'Lechon diva' unveils new 13-course degustacion
MANILA -- It was in 2010 when Pepita’s Kitchen won the Ultimate Taste Test 4.0 with its lechon de leche stuffed with binagoongan rice. If you were lucky enough to taste that, then you would have an inkling of what a treat it was to experience Dedet de la Fuente’s new lechon degustacion.
The 13-course feast “Hayop na Degustacion” promised to showcase a more daring menu, incorporating other meats besides the glorious pig. But lechon addicts should not despair, because De la Fuente’s amazing lechon de leches are still the stars of the show.
The “show” aptly started with a bit of theater, as the first course called Pepita’s Magic Potion required the guests to do a bit of a performance. Guests were instructed to pour a pale-colored concoction into a cocktail glass filled with fluffy cotton candy. The resulting pink cocktail packed quite a kick with a strong dayap flavor mixed with lambanog.
And if the magic potion teased the tastebuds, the next course opened them up fully. Tendon Chips with Dip was a delightful combination of light and crispy “chicharoned” tendons, and sour sinigang gabi dip.
While the third course’s odd-sounding name elicited a few snickers at the start, De la Fuente explained that “hiplog” was short for “hipon at itlog” -- tender shrimp bathed in a sauce of salted egg that was a creamy and luxurious treat.
Staying true to its sinful predecessor, Bone Marrow with Oxtail Marmalade with Special Salt, while being a mouthful to say, was even more delightful. Sprinkle your special salt of crushed chicharon over the roasted bone marrow, and enjoy. Then you have some of the oxtail marmalade, a meaty-sweet jam that astonishingly succeeds as a palate cleanser. A well-thought of dish, it succeeds where other roasted bone marrow dishes have not, making the dish less one-dimensional, and less prone to the dreaded “umay.”
After back-to-back dishes of wickedness, the fifth course was the “healthy” part of the meal. Salad Surprise featured mixed greens, De la Fuente’s homemade cashew butter, an artisan herbed yogurt cheese and watermelon salt. The watermelon salt turned out to be Poprocks, and the guests had fun eating the salad that had a literal zing to it.
And then it was right back to sinning with Sipit Sarap. “Sipit,” or claw in English, was a large crab claw cooked in crab fat. It was heavenly with the accompanying little cone of pandan rice.
A mouthful of garlic and basil vermicelli followed. It’s called Lucky You because we were lucky to eat it as it was the replacement course to a now-retired kamote dish. This was a great way to get rid of any remaining crab aftertaste. Although at that point, I was really looking for a bit of acid, and I thought that perhaps some lemon or calamansi would have been great to cleanse the palate and to balance the garlic flavor a bit.
Strong and spicy flavors resonate in the Lambada, De la Fuente’s version of the lamb kaldereta. Aggressively spiced but not overpowering, kaldereta lovers will have no complaint.
The Cheers Palate Cleanser, a sampaloc or tamarind sorbet was served next -- refreshing, had the right sweet and sour balance, and an enjoyable tamarind aftertaste.
And then it was time for the stars of the show.
The first lechon served was Thanh Long de Leche. Inspired by De la Fuente’s love for San Francisco’s Thanh Long noodles, crab meat and garlic noodles were stuffed inside the two-month-old pig, and roasted in her special pugon oven. The result is a lechon de leche with skin so crispy that an audible crack was heard as the knife cut into the pig’s skin. And as the lechon’s noodle innards spilled out, the steam of garlic and crab wafted towards us, promising great delights.
And it delivered! This lechon took a lot of imagination and self-confidence to pull-off, as there is always the danger of over-cooking the noodles, making it limp and mushy, as they were steamed inside the pig. While the noodles weren’t as al dente as one would normally have them, they were still remarkably intact, and even a bit dry, which made the siding of garlic-crab butter sauce, which De la Fuente insists was only for the noodles and not for the lechon, as the lechon was flavorful enough on its own, perfect.
Ham Lechon de Leche was the second lechon. The “Christmas lechon,” as dubbed by one of the guests, was brined a la ham making the meat extra soft, and adding that unique ham taste. And to just kick it up a notch, the lechon was filled with finely chopped ham inside, so you could get little bits of ham as you eat the flavorful lechon meat. I loved it with the ham glaze that was served alongside, as it made the dish even extra “Christmas-y”.
After the pinnacle of lechon gustatory delight, at least for me, with that Ham Lechon de Leche, it was time for dessert.
Most of us were already full, but we still found ourselves eating the ingeniously named “Cholesterol Sweeper,” as we were lulled by the fact that it looked like a healthy shot of oatmeal -- and I say lulled because it also had Ghirardelli white chocolate giving it just the right amount of sweetness.
And just in case someone was still miraculously not full, we were served Guinatan Brulee. With a bottom layer of guinatan with beans, bananas, langka, sago, coconut milk, and chestnuts, a top layer of really smooth and creamy carabao milk flan, and the requisite burnt sugar on top, it was the exclamation point to a really satisfying meal.
De la Fuente shows her creativity not only through her quirky dish titles, and her yummy food, but also through her presentation with unique plating styles and elegant table settings. Her food shows a lot of thought, and the degustacion had these little touches, sometimes as simple as giving diners the best utensil to eat crab with, that promise to make every meal of Pepita’s Kitchen, like this one, something to remember.
For more information about Pepita’s Kitchen, visit their Facebook page, Lechon Degustacion At Pepita’s Kitchen.