NEW YORK – Normally, when I come across a restaurant serving a “modern fusion” of any cuisine, I tend to be suspicious. More often than not, the “modern” sticks to the decoration and the “fusion” results in utter lack of the authentic taste and I get charged an arm and a leg for food of just average quality.
But a few months ago I dropped by Maharlika in New York City’s East Village and enjoyed some of the best Filipino fare I have tried anywhere, including the Philippines.
Maybe it is due to the fact that Pinoys have long been used to “fusion” with other cultures and cuisines, and unlike my native Spanish cooking, the “modern” touch may actually suit it quite well.
“Our main goal was to create Filipino Moderno by reinventing the cuisine and the overall dining experience for a new generation and for new audiences, as well as the mainstays,” explains Enzo Lim, one of the partners, during an interview for Rappler.
Named after the mythical Filipino warrior, Maharlika continues to honor traditional dishes such as adobo, pansit and sinigang, but with a new focus on presentation and improving the quality of certain flavors to show that there is much more to Filipino cuisine than stew, roast pig and rice.
“They say you eat with your eyes first. We wanted to create dishes that not only tasted good but grabbed your attention when you saw them,” says Lim, who co-owns the business alongside former advertising executive Nicole Ponseca and Noel Cruz.
That is how they were able to come up with specialties like pata confit, a new twist to the traditional crispy pata but served whole, topped with melting lard for additional flavor and stuck with a knife before the server cuts it into smaller pieces for the patrons.
After the visual attraction, the next step was to go back into the kitchen and figure out how to better combine the ingredients in order to create more elaborate dishes such as the ginataang hipon, featuring tiger prawns over a bed of kangkong or mustard greens swimming in a rich orange sauce.
Modern fusion formula works
Maharlika started out as a pop-up brunch operation in January 2011, and it only took them six months to graduate into a full-blown restaurant in September of the same year. Since then, it has already been featured on the coveted Dining section of the New York Times and attracts a mixed crowd of Pinoys and locals, unlike most Filipino restaurants abroad that cater mostly to kababayans.
According to Lim, the key to success is being creative on traditional dishes, without losing the authentic taste and appeal to those willing to try new flavors, while offering an alternative for less adventurous palates.
“Filipino cuisine is in itself a fusion cuisine. Some even say it is the original fusion cuisine. Because we have so many flavors and techniques that we learned from the Chinese, Mexican, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and American traders and conquerors, we have so much to entice with,” he says.
For instance, one of Maharlika’s most popular appetizers is longganisa, a staple in most Filipino households. Bagoong mayonnaise on a hot dog bun, the longga dog, and other favorites of non-Pinoys like fried chicken with ube waffles or the spam fries, even balut, are also on the menu.
Another challenge was to find the right chef, but again the partners decided to take another risk and picked Miguel Trinidad, an American of Dominican descent who traveled to the Philippines to learn firsthand how to prepare each dish, sometimes from relatives of his bosses.
Drink your celebrity of choice
Another factor that sets Maharlika apart from other Filipino restaurants is that it has a full liquor license, a must in Manhattan, and opens until late to serve drinks. Many of the cocktails are named after Filipino celebrities such as Lea Salonga, Sharon Cuneta and Fernando Poe Jr. Manny Pacquiao’s rum punch, which won the Best Cocktail Drink of 2011 award from Tasting Table, is also being offered.
“The names of the cocktails evoke nostalgia. The Pacquiao Punch is a simple rum drink that features familiar Filipino flavors like pineapple and ginger, combined with lemon, dark rum and absinthe. Humble but deadly — kind of like Manny,” says Lim.
Apart from the drinks, the brunch menu also includes eggs named after Imelda Marcos and Ninoy Aquino.
The names add to the atmosphere of the place, with bathroom doors decorated with effigies of Jose Rizal and Maria Clara, and the main dining hall presided by a snapshot of Margie Moran as part of an eclectic ambiance also in tune with the East Village vibe.
Lim believes that “the most important idea of Filipino Moderno was to create an atmosphere and dining experience where guests can learn about Filipino culture and cuisine in a fun and energetic environment.”
“We try not to take ourselves too seriously, so we show our guests how and why we eat with a spoon and fork, teach them how to create their own sauce combinations and share a little bit of our personalities in the process. In short, we wanted to create a place where our guests can come to dine and not just eat.” – Rappler.com
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