like our penchant for 80s New Wave, it will never go away.

One of the joints in the frontlines is this place called Craft Coffee Workshop. Located on a sliver of storefront along 14th St. and Broadway in New Manila, Craft is a great way to get introduced to the world of coffee. I had only heard about them, and was quite surprised that to find that they also knew the people who ran Chye Seng Huat through my man Nicco. It was high time to investigate.


Raymond of Craft Coffee Workshop

The 3 gentlemen who run it (Raymond So, Peter Ong & Sly Samonte) are obsessive, like most of the Third Wave generation: they source their own beans, roast them, and do everything they can to get good flavor – siphon, cold brew, espresso shot, pour over. Its vibrant and alive inside – some people even mistake it for a bar – and if it weren’t a little far from me I’d go there everyday. The crowd is a mix of people who live around the area, and young med students from nearby St. Luke’s — all looking for a place to be still and enjoy the java. At least you know that if you cut your finger or bump your head you will be in awesome hands.

The baristas and owners will gladly discuss you about what exactly is going on in your cup, and if wish to learn even more, they sometimes conduct classes in their second floor “extension”. The good people behind this place have managed to grow a small community – a “Cheers” for coffee – and the surroundings are all the better because of it. I was there one night when they held an impromptu “latte art” competition – regulars and baristas went at it head to head, producing tulips, ballerinas, and..uhm.. ganja leaves made of milk, as the crowd cheered them on and judged the winners as well. Good fun!


My coffee connection Nicco Santos doing latte art


Champion Barista Kevin Fortu

So that’s my love story in a nutshell. From Manila to the San Francisco Bay Area, to Hong Kong, Singapore, and finally back to Manila, I am happy to say that the torrid affair has blossomed into marriage: Life long and strong, an endless love. Lionel and Diana would be proud.Image

BLUE BOTTLE COFFEE (66 Mint Plaza, San Francisco, CA .. +1 510.6533394;  1 Sausalito, San Francisco Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA .. +1 510.6533394)

FUEL ESPRESSO (Shop B47A, The Landmark, 12-16 Des Voeux Road Central, Central, Hong Kong .. +852 2869 9019; IFC Mall, 1 Finance St, Central, Hong Kong .. +852 2295 3815)

CHYE SENG HUAT HARDWARE (150 Tyrwhitt Road, Singapore .. +65 36960609)

CRAFT COFFEE WORKSHOP (66 Broadway Ave., New Manila, Quezon City, Philippines .. +632 5703436)


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