By Sol Vanzi
Images by Noel B. Pabalate
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It was a delightful spectacle: a dozen young men and women elaborately dressed in German festival attire, merrily dancing to German music around a maypole; the flowers in their hair bounced, signifying the coming of spring. Beer flowed freely and large portions of German food were laid on wooden tables filling the al fresco portion of Brotzeit, a German restaurant that has become a favorite among diners and beer drinkers. The maypole dance was part of the festivities celebrating white asparagus.
Filipinos love German food, which many of my generation were introduced to at the venerable Swiss Inn across the street from the US embassy. Schnitzel, roasted pig knuckle, sausages, and sauerkraut became familiar terms in our food conversations. After several decades, the Swiss Inn moved out of our neighborhood, leaving a void that we tried to make up for by learning to cure meats and buying expensive German sausages from pricey delicatessens.
Missing a Legend
The opening of several five-star hotels in 1976 provided Manila with fine dining restaurants whose menus offered European food of all types, but there still was not a single German specialty place in our metropolis to equal the Swiss Inn of the ’60s and ’70s.
It was therefore a very pleasant surprise to find Brotzeit, a genuine German restaurant manned by Ivan Maminta, a Filipino chef who spent many years learning his craft in Switzerland. He explained all the fuss about asparagus.
“A major highlight of springtime in Germany is Spargelzeit, or Asparagus Season. This is no ordinary asparagus—this is fat, thick white asparagus,” Chef Ivan explained. “Until the 19th century, white asparagus was planted exclusively for German royalty, thus earning it the name Königsgemüse, or royal vegetable. Harvesting runs from early April and ends precisely on June 24, the Christian feast day of St. John. All over Germany, villages host their own asparagus festival, which rivals only Oktoberfest in popularity.”
To honor the season of the royal vegetable, Chef Ivan designed a special degustation menu that incorporates white asparagus in every dish, from soup to dessert.
We started with White Asparagus Soup, a smooth and creamy dish that was just right for the drizzling weather. The subtle flavor of white asparagus was a perfect match for slivers of smoky ham that came with every spoonful. The ham was added just before serving, thus retaining its full flavor and texture, which contrasted well with the soup.
Spargel with Smoked Salmon was next, demonstrating the affinity of asparagus with cured meats and fish. The very crisp white stems reminded diners that the vegetable is flown in every other day to maintain quality and assure freshness. Each bite was a touch of spring.
Maifest Asparagus Bruschetta was a toast to the season, mirroring every bright color of the maypole and providing a feast for the eyes.
For the main course, asparagus was paired with tenderloin and seared halibut, in what a diner whimsically termed German surf-and-turf. The dish showed that premier ingredients often are best left alone, without elaborate sauces or décor. The tender beef, perfectly seared, matched the fork-tender halibut and snappy asparagus.
Dessert was something close to every Pinoy’s heart: custard with asparagus, which was creamy yet substantial, a perfect ending for an unusual meal. As part of the special meal, diners were treated to Hillinger wine and Mai-Bock Beer. We toasted all night while an accordion played “Wooden Heart” from an Elvis Presley movie. We were at Shangri-La Plaza, but our hearts were far away.