Trip report Jan 2014, Philippines
Here's a trip report in real-time (easier to remember details that way). Started by transitting through Manila via Tokyo late (no meals except for a simple hotel breakfast of steamed fish and garlic rice).
Unanticipated overnight stay in Sablayan. A sympathetic local took us to a locals' restaurant. We learned that Sablayan is Philippines' newly anointed Tuna Capitol so naturally we order tuna. Grilled tuna belly with tomato salsa and sizzling tuna that was vaguely Italian, with olives and tomatoes smelled great. Unfortunately, in both preps, the tuna was way over-cooked. But we were hungry so we cleaned our plates.
Pandan Island - Only one place to stay here, at the rustic "resort" (not your typical resort). We took 2 dinner buffets here. First night was a disappointment: a mild but comforting crab and corn chowder; fried fish (meaty white fish but again, over-cooked...perhaps this is the Fillipino style?) and calamari (rubbery); chicken curry (B said this was good); flavorless veggie medley mush of carrots and bean sprouts; Western-style salad; rice. Fortunately, we made liberal use of a couple of wonderfully piquant sauces - a spicy vinegary one with plenty of chili pepper and a fiery-red chili paste. Second night was what I was expecting: our first taste of sinigang (deliciously tangy seafood soup with sliced radish and tomato); whole fish simply grilled in banana leaf (again, cooked just a bit too long for our taste, but quite good anyway); beef stew with green peppers that B really enjoyed; a very good pumpkin curry. Cook must have been not working the previous night or just had an off-day!
Puerto Galera - We're here to dive/snorkel, not to hang out in Sabang, which is quite icky. We ate at Tamarind last night since we took out too many pesos. My steamed fish came with a delicious coconut cream sauce. B had the spare ribs, which looked big, but they weren't very meaty. But he said they were delicious. He chose the Texas fries option (they turned out to be steak fries). Overall, pricey and just ok, but the location is nice and away from the Sabang "action."
To be continued....
So much for my real-time report...We lost internet for 5 days as we took a Tao Philippines boat trip from Coron to El Nido so I decided to just wait until we were home to finish up. Jet lag is good something!
In Puerto Galera, we stayed at Utopia Resort, sister property to Blue Ribbon Divers. It was quite removed from the town, which suited us just fine. We took only breakfasts here and we were very happy - B had the Hearty Western breakfast both mornings, while I had the wonderfully crisp and mildly vinegar-y bangus (milkfish) garlic rice. Real brewed coffee felt like a treat after many mornings of Nescafe 3-in-1 and so did the beautiful location of Utopia atop the hills. They also do a lovely Happy Hour special - a pile of lumpia and veggie sticks with dip and cocktails, all on the house.
BBQ night at Blue Ribbon our last night was just passable. B gets the pork kebab and all-you-can eat salad/sides bar and we share tanigue and 4 prawns. Nothing special. Garlic rice is rather mushy but has just the right amount of garlic.
TAO Philippines (Coron to El Nido) - This was the centerpiece of our trip and it lived up to our expectations (please contact me off-line if more details are needed). Food-wise, we were blown away every single day. They provided 3 meals a day plus snacks. Some highlights (all fish are served whole and every meal is accompanied by rice): fish in mustard-y curry sauce; always a veggie dish, usually coconut curried and could contain sweet potato, okra, green beans, chayote, carrot, onion; grilled tuna and bonito; mung bean curry; banana blossom fritters; steamed crabs; small head-on prawns with edible shells in a garlicky slightly spicy sauce; pickled daikon; grilled barracuda; eggplant fitters dipped in egg (even as non-egg eater, I ate and loved these); deep-fried bangus; more whole fish served in a sourish sauce and unbelievably crispy (we had whole fish everyday except the last and never got sick of it); roasted whole pig the last night (I didn't partake but everyone raved about it and especially about the cracklings); sticky rice; wonderful porridge served in a coconut after we drank the buko (juice); a potent and delicious chili sauce that we slathered on everything; all washed down with numerous bottles of San Mig. It was all cooked by a 19-year old phenom in a tiny ship galley or grilled on land over an open fire. Even the owner of TAO acknowledged that he is one of their most naturally-gifted cooks.
A post-TAO group dinner at Art Cafe is fine. It's mostly Western and we are already missing the food from the boat. My tomato pesto pasta is actually quite good (really garlicky and the pasta is cooked al dente) but still, I dreamt of whole grilled fish eaten by a fire.
We stayed at Cadlao Resort in El Nido. Breakfasts here were good - I got the tapa (marinated beef strips) and garlic rice both mornings and B stuck with his usual big American breakfasts. He tasted my tapa (and mind you, I'm usually not a meat eater) and loved it - we were both instantly reminded of bulgogi. Good coffee.
Lunch one day was on the beach during our Lagoon Tour of El Nido. Another amazingly good lunch cooked by guys on the beach - whole grilled fish with shallots and garlic, chicken wings, pork, grilled squid, tomato and cuke salad, salted egg salad, rice, plentiful fruit for dessert. One of our best lunches.
Dinner at Alternative Hotel was a nice surprise. We walked up to the stairs to find a beautiful dining room with cool lounging areas where you could eat over-looking the water. This place is a haven for vegetarians as they have a whole page devoted to veggie food. Spicy peanut dip with homemade wheat bread to start, followed by seafood paella for B (over-flowing with prawn, clams, fish, squid), shredded banana heart in slightly spicy curry sauce for me that I loved.
Back in Manila very late due to a change in travel plans (canceled flight because of bad weather). We exhaustedly decided to stay in and dine at the Taproom in the Manila Hotel (which was quite beautiful). A disaster of a plate of gluey fettuccine with crabmeat (actually crab stick), while B had a juicy-looking burger (of course, this being Philippines, it is served with bacon and an egg on top!). At that hour, though, I was just grateful for food.
The last day of our trip was an overnight in Tokyo. We had drinks at the Park Hyatt (we are big fans of Lost in Translation) then after some wandering, a simple ramen-ya is what we craved. We found one in Ueno as we were staying in the general area, closer to Nezu (have no idea what the name is but it's on the parameter of Atre mall in Ueno Kaisei station) clumsily ordered at the machine (a friendly staff member helped us) and got some of the best ramen we've had in a while. We shared the pork ramen and the veggie one. The veggie one was redolent of sesame oil but a tad salty. I fished out the pork for B and happily slurped that bowl up. This was the style of ramen with the noodles served on the side for dipping. The noodles are thicker and quite toothsome. Perfect, especially with cold draft beer.
We took a second small dinner at a simply conveyer belt sushi place. Definitely nothing earth-shattering, but it was fun. The miso clam soup was the picture of umami. 7 plates later, the bill was only $1000 yen (about $10 USD)!
We are already planning our next trip back to the Philippines!
Thanks for reporting back, digga! Having done my share of dive trips in the Philippines, I could almost taste the food as I read your report. (I agree, Sabang is icky! Local divers seem to prefer Anilao.)
Resort food in the Philippines is usually something I enjoy more because diving makes me hungry than because the food is good--it's rarely better than passable. I'm glad you are taking things positively, despite the disappointing quality of the cooking. There is definitely a tendency to overcook food, partly because a lot of Filipinos believe that undercooked fish/meat/veg will make you sick and cooking food to death will kill the bugs (along with the taste and texture of the dish.) Whenever I order fish, I make it a point to ask them not to overcook the fish (or whatever), and to make sure that the flesh is still moist. The special instructions work most of the time.
I hope you get a chance to have some really good meals while you are in the Philippines. Manila is definitely the best place for dining. Have an enjoyable stay!