If you're going to San Francisco

Every visit to San Francisco I've had feels inadequate—not because the city has little to offer but because it always feels like I've barely scratched the surface. I get the feeling that there's this city that's just waiting for me to fall in love with it, if only I had the time to plumb its depths.

The bits and pieces I've seen of San Francisco hint at a city with all the ingredients to lure me in and keep me interested. I like how it has a distinct look. Those pant-inducing, oh-so-steep streets traversed by the occasional cable car and bordered by Italianate-style homes fashioned out of pastel-colored wood are quintessentially San Francisco.

Just like the people that I'm drawn to, San Francisco has a distinct identity but at the same time gives a sense of being of the world. I love the city's diversity; turn a corner and the Italianate rowhouses give way to red lanterns and ornate pagodas (and if you're lucky, they'll pave the way to some scrumptious Dungeness crabs like those served here).
On the last day of my short visit, a friend sent me on a ramen expedition that led me to the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market. When I got there and saw the trove of innovative food and fresh produce laying in wait, I thought, ah, I could be very happy here.

It's one of those places that make you wish you were built with several stomachs. I stared longingly at the porchetta being sliced up at Roli Roti and contemplated the mysterious dragon's tongue tempura at Namu. But I still chose to line up at Hapa Ramen and order the Big Daddy Ramen, for which I was richly rewarded. In a broth thick with the flavor of dashi and seaweed, I found tender slices of slow cooked pork and chunks of karaage chicken—which I could eat with the clearest conscience a meat-eater can have, knowing the animals in the broth were ethically sourced and probably enjoyed sunshine and grass before meeting their maker. It was my first time to encounter vegetables like these in my ramen—locally sourced crisp cucumber slices, peppery arugula, and pieces of sweet corn—and I liked the freshness imparted to the very rich soup. The ramen itself is perfectly chewy and handmade. To top it all off: a beautifully slow cooked egg and an extra order of cured lardo (because why the hell not). I'm pretty sure I was swaying slightly when I stopped by to rave about the ramen to Chef/owner Richie Nakano, as I was quickly lapsing into an epic food coma. A glass of spicy ginger beer at Soda Craft thankfully did the trick in easing all that rich food into my stomach.
After two trips to San Francisco, there's so much more left to see, taste and experience. But I'll bide my time; when the time is right, it will happen. But I can tell this can be the start of, at the very least, a beautiful friendship.

Large Format Feast at Resto

There's an episode of Top Chef All Stars that always comes to mind when I hear the words "nose-to-tail cooking." In this episode, Fil-Am chef Dale Talde's reaction to a nose-to-tail challenge bordered on bored. "My family was doing nose-to-tail cooking before it was cool," he said in a tone that could be construed as cocky, until he explained that because they were poor when he was growing up, his mom would get all the parts that the butcher couldn't sell, like the pig's ears and knuckles, and take these home to cook for their family.

The nose-to-tail approach has long been prevalent in Filipino cuisine, regardless of social strata. Filipinos have always used sliced pig ears in their tokwa't baboy, and have never in the least bit been squeamish about munching on crunchy tuyo fish heads. When I left the motherland to join the diaspora, I did so knowing that these funky parts I'd grown up eating would be making rare appearances on my plate moving forward. So it's been a surprising yet welcome development that these days, utilizing every part of the animal is not just gaining acceptance but becoming quite fashionable—so fashionable, in fact, that I found myself staring at pig heads two days in a row without having to leave New York.

I spent my Saturday devouring balut and sampling Brooklyn-roasted Cebu-style lechon at Dekalb Market. When I didn't keel over from that little adventure, I thought I'd tempt fate on Sunday by joining my friends Jay and Linda in celebrating our Big Buddha's birthday with a large format, nose-to-tail feast at Resto. This Belgian restaurant is pretty much what I imagine heaven is like: equipped with a magical kitchen that can churn out a whole hog feast, as well as a bar that can drown me in Tripel Karmeliet. I mean, seriously, can I just move in? Resto's large format feast is tailored to a minimum of eight people and starts with the selection of an animal: pig, lamb, goat, veal, alligator (yup, that's happened)—basically, if they can source it, you can feast on it.

Our animal of choice was the pig, so the meal started with a selection of charcuterie that included headcheese and chicken liver paté on toast with Dijon and sweet mustard, plus some crisp cornichons on the side (the inclusion of another animal, while confusing, was ultimately still delicious and thus, welcome). The headcheese was yummy enough that even the non-offal-enthused among our party dug in and enjoyed it. I've been grappling with how to describe the taste of this much maligned delicacy for the non-headcheese eaters out there, and I think I've finally got it: it tastes like a cross between paté and hardboiled egg yolk, with the weight of something substantial, like meatloaf. As much as I loved it, I have to admit that its inclusion in the feast burst my bubble. Conceptually, the feast is supposed to be made with this one mythical pig that we selected. But later in the meal, the full head of the pig (with brain intact), was presented to us, so clearly the head cheese was not part of that one mythical pig. Oh well. As long as the end result is delicious, double servings of piggie heads ultimately do not bother me.

The second set of plates were my favorite part of the meal. There were some succulent ribs dripping in jus and left with some crispy skin on, and then a second platter of ribs coated in an Asian-style glaze with hint of spice. And of course, there were chunks of succulent pork belly crowned with crisp cracklings. Together with these wonderful plates came a beautiful salad of sweet heirloom tomatoes and briny feta, and another simple side of parsnips and greens with just the right amount of bitterness to offset the fatty pork.

After the rainfall of pork goodness came a peculiarly long drought. We sat there for awhile wondering if the meal was over. Consequently, our tummies sent the message to our brains that we were actually quite full. So when the final onslaught of pork came, we were a tad unprepared. I managed to have some of the pork shoulder rubbed with coriander, which was falling off the bone tender and paired with strips of grilled squash and zucchini. A pork loin with a side of young potatoes was served up, though the potatoes were raved about more than the pork (granted, we could have simply been suffering from pork fatigue, at this point). A tender leg was also served up on a bed of creamed corn but I only had the wherewithal to eat the corn—mostly because I wanted to use up the last of my stomach space on choice pieces of meat from the pig's head, which was served roasted.

After giving it the kiss of death, I went to town on that pig head, carving out soft chunks of flesh from the cheeks and neck. And then, Caroline and I managed to carve out the pig's brain by ourselves, much to the horror of the rest of our party. If you've never had pig brain, it surprisingly tastes quite similar to balut (which I realize is not an entirely helpful description, despite its accuracy).

After the pork overload, a plate of Belgian waffles-turned-ice-cream sandwiches was sent out with a birthday candle for Buddha, capping off our amazing meal. The dinner cost a pretty penny, but it was an experience worth every last cent and one I won't soon forget.

Resto is located at 111 East 29th Street (near Lexington Avenue), New York, New York.
For reservations, phone 212-685-5585.

Balut-Eating Contest—Challenge Completed!

Yep, it happened. I came, I cracked, and I chowed down on nine baluts in five minutes at Maharlika Filipino Moderno's first ever balut-eating contest.
When they called out the last minute, I realized there was no catching up to the behemoth of an eater beside me, Wayne Algenio, who ended up putting away a total of 18 eggs. So I decided to just savor the last piece and bowed out as gracefully as one can with duck entrails still hanging on her cheek. As they tallied up the score, I gulped down a much-needed Red Horse and, why not, another piece of balut, prompting the emcee to tell me, "Celine, the contest is over." Hey man, I did this for the love of balut, and contest or not, I love those little suckers!  

So I didn't win the much-coveted belt. But I did get to fulfill my lifelong urge to glut myself on balut, and I had a rocking good time doing it. I'm definitely having another go at it next year, that's for sure! 
And in a move that may set me up for eternal singledom, I've decided to share a video capturing me in heinous balut-devouring mode. Oh well. Any dude who chooses to be with me will eventually see this happen in real life anyway, so I might as well put it out there. The way I see it, I can't be certain that there's a Prince Charming waiting in the wings to sweep me off my feet—but I can be damn sure that my happily ever after will include the continued consumption of my beloved balut. Cheers!

A Weekend in Sonoma Wine Country

There's something about Wine Country that makes me want to drop life as it is and start a new one that involves wandering through vineyards for the rest of my days.
I was fortunate enough to spend a beautiful long weekend in Sonoma Valley to celebrate my cousin's wedding. We spent a couple of days exploring vineyards and caves, learning about the wine-making process and various varietals produced in the region, and of course, sampling plenty of wonderful wine. The bride treated us to a lovely tour at Gundlach Bundschu, the oldest family-owned winery in California. Finding out the level of detail that goes into wine production definitely heightened my appreciation for it. For instance, at Gundlach Bundschu, the leaves on each stem of the vines are counted to keep the leaves at an optimal number: just enough to provide a good protective canopy over the grapes but not too many that the nutrients are funneled towards the leaves and not the grapes. Our party came away with some beautiful bottles of Pinot Noir and, my new personal favorite, a very decadent Zinfandel. 
The wedding itself took place at the breathtaking grounds of Viansa Winery. The winery is located on top of a hill, so the drive up is quite beautiful; olive trees line the road and the property is wrapped with row upon row of grapevines heavy with fruit. It was one of the most gorgeous weddings I've been to, with the entourage descending from the vineyards for the ceremony, the couple being photographed within the candlelit wine caves, and the reception treated to exquisite views of the valley during sunset.
Gundlach Bundschu and Viansa were my absolute favorite spots, but there were other noteworthy wineries that we enjoyed and are absolutely worth a visit. Gloria Ferrer is worth stopping by, if only to see the stunning panoramic view over their vast vineyard. They do not offer a tasting menu, but you can order sparkling wine by the glass and sample estate wines for $2-3 dollars per 2-ounce serving. We sampled a few and I ended up buying a 2007 Pinot Noir.
Bartholomew Park Winery is also worth visiting because of its colorful history. Formerly an insane asylum and home for wayward women, it also houses a replica of the Palladian Villa of Agoston Haraszthy, widely known as the "Father of California Viticulture." These days, this space is home to a certified organically farmed vineyard—though the winery still holds a yearly "Sips & Spirits" party to pay homage to its spooky past.
I really enjoyed our visit to Cline Cellars, as well. Here, reserve wine tastings are just a $1 each, with tastings for the rest of the list offered complementary. Their wines are very reasonably priced; a nice bottle of Viognier and the Big Break Zinfandel from the reserve list altogether only cost me $38! Our group took a nice haul of the Big Break Zinfandel, which we loved for the unique eucalyptus notes laced into the rich wine. Apparently, they had planted eucalyptus trees around the vines as a windshield, and it ended up giving the wine a very unusual but delicious hint of flavor.

We were also able to enjoy some lovely wines in the tasting rooms located right within downtown Sonoma. Roche Winery, where the wedding party's welcome dinner was held, produced the most delicious Pinot Noir that I enjoyed on this trip. The wine and the people at Hawkes Wine and Adobe Road Wines were also very good—especially to a gal who, by some combination of circumstance and plain old ridiculous life choices, ended up dropping into their tasting rooms dressed in borrowed pajamas and the previous night's gold bridesmaid shoes.

A breathtakingly beautiful place with delicious food, exquisite wine, and a tolerance for my shenanigans? No wonder I'm tempted to run away to wine country and never come back.

Fuerza Bruta

When you have everything at the tips of your fingers, it's too easy to just let it all slip away.
In New York, a million things always seem to be happening all at once, all the time. The result: things get filed away in the to-do list, sometimes never to be heard from again. I've trained myself to be more proactive these last few years but here and there, things still slip off my radar. So it happened that it took five years before I finally watched Fuerza Bruta.

I've known about Fuerza Bruta for a long time. This show, which originated in Argentina, came to New York in 2007—just one year after my own migration to the Big Apple. It wasn't until this year, when I had a good friend visit New York, that I finally took the opportunity to see the show—and what a show it was.
Fuerza Bruta is sensory overload—equal parts rave, performance art, and circus. Performers fly on wires, crash through walls, splash around an overhead pool, and come right at you with sheets of styrofoam and confetti.
The storyline is really besides the point, so I wouldn't spend too much time trying to figure it out. I hastily decided it was meant to be a reflection on and celebration of man's mortality. And then I went  right back to enjoying the show.
To fully enjoy Fuerza Bruta, you must be the type of person who does not shy away from interaction. Stick yourself in the middle of the crowd so you can be right underneath when that Mylar sheet is lowered so far down that the only thing separating audience and performers is a thin piece of plastic. Be ready to get soaking wet and extremely close to the people you're supposed to just be watching.
You can, of course, stay on the sidelines and watch everything from a distance. It will still be a stunning show. But if you want to know my personal recommendation, I say jump in without hesitation.

For more information, visit fuerzabrutanyc.com 

Challenge Accepted: Maharlika's First Annual Balut-Eating Contest

I have loved balut since I was a child. I love the ritual of eating it—cracking a tiny hole on top and slurping the steaming hot soup bursting with umami flavor, adding a pinch of rock salt and a drizzle of spicy vinegar into the little hole, then tearing through the egg shell to get to the meaty prize within: the soft fleshy duckling hugged by a savory yolk.
Some say disgusting, I say delicious. Balut (that's a fertilized duck egg, for the uninitiated) is one of the things I miss the most about the Philippines. On my visits, coming across a balut vendor is always one of the highlights. On a road trip to Sagada last year, one of my favorite memories was hitting up the balut stands in every bus stop. There aren't many things that I'll wake up for at 3am, but a balut sign is one of those things. 
So when Pinoy food phenom Maharlika announced it was holding a balut-eating contest at its Dekalb Market outpost, I signed up in a flash. As far as I'm concerned, getting to eat as many pieces of balut as I can swallow is already a prize in itself—but wouldn't it be cool to win?

I have absolute faith in my ability to consume more balut than anyone largely because I have to restrain myself from having too much. I know from experience that just 3 baluts eaten in a row already delivers a mean cholesterol-induced headache, so I usually hold back. This being a once-in-a-lifetime experience and all, though, I'm willing to endure the king of all food comas to go for gold.

But my main handicap is that I am probably one of the slowest eaters on this earth. I like slowly savoring my food—even balut, come to think of it. I horrify my family when I eat balut at home because I like to dissect it with a fork and knife, and make sure every bite is equally coated in salt and vinegar. It has resulted in my unwittingly flinging about a fork with a perfectly seasoned duckling head impaled on it while engrossed in telling some story. But this quirk of mine, while sadistically entertaining (to me), is not going to help me win any eating contests.

That said, I am a determined little girl, so who knows what'll happen? We'll just have to wait and see. Maharlika's first annual balut eating contest is happening in Dekalb Market on August 25. There will also be a $30 prix fixe meal on offer featuring, not balut, but authentic Cebuano lechon prepared by a lechon roast master who will be flown in from the lovely province of Cebu. If there's one thing that's truly a threat to my winning this contest, it's my overwhelming desire to also stuff my face with roasted pig stuffed with lemongrass, garlic and magic. Hmm. One more thing I've got to work on.

For more information and to purchase tickets for the most amazing spit-roasted pig you will ever have outside of Philippine borders, click here. And if you'd like to join me in OD-ing on balut goodness, email your entry to iluvbalut@gmail.com.

It's still more fun in the Philippines

No matter what crushing or even traumatic experiences hit me in life, I've never seen the sense in wallowing in the bad, and I truly believe it's something I owe to the indomitable Filipino psyche. We, as a nation, have always had the capacity not just to persevere but to find even the tiniest speck of joy through the worst of times. Manila has been in the throes of a paralyzing and tragic flood for the past few days, and yet, you see that uniquely Filipino ability to smile and even have fun through it all.
This is no way meant to diminish the amount of suffering that thousands of Filipinos are going through right now. The floods have absolutely devastated the city, but I am proud of the beautiful Filipino spirit that is shining through despite all that they're going through—from their ability to stay positive no matter what to the admirable civic consciousness that is pushing relief efforts, big and small.
Below, I'm posting all the groups and donation sites I've come across for those in the Philippines who are looking for ways to help. To those outside the country, please see yesterday's post for ways to help out when your only means is a mouse and a credit card.
  • The Angel Brigade is accepting donations at
    1. Isdanco Foundation - 2/f Franck Provost Building, Jupiter Street, Makati 
    2. Franck Provost - Molito Complex, Madrigal Avenue, Alabang 
    URGENTLY needed: Rice, bottled water, canned goods, instant noodles, milk, vitamins 
    We will also be deploying COOKED MEALS; Chef Laudico has offered to cook for those in evac centers 
    For that we need: Rice, raw chicken, cooking oil, garlic, ginger, onions, vinegar, soy sauce, calamansi; also biodegradable or re-usable food containers and utensils. All these food items can be dropped off at: Bistro Filipino, 3rd Avenue, Net Square Bldg Bonifacio Global City (across McDonald's)kindly say it's for ANGEL BRIGADE hot meals
  • Binalot is accepting pledges and donations. For more information, click here.
  • More ways to help:

Rain Love on Manila

It seems like it was just yesterday that we saw the terrible flooding wreaked by Typhoon Ondoy on Manila. Three years later, Manila is submerged in floods once again after several days of constantly heavy rains. The images coming out of the Philippine capital are heartbreaking. Thousands of our countrymen are in dire need, with at least 250,000 people having to be evacuated from their homes to safety.

It's frustrating to be all the way across the world when something like this happens in the Philippines because we all want to help. For now, the quickest way is to donate through humanitarian groups that have mobilized in Manila to assist the victims of this calamity. The most convenient way I've found to send in a donation so far is through the Philippine Red Cross website. The organization accepts payments through PayPal, so you can send some love Manila's way in just a few clicks. If you'd like to help in any way, please visit the links listed below:

  • Philippine Red Cross - accepts donations through PayPal, Ushare, GreenPeso, Multiply, and PayDollar
  • Gawad Kalinga - accepts online credit card donations
  • Sagip Kapamilya - provides bank information and SWIFT codes for those who would prefer to wire their donations directly
  • For those in the Philippines, Pinoy 911 has marked donation centers on this map. Aggregated Tweets about the flood can also be seen on this website.

Image courtesy of Rain Love on Manila, a group that mobilized to help the victims of Ondoy in 2009.