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MANILA, Philippines – What would you do if you saw a creepy, abandoned mansion in the middle of a forest? Not many would do what Grant Zuñiga did – buy it, restore it, and turn into his very first full-blown restaurant, located on the outskirts of Lipa, Batangas.
Opened in mid-2022, Prism Restaurant is young Chef Grant’s joint venture with boyfriend and fellow Chef Aaron Veloroso. Its location may seem a bit off the radar, but it was meant to be so – Grant’s goal is to position Prism as Lipa’s latest (and only) destination restaurant; a splurge-worthy dining gem for Batangueños nearby, or a must-visit stopover for Metro Manila citizens on a road trip to Batangas for the weekend.
It’s a view-tiful, al fresco spot to dine in; the almost archaic but sophisticated structure overlooks a stunning panoramic view of Taal Lake. It’s unlike the restaurants in Tagaytay though, because Prism is nestled atop an untouched hill in a private, exclusive spot.
You get a clear, undisturbed view of the Taal sunset without the noise and bustle of Tagaytay, a cool breeze, romantic ambiance, and high-end restaurant-quality dishes that make for a unique dining experience to add to your out-of-town trip.
From mansion to restore-aunt
Okay, back to the abandoned mansion part: Prism Restaurant came to be after Grant’s family stumbled upon this old, abandoned mansion in the woods. “It was really creepy,” Grant told Rappler, describing it as dusty, dilapidated, and filled with antiques, including a big crystal chandelier in the center. Apparently, it was a family-owned mansion built in 2006. It had been abandoned for 12 years.
Grant’s family happened to be in the area because his parents just bought a lot nearby for their own rest house. When Grant saw the abandoned mansion, his mom initially wanted to buy and renovate it to be their rest house, but the multi-level structure was too big for a family of five.
It was in that moment when Grant, who was also the head chef of his mom’s catering business, decided: “Why not start my own business here?” Luckily, Grant was able to win over the mansion’s owner, who let Grant’s family lease it. After the go signal, Grant and Aaron refurbished the mansion, but kept most of its antiques. They brought down the chandelier and shined each crystal, and kept the rustic wood detail from the original structure, adding custom-made wood furniture to complete the look.
By this time, Grant had already met Chef Aaron during the pandemic through common friends. Shortly after, they opened delivery-only drinks and milk tea IG shop Prism Cafe in April 2021, and then its first physical store in Manila in September. Four months later, they opened in Merkato. Another four months later, Prism Restaurant happened.
It’s inspiring how in just a year, the couple’s pandemic Instagram baby grew into a beautifully classy spot for intimate dinners, date nights, drinks, and coffee; it is also on its way to be an aspirational venue for wedding receptions, special occasions, company outings, and even live concerts in the near future, with plans of adding an “arts and music center” at the back already underway.
As elegant as the menu, presentation, and restaurant are, Grant wants to clarify that it isn’t “fine dining” here at Prism. “We don’t want people to be stiff when they come here. We want it casual, homey, but with the standards and quality of fine dining,” he said.
Made with love
Grant calls Prism “contemporary cuisine,” as they “focus on produce while mixing up the techniques and cuisines.” When developing the menu, Grant and Aaron made sure to focus on highlighting Batangas local produce, while exhibiting and merging each one’s professional culinary skills, such as Italian and French cuisines, helmed by Filipino flavors.
Prism prides itself on its fresh ingredients and light flavors, so the restaurant’s signature starters offer just that. Start off your dinner with the refreshing Prism’s Garden Salad, a bed of crisp, locally-sourced greens, topped with freshly-grated parmesan, balsamic reduction, cherry tomato, candied walnuts, shredded fresh green apples, pomelo, and sweet-tart, chewy green apple jelly bits, which were my favorite part.
The walnuts and apples provided a welcome crunch, while the tomato and jelly bits provided some addicting chew. It’s nothing too unique or fancy, but if you like sweet-tangy salads with simple and light vinaigrettes, this is for you!
Another Prism crowd favorite is the Watermelon Sashimi, a gorgeous appetizer that’s vegan-friendly and all about the pakwan. No, that isn’t tuna sashimi – it’s actually slices of fresh watermelon meat marinated in beetroot juice, slowly cooked for 20 minutes, frozen, and then served atop a pineapple-capsicum gazpacho soup, topped with adorable balsamic caviar and edible flowers.
It’s a different and refreshing way to enjoy the distinct sweetness of watermelon, and it surprisingly works with that punchy, tomato-based sauce and the tangy pops of balsamic caviar. It’s the most visually appealing way I’ve seen pakwan presented, and it definitely keeps the fruit the star of the show. It’s good as a palate-cleanser in between the heavier courses.
My favorite dish would have to be the Pinais na Maliputo, Grant and Aaron’s way of highlighting the rare endemic fish of Taal Lake that’s known for its fatty and meaty properties. It’s usually reserved for special occasions, since it’s hard to catch. Unfortunately, there was no maliputo available on the day I visited, so it was substituted with tanigue, which is one of my favorite local fishes anyway. No complaining here!
Pinais is a traditional cooking method of wrapping fish in banana leaf and stewing it in coconut milk and shrimp paste. This is what was done to tanigue, and the results were amazing – tender, soft, and flaky fish bursting with flavors and local spices like lemongrass. That creamy, gata sauce on top was *chef’s kiss*, and the soft vegetables paired with the fish were slightly smoked and just as flavorful – eggplant, carrot, bell pepper, and green beans.
If you’re craving Italian, Prism’s Mushroom Risotto is a filling course to enjoy on its own. The meaty and complex mushroom flavors shine in each bite of al dente risotto. It’s made with a mix of different local mushrooms, and topped with chewy king oyster mushroom that adds a firmer bite to the soft dish.
For some meat, Prism’s Braised Beef Cheek with Truffled Mashed Potato is their take on the French beef bourguignon. It’s a melt-in-your-mouth, fatty yet chewy piece of beef, soaked in its own juices for maximum depth of beefy flavor, made slightly acidic with red wine. It’s slow-cooked for hours that the meat becomes flaky-tender, and the thick sauce also shares its flavors with the carrots and veggies.
The mashed potato I would’ve preferred slightly silkier, since the meat already provides a lot of chew. I was also looking for more of the truffle flavor. Props for the generous servings!
Last but not least is dessert, which is Chef Aaron’s main jurisdiction and specialty, as the resident pastry chef. Don’t leave Prism without trying (and taking home) the Tarta Catalana, the Spanish creme brulee cake of soft sponge cake, light, fluffy cream, and the most delectable torched custard on top stacked in hefty layers.
The creme brulee top layer is the winner, complemented by the lightness of the cake and the airiness of cream. Neither elements are too sweet.
Just a note that getting to Prism is a bit of a long drive from Tagaytay City proper, and even when you get to Lipa. You’ll be driving through undeveloped small roads and forests, so it’s best to get here before dusk, and mentally prepare yourself for the rural and rocky drive.
At least there’s always something new to try at Prism, depending on the seasonality of ingredients, but it’s mostly the unique dining experience that keeps the locals and visitors coming back a second time around. According to Grant, people were just really excited to see an almost “fine dining” gem pop up in their land that offered fine dining restaurant-level dishes.
It was also an advantage (or a strategy) to scrap their plans of opening shop in Makati City first; they realized that rent was too expensive, bills would be too much, and it would be hard to infiltrate such a saturated and competitive market. “Sobrang grabe yung pagtititpid namin dito (We saved a ton of money with this),” Grant said.
Momentum didn’t take long to build, as word-of-mouth quickly spread among the local politicians, dignitaries, high-ranking professionals, and local companies who were the first to try Prism. Sooner or later, it reached the Manila radar, and Grant and Aaron are always thankful that they’ve consistently been hitting their monthly quotas ever since they opened.
“I think we’re doing something right. We’ve set ourselves apart. And at the end of the day, it really boils down to the experience. When you go here, you get to experience something different; different from Tagaytay and Manila. That’s what people want.” – Rappler.com
Prism Restaurant is located at El Madero Farm and Resort, Bagong Pook, Lipa City, Batangas. It’s open daily from 10 am to 10 pm.