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A Filipino Foodie’s Review of Filipino Food

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!


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Tasty Tuesday: Winterlicious Casa Manila

For my 2nd Winterlicious 2015 experience, my sister and I chose to go for some Filipino food. I have a special spot in my heart for Casa Manila. It was the first Filipino restaurant I’ve been to in Toronto and I’ve taken my family there whenever they come to visit. We even got our Christmas dinner from them one year. They just make great traditional Filipino fare and I was glad they were participating in this year’s Winterlicious.

I’d like to take a second to point out just how many options they have on their Winterlicious menu. While some restaurants have three or four appetizers, entrees and desserts to choose from, Casa Manila has 5 appetizers, 8 entrees and 4 desserts to choose from, which would normally be a wonderful thing, but for someone who loves everything, like me, it was torture.

For the appetizers, I hesitated between BBQ Skewers, Spring Rolls or Arroz Caldo but opted for the latter, since it’s a rice soup that’s perfect for winter. We all ended up ordering the same appetizer. While it did warm us up, we thought it could use a little less ginger.

Once again, I had a dilemma when it came to the main dishes. While adobo is a classic choice and the most well-known Filipino dish, it’s easy to make at home so we didn’t order that. I love Filipino stews like Kare Kare, our peanut stew, which it might seem weird to use peanut butter in a stew but it works well. Plus there’s Kaldereta, a tomato beef stew, which is what my sister and Keith chose. I had a bite and it tasted good, but this time it needed more of the sauce and more veggies. Keith would’ve wanted it served in a bowl so he could dip some bread in it, but we don’t really do that in the Philippines. We eat almost everything with rice.

Fun fact: Filipinos love their pork, so it was no surprise that there were two pork belly main dishes on the menu, one grilled and one fried. I opted for the grilled pork belly, Inihaw Liempo, marinated in their secret sweet and salty sauce. Served with rice and dipped in vinegar, it was just as good as I remember it from back home.

For dessert, I got mango ice cream but should’ve definitely chosen what my sister and Keith ordered: Leche Flan, our version of crème caramel.

All in all, while we had some minor suggestions, we enjoyed the food and left very full. If you’ve never tried Filipino cuisine before, Winterlicious at Casa Manila is a great introductory experience.

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My Top 3 Picks for Summerlicious 2014

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Last Thursday, I posted about how reservations for this year’s Summerlicious are now open. Some of the best restaurants in Toronto are participating in this event which starts on July 4th and ends July 20th. Narrowing down my choices was pretty hard, especially since there are some places that just joined this year. But after much deliberation, here are my top three picks for Summerlicious 2014 in no particular order:

1. Lamesa Filipino Kitchen
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New to Summerlicious, I couldn’t not include this Filipino restaurant, especially since I just returned from my trip to the Philippines. Their menu will definitely satisfy my craving for amazing Filipino food. If you’ve never tried this type of cuisine before, it’s a mix of Spanish, American and Asian that makes something deliciously unique. Highly recommended!

2. Bannock
This won’t come as a shock since it’s no surprise that this is one of my favorite restaurants in the city. It’s Canadian cuisine done right, using only the freshest ingredients. Their Summerlicious menu looks as creative as their Winterlicious one. Plus the lunch option is only $15! Run, don’t walk.

3. Momofuku Noodle Bar
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I missed out on trying their Winterlicious menu and I will not be making the same mistake again. I’m so excited to finally try David Chang’s restaurant like the groupie that I am. I’ve read some bad reviews but would like to form my own opinion after reading and watching all about its chef and his concepts. If you’re not familiar with Momofuku or Chang, a quick Google search should convince you of why you need to eat here.

Reservations are going fast so hurry up and make yours ASAP. Happy Hump Day!


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Tasty Tuesday: Culinary Adventures in the Philippines Part 2

Last week I wrote about some of the culinary highlights from my Philippine trip. As previously mentioned, I discovered a lot so here’s part two. Keep these in mind if you live in, are going to the Philippines or just looking for ideas for your next meal:

If you want something refreshing…
I suggest the strawberry mint lemonade from Chelsea Market & Café. They have a great drink selection to cool off, especially since summer is in full swing in Manila.
If you’re looking for the perfect breakfast…
Look no further, Breakfast at Antonio’s in Tagaytay is THE spot. Literally everything on the menu is incredible. The chef uses only the best ingredients, mostly from his nearby farm. Everything is made from scratch, just like this corned beef served with garlic rice and fried eggs. You have to leave Manila to get to it but it’s more than worth the drive.
If you want something made just for you…
Try Project Pie. You get to customize your own pizza and watch them make it right in front of you. If you’re not feeling creative, you can just order off the menu. Plus they have southern-style sweet tea, which I’ve never found anywhere else in the Philippines.
If you’re craving something sweet…
Go to one of the many Café Breton branches and order a “La Pinay”. It’s one of my favorite desserts ever and a must-try. It’s a dessert crêpe filled with Philippine mangoes (the best in the world), drizzled with chocolate sauce and served hot with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Pure decadence.
If you’re looking for the perfect gift…
Order a box of cookies from Bad Cookie. I was introduced to these amazing cookies by my aunt. They’re super rich and satisfying. So far I’ve only tried Cheeseoreosorous, an oreo cheesecake cookie, and I’m addicted. I can’t wait to try more of their amazing flavors so if anyone wants to send some my way, feel free!
Happy Eating!

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