Adarna Food and Culture (Quezon City)

There’s a welcome proliferation of low-key, high-quality restaurants these days. Or maybe they’ve been there all along except that we didn’t notice them, which is precisely the point — these restaurants don’t scream “come in, we’re here!” These restaurants are like culinary gems waiting to be discovered. Tonight, we found the Adarna Food & Culture along Kalayaan Avenue, Quezon City.

We found this fine-dining-yet-cozy place through the power of internet. And to stray from the topic a bit, restaurants and establishments must face the inevitable influence, which could be a blessing or a curse, of citizen bloggers and the social network.

Adarna Food and Culture, with Chef Giney Villar at the helm, has consistently received rave reviews from foodies. Such glowing write-ups constitute ground-level, word-of-mouth endorsement of this fine restaurant. The drawback, however, is the level of expectation set by these reviews. This is our story.

The Ibong Adarna, the Philippine legend goes, is a song bird, no pun intended, that sings seven songs that lulls anyone in hearing distance to deep slumber. When recording artists of today talk about chart-busting killer songs, they obviously haven’t heard of the Ibong Adarna. Once you sleep, the legend continues, and the willing victim happens to stumble under the roosting place of the bird, he/she turns to stone when hit by the bird’s poop.

Of course, there’s a love story and life lesson in the Ibong Adarna legend, but we’re not keen on that at this point (unless, of course, we consider that the restaurant would be a great venue for a Valentines date). We’re simply trying to figure out the origin of the restaurant’s name, Adarna Food and Culture.

Adarna Food and Culture, according to the succinct and accurate description in its facebook page, is a “restaurant that serves historical, regional and heirloom cuisine. Aside from being a restaurant, it is also a mini-museum and a venue for cultural and art events such as Tertulias, concerts and other art presentations.” There’s really not much we can add from this description, except, perhaps, on how the place feels like and how the food tastes.

The arch entrance is the focal point of the neutral colored facade. Time-chiseled white color and bricks. The unassuming frontage, with the stylized signage (which, at first blush reads more like the name of another Pinoy superhero, Darna), works like to a psychological barrier to anyone who prefers flashy or run-of-the-mill, fast food. This is obviously a place to slow down and hark back to the rural or first-half of the century Philippines, an intent that is made clear once the guest goes down a few flights of stairs, through the arch, and into the open area in the middle.

At the right side of the plant-hugged open area — past the eclectic collection of rusty, old-style boat paddle, agricultural plow, ice-maker, water pump (“poso”) and rice grinder in one corner — is a room filled with other historical, cultural artifacts. The sari-sari store inside (I heard you could get candies without paying for it) is in itself an “ancient” Philippine institution alive and kicking until today. Chess and checkers sit quietly on old tables, a “dama” set on a long chair beside the mock-up sari-sari-store, wait to be discovered by the young ones who are lost in the virtual world of computer games.

Old photos and posters. Old bottles and porcelain. Old sala sets. Capiz and glass-stained windows. Paintings. These are some of the items on display, probably uncool to younger generation. The artifacts are few, yes, but this “culture” part not only provides the ambiance for the “food” part of the name, Adarna Food and Culture, it also provides a conveniently-located glimpse of our past right in the heart of the city.

Then it’s off to the main dining hall. Time to confront that which brought us here, the “historical, regional and heirloom cuisine”.

We discovered Adarna Food and Culture on the same day that we decided to have dinner so there was not much time to ask around. A quick internet search yielded three recommendations — adobo, rellenong manok and seafood special. We ordered the threesome. And then some, of course.

The appetizer,Tokwa Rebosado, was ok. Next came the Chicken Relleno circa 1940 with Salsa Monja. It’s “roasted chicken stuffed with chorizo, ham, quezo de bola, dried fruits and everything nice”. It also tasted ok. The chicken wasn’t as spectacular as the chicken relleno of Romulo’s Cafe, and the salsa monja not as spectacular as that of La Cocina de Tita Moning, but the dish is ok nonetheless.

What captured our attention and taste buds was the Seafood Special. As written in the menu, a true-blue Manila family shares an Iberian-style dish of shrimp, scallops and fish fillet topped with bell pepper, fried onions and parsley. This is the Seafood Special, a good-tasting dish that we would  recommend to our friends. It’s a bit spicy hot and came with a hint of curry, and we had to ask the staff if there’s curry in this dish. We were told there’s none.

But the highlight of the evening, what saved the entire experience, was the dessert. The Feliz Chocolate Cake was heavenly. The Banana Peanut Roll, on the other hand, evoked childhood kitchen raids for peanut butter and banana. This is like turon, except that the banana inside, sliced in half, features a surprising lump of peanut butter. And you don’t get your turon plated, sliced and neatly arranged in circle, brought together by a dose of sweet sauce on an immaculate white saucer.

And the Kesong Puti with Langka Fry? For this alone, we could forgive anything less than spectacular that we’ve witnessed here. Imagine a lump of kesong puti. Wrap it with a candied jackfruit (langka) strips. Hold them together with lumpia wrapper and fry to a golden brown crisp, then serve with sweet sauce all over.

It’s a happy blend of taste and texture, with visual candy as bonus. The saltiness of kesong puti emerges last, as one bites through the crispy outer cover, through the chewy, sweet strips of langka, and finally to the soft kesong puti. This one is heavenly.

It wasn’t all roses, unfortunately. The menu reveals that the recipe for the Adobong Batangas ala Adarna was shared by a granddaughter of a prominent family from Batangas City. The adobo, and we say this with apologies and we hope we are wrong, was a bit disappointing. We had to discretely inquire from the assisting staff, Anghel, if there’s anything we miss with the dish (or if we don’t know how to eat it). If this is adobo Batangas-style, then we didn’t know that our kababayans like their adobo bland. Or maybe it’s supposed to be that way — not on the salty, bitter, sour or sweet side.

Maybe Chef Giney was not there that evening. Maybe we don’t know how to eat the adobo. Maybe the rave reviews whetted our expectations to unreasonable heights. We sorely wanted, and still want, to be wrong.

If people appreciate and enjoy their restaurant of choice, then it makes absolute sense so support it, keep the restaurant going by going out and eating in that restaurant from time to time. We’ll go back to Adarna Food and Culture and we sincerely hope others would do as well. And since we (just like others) don’t have any fixed schedule for the visit, it also makes sense for the restaurant to make sure that food is great day in and day out. Consistency. That’s only fair.

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