Some dishes are worth dying for

Gault et Millau-awarded chef Aaron Isip launches Balai Palma, a private dining concept at his home in Poblacion

BOUNTIFUL HARVEST The Lechon de Lobster at Balai Palma is an ultraextravagant take on surf-and-turf. Cover design by Jovanni Bernasol

Tucked away in a three-story townhouse on residential Palma Street in Poblacion, Makati City, only a hop, skip, and jump away from One Rockwell, is a portal to places we dream of when Manila is especially suffocating. In it, just past the doorstep, at the indoor-outdoor patio, is an oasis of beach sofas, fluffy throwpillows, thick rugs, and an inviting hammock in a wash of beige, olive, cream, cocoa, and cinnamon. Sunk into one of the lounges, you might as well be on the Mexican coast or the French Mediterranean or any of the dream coves of Palawan.

GASTRO-NOMAD Aaron Isip at work

Welcome to Balai Palma, a new private dining concept launched by internationally recognized chef Aaron Isip, who has worked in some of the most demanding kitchens in Paris, including Dix-Huit where, serving as chef de cuisine, he received two Toques from the prestigious guide Gault et Millau, which also gave him the award Chef Espoir for Île de France in 2015.

It’s paradise in all-neutral, all-natural shades, with Aaron’s beloved hammocks, an entire collection of them brought in from as far away as the Yucatan Peninsula, serving as a conversation piece, along with bululs, antique pottery, native baskets and hats, rattan chairs, mostly sourced from Filipino craftsmen and artisans or otherwise collected from his travels to Mexico, France, Japan...

BEACH HOUSE IN MANILA Balai Palma interior

The flat is Aaron’s home, although only his bedroom is off-limits to guests. He himself put the whole thing together like a beach house in El Nido, where the ongoing pandemic might have sent him. It boasts of many cozy spaces for get-togethers, such as the Tea Room or bar, a TV room, and a rooftop nook, but for now all that’s open is the main dining room on the ground floor, where the dining table, a natural slab of wood, can accommodate up to eight people.

As for the food, served degustacion style, but with some of the courses shared, I’d say it’s just like Aaron when he was in Paris, the Philippines in its rightful place in the world.

“I always say I do not want to call my cooking ‘Filipino’ cuisine since it’s not strictly following the traditional codes and such,” says Aaron. “But if you think about it, my food has techniques from old Europe, flavors from both Latin America and Asia, and local produce from the Philippines.”

HALO-HALO DEL MAR Tamarind shrimp shaved ice sinigang topped with scallops and a clever oyster-and-bone marrow relish

He says this after I tell him about el demonio de las comparaciones (the devil of comparison), a phrase Jose Rizal used in his novel Noli Me Tangere with the protagonist Crisostomo Ibarra gazing out at a botanical garden in Manila while at once seeing the gardens of Europe, a metaphor for the idea of nationhood formed from one’s exposure to nationhood as other countries experience it.

‘Filipino cuisine is one of the first cuisines in the world influenced and marked by other cultures, predominantly by the West (Spanish) and Latin America (Mexico), as well as China and Southeast Asia.’

“Filipino cuisine is one of the first in the world to be influenced and marked by other cultures, predominantly by the West (Spanish) and Latin America (Mexico), as well as China and Southeast Asia,” says Aaron. “I believe it is a cuisine where we can freely use all these influences even in these modern times. We can still create new ‘Filipino’ dishes with all these cultures that have ‘touched’ us even to this day.”

While travel is a big component of it, Balai Palma’s current tasting menu also offers everything you want out of an archipelagic country like ours with purportedly the world’s longest discontinuous coastline at 34,600 kilometers and a topography lush with fields and forests, highlands and valleys.

“The menu is a celebration of the bounty of the Philippines from land and sea, with myriad live fish and seafood and our seasonal tropical fruits,” says Aaron of the theme by which he has put together the pilot menu, pointing out that, yes, everything is bought live and fresh from Dampa and other marketplaces, depending on what’s available.

The 17-dish menu is designed as a feast to remember, with the chef’s fondness of seaside adventures thrown into the mix, along with the rigors of his training overseas. “Mostly, I use the French cuisine techniques I learned in my years of work at Michelin-starred kitchens in Paris,” says Aaron. “To our local ingredients, I apply these techniques, like paupiette for stonefish and lobster, the pithiviers for the duck, etc.”

LAVISH DISH Ube with clams, osetra caviar, and clam emulsion

The meal starts with a bang, albeit in little bites of raw Pacific sea bream with dragonfruit aguachile and fish skin chicharron, crispy veal sweetbreads in lemongrass brochette with tomato-galangal sriracha, boneless chicken feet and smoked chicken heart with plum gastrique, and live mantis shrimp with santol leche de tigre and prawn-tapioca chips.

Aaron is adventurous in combining ingredients as he is in his travels, but to him putting raw fine de Claire oysters and bone marrow together has proved to be among the most surprising. He presents the oysters with green mango and the bone marrow as a warm relish. Also served, as part of the cold soup, halo-halo del mar, tamarind shrimp over sinigang shaved ice with crab fat curry sauce, are Hokkaido scallop, live suahe shrimp, and ikura with tamarind anchovy sauce, crab claw from live king crab with calamansi aioli, and live giant clams, kamias fruit, and mangosteen ceviche.

What follows as a postscript to the appetizers and a prelude to the mains I consider one of my favorites, ube with clams, osetra caviar, and clam emulsion delicately presented in a vintage silver dish.

SURF AND TURF Lechon de lobster

Next on the table is a seafood lover’s dream come true, which starts with king crab sōmen with aligue sauce, Chilean uni, and fried soft shell crab, followed by a Boudin noir soup in cuttlefish ink with kadios black beans, winged beans, sautéed squid, and pork cracklings.

Adventure comes in the form of a slow poached live stonefish, a venomous fish, whose poisonous dorsal fin has to be carefully removed, lest the dinner turns into a disaster. Aaron presents it with smoked otoro tuna paupiette, blistered shishito pepper, cherry tomato, and okra with burnt leak fumé sauce and dill.

And then comes the stunner, a surf-and-turf number, the lechon de lobster or roasted spiny lobster wrapped in Kurobuta suckling pig belly confit with culantro-sauce béarnaise. As if that isn’t enough of a showstopper, it is served with fries and caviar, as well as a bonus dish that follows—baked bun pithiviers of duck breast with foie gras and duck leg adobo confit.

SUMPTUOUS DESSERT Lanzones sorbet with compressed longan in olive oil on a bed of polvoron

As for desserts, too many to eat at this point, but my insatiable palate makes sure I have room for all of them, particularly the lanzones sorbet with compressed longan in olive oil on a bed of polvoron. Then there’s sweet corn ice cream with miso dulce de leche, chilled corn soup, chia seeds, corn puffs, and cornflakes. Finally, to go with coffee or tea, a petit pot of dark chocolate sable with gianduja gelato, jasmine crème, and hazelnuts.

I think I’m too full to say any more, but let me end this endless food adventure with a full disclosure. I’m allergic to seafood but Aaron gave me an antihistamine that knocked me out, at least as soon as I got home from this dinner. All I must say is some dishes are worth dying for. If I’m being too melodramatic, let’s just say some dishes are worth having a few skin rashes for.

Book a table at @balaipalma on Instagram or call +639176291020.