Restaurants, relationships, and the value of consistency

One hot morning in Manila, I sat in the garden of my mom’s next door neighbor, Georgie Encanto. As my children and her grandchildren played together, we chatted about anything and everything over brewed coffee and Mrs. Cunanan’s famous ensaymada sprinkled with finely grated queso de bola. Our conversation swiveled towards my column, and I shared with her the editor’s comment that I should feel free to write about food and events. I mentioned that I had some anxiety about this, because I did not feel qualified to be a restaurant critic, that my way of writing is phenomenological and intuitive.

Although Tita Georgie is a former Dean of Journalism and Regent of the University of the Philippines, she said that she had recently attended a workshop on food writing, and was surprised to discover how observant one had to be about noticing everything about a restaurant one was to write about. From the parking lot to the bathrooms to the menu and kitchen space, one had to note these things and describe them. The reason one had to do this, she said, was because the act of going to a restaurant was not just about food, but about relationship, the relationship between the restaurant and one’s self.

Next, she mentioned that there were certain qualities that an excellent restaurant ought to have, and on top of the list was consistency.

When Tita Georgie said that word, my mind suddenly exploded into a myriad memories, and that strong current swept me away from her garden into my childhood. I was six or eight years old, waiting for Sunday lunch to begin at my grandmother’s house in La Vista. A cool breeze blew in from Marikina Valley into her open dining room, softening the sting of the noonday sun. On the buffet table, I could see a bilao of freshly made palitaw. Every Sunday lunch, no fail, palitaw would be one of the desserts, and now at the age of 44 I wonder if Lola Linda had known that that had always been my favorite dessert. So light and fluffy, covered in freshly grated coconut, toasted sesame seeds and sugar. Her palitaw—as well as all the other dishes she kept in her delectable arsenal of recipes—always tasted reliably the same, in the 20 or so years I had Sunday lunch with her and the rest of the clan.

Consistency.  One depends on it, takes it for granted, looks forward to it and looks back on it with bittersweet nostalgia.

At that, Tita Georgie and I both agreed that consistency truly is important in forming a relationship with a restaurant, for that is the reason anyone keeps returning. I shared the fact that for many years, my family’s favorite restaurant for celebrating important milestones was Mario’s. Each time, we would order the Caesar’s salad and the Chateaubriand steak with a side of lightly creamy fettuccine. We were just crazy about that steak, cooked medium well and practically melting in one’s mouth. Each time, it fulfilled our fantasies, for having this meal was rare and reserved only for the most special of occasions.

I credit Mario’s Caesar Salad, which I had at their original Baguio branch on Session Road, for introducing me to fresh vegetables at the late age of 16. Until that moment, I had insisted on eating only cooked vegetables, but Mario’s Caesar Salad changed all that.

Then when I was 20 and about to leave for Stuttgart to join the original German production of Miss Saigon, I had to go to “musical theater school”—daily German lessons at the Goethe Institut (still on Aurora Boulevard in 1994), and after lunch ballet or jazz classes at the Halili Cruz Dance Studio on Quezon Avenue. We “Saigoners” would normally have lunch together somewhere, noisily, filling the time and space with glib repartee or naughty antics. But the introvert in me sought pockets of solitude in that period of flux, and sometimes I would tear myself away from the group and have lunch by myself. Mario’s on Tomas Morato was perfectly located for such a getaway.

At the time, I had only a meager allowance of 50 pesos a day, enough in those days to cover my gas to get to all my lessons. All I could afford on the menu was the lentil soup, a small yet hearty bowl of which cost 40 pesos (if I remember correctly). I would take a table for two under those low arches, surrounded by plants and flowers placed thoughtfully on the borders of warm tile floors, and order that bowl of soup. They always served it with a bread basket full of garlic french bread and crunchy breadsticks. I would slowly make my way through that bowl of delicious, heart-warming soup, each spoonful followed by a bite of bread. That, I believed,  was 40 pesos well spent, for the 40 pesos bought me not only a bowl of soup, but a whole experience.

I don’t think I fully knew at the time exactly what I was doing or why I was doing it, but now that I look back , I see that it was because I needed this extra special pampering of soul. Perhaps it was one way that my inscape could balance itself in the midst of impending change.

I relied on the consistency of the graceful, Mediterranean-inspired interiors, that yummy bowl of lentil soup, that filling bread basket. It sustained me in much deeper ways than I truly understood at the time.

 After sharing with Tita Georgie these memories and impressions, she said, “There, that’s your column!”

And as I reflect on the importance of consistency in restaurants, I realize that this holds true for, well… everything.