Ever since I made the move from Quebec to Ontario, I have been on the lookout for Filipino restaurants. There are more options here in Toronto than in my home province and I am super grateful since I crave Filipino food at least once a week. I live at Yonge and Lawrence so my go-to has been Casa Manila. They serve the classics family-style in huge portions and I’m never disappointed. However, I have been wanting to try Lamesa for years and when they opened their sister restaurant, Lasa by Lamesa, I added that to the list too. Lo and behold, this past week all the stars aligned and I was able to hit both restaurants and satisfy my craving…at least until next week.
Lasa by Lamesa serves traditional Filipino dishes in a casual setting. The restaurant is styled like a bright, colourful cafeteria and the reason I know this, despite never actually having eaten in there, is because my friends and I tried to come for dinner once but it was full and we were forced to go to Sea Witch next door (probably the best fish and chips in the city, highly recommend!). Fast forward to this past Saturday, we were celebrating our close friend Greg’s birthday and he just so happened to live in Forest Hill, a few blocks away from Lasa. So before we TTC-ed it to his aparment, I placed our dinner order on Foodora. We arrived on his doorstep at the exact same time as the delivery guy so I could not have planned it better. Lasa’s menu is easy to understand even if you have zero experience with Filipino food because they break it down into categories (Fried, Grilled, Stews, and Vegetables) with a description for each dish.
We had pancit (noodles), chicken adobo (stew made with vinegar, soy sauce and garlic), lumpia (spring rolls) and lechon kawali (deep fried pork belly), plus garlic rice, of course. Lesson number one of Filipino cuisine is you always need to have rice. The portions were more than enough for three people and they nailed the taste of each dish. The pancit was citrusy with crisp vegetables. The adobo was so flavourful. The lumpia and lechon were good but not as great as the first two dishes. The lumpia lost a little of its crispiness due to being in a container and my only gripe about the pork belly was that it needed sauce. We drizzled some of the adobo sauce over it and that made it better. All in all, it turned out to be a great takeout experience that I would definitely do again.
My second Filipino food experience this week happened on Wednesday when my girlfriends and I went to Lamesa in Queen West to catch up over dinner. From the first sip of their Lolo Cool J cocktail, I knew we were in for an amazing meal. Lamesa does a modern take on Filipino cuisine, which basically means they take a typical Filipino dish and update it. Please do not come here expecting traditional. If you want that, go to Lasa. That being said, I was looking forward to their interpretation of dishes that were very familiar to me. The following is a detailed description and review of each course we had at Lamesa but if you just want the highlights, skip to the end.
They were offering a tasting menu of $40 that night, not sure if that’s a special on Wednesdays but regardless we took full advantage. We immediately knew we made the right choice after devouring the amuse-bouche of Kinilaw (Filipino ceviche): pieces of albacore tuna with coconut, guacamole, calamansi (kinda like a small lime but sweeter), chili on a shrimp chip. It was fresh and bright with a kick from the chili and satisfying crunch from the chip. Kinilaw usually doesn’t have avocado in it, but the pairing of the guacamole with coconut worked so well.
The first appetizer was their take on arroz caldo (Filipino congee): it was made with butternut squash, ginger, miso, had a poached egg in the middle and charred brussel sprouts on top. They told us to break the egg and mix it in with the rest, which we did. Now this was a standout dish. I never in a million years would’ve thought to put butternut squash in arroz caldo, which usually uses just standard chicken broth. The squash gave it beautiful colour and depth. My friends who have limited experience with Filipino food loved it. The second appetizer was lumpia (spring rolls): stuffed with house corned brisket, Swiss cheese and cabbage with mustard and banana ketchup as dipping sauces. I was looking forward to this because I love corned beef (normally lumpia is filled with ground beef) but it didn’t impress me as much as the arroz caldo did. I really liked that they provided mustard not just ketchup but I couldn’t taste the Swiss cheese.
Now onto the main courses: the first of which was the national dish of the Philippines, adobo. Their version: seared chicken thigh with a soy vinegar jus, confit garlic and chimichurri drizzled on top. Absolutely enjoyed this, it reminded me of a fancier version of the classic chicken adobo served at Lasa. Both used chicken thighs which I prefer. The jus was a more concentrated version of the traditional adobo sauce but I really liked the crispy skin achieved by the searing and the clever addition of the chimichurri. This was accompanied by a vegetable dish of broccolini in a sauce of bagoong (fermented shrimp paste which sounds weird but don’t knock it until you try it), raisin, garlic, peanut and chili. The combination of those ingredients resulted in a sauce that can only be described as umami. Garlic rice accompanied these two dishes.
The second main course that took a little more time to make it to our table, providing us with a well-needed break from eating, was their take on Bicol Express (stew in coconut milk): pork shoulder in a spicy coconut jus on coconut polenta with poblano and jalapeno. The second vegetable dish was ginataan (which literally means “done with coconut milk”): house made squash bread topped with coconut ranch, cauliflower with sambal and fennel. Both of these dishes had similar flavour profiles: coconut and spice. It was a good thing all three of us enjoyed coconut. Being the carnivore that I am, I liked the pork shoulder more. The others preferred the vegetable dish, especially the spicy, crispy cauliflower which was the surprise highlight. Jasmine rice accompanied these last two dishes.
By the time dessert was served, we were full but more than willing to make room for their ube leche flan: purple yam custard with calamansi gel topped with puffed rice. I was skeptical when I read this on the menu but it was deliciously executed. Leche flan is the Filipino version of crème caramel. Similar to what they did with the arroz caldo, the addition of the purple yam made it prettier and more interesting flavour-wise. The sour calamansi balances out the sweetness and my friend who didn’t like it at first bite quickly realized it was only because she didn’t eat the gel with it.
I could not have asked for a better dining experience at Lamesa. While there are definite standouts on their menu (the kinilaw, the arroz caldo, the adobo and the ginataan), all the courses we were served from their tasting menu were very creative and a delicious take on Filipino classics. I didn’t know it was possible to transform the dishes I fell in love with as a child into fancier, more modern fare. Filipino food deserves its place on the more high-end spectrum of the culinary world and I for one am super grateful that Lamesa is leading the way. I can’t wait to come back and try their Kamayan (no utensils) option on Sundays.
Verdict: If you have never tried Filipino food before, I would suggest going to Lasa first so you can experience the authentic Filipino staples then visit Lamesa to be blown away by the inventive flavours they dish out. If you do try Lamesa, I recommend making a reservation because it’s a small space and they had to turn people away when we went. Happy eating!