Innovation and creative twists may have placed traditional Filipino food in the modern dining scene, but up to what point can you deconstruct adobo and still call it adobo?
For Sonny Fortuna, one of the owners of Limbaga 77 – a charming restaurant set in a two-story old house with 1940s-style windows and a spiral staircase centerpiece – it was a conscious decision for him and his partners to serve Filipino food the way their mothers used to cook at home.
“Some restaurants would offer radically deconstructed food, to the point that you almost don’t recognize the food anymore, like it was an altogether different dish. And perhaps customers become curious – they would order it once or twice to try it or for the bragging right that they experienced something novel. But in the long run, they won’t order it again,” he said.
“Filipino food is comfort food. You don’t get tired of eating Filipino food. We wanted our dishes to retain classic and traditional elements even if we tweaked the presentation a little. We innovated without altering the rich local Filipino flavors of our dishes,” the 27-year-old Fortuna said.
Take their stuffed bulaklak ng kalabasa. Presented a la Japanese tempura, the squash blossoms are filled with ground pork, kesong puti, and cheddar cheese. It is a fresh take on the local produce, and a tasty way of making kids eat their vegetables.
“Our staff was actually the ones who convinced us to offer the dish. They experimented on the bulaklak ng kalabasa and they liked it. So now, every morning they go to the market to ensure that we have the freshest bulaklak ng kalabasa for our dish,” Fortuna said.
The restaurant takes pride in its bestsellers, which include kare-kare (a traditional Filipino dish made with beef shank, tripe and tail stewed in homemade peanut butter and served with homemade bagoong); baked lechon paksiw (baked pork belly that is roasted in garlic, oregano, shallots, lemongrass, and lemon zest and then stewed in lechon gravy); spicy seafood adobo (crabs, shrimps, mussels, and squid in Pinoy adobo-style sauce with coconut milk and soy sauce); toasted Vigan longganisa served with mashed camote; and stuffed laing (fresh taro leaves with ground pork and shrimp cooked in coconut milk and chicken stock).
Another distinctively local dish in Limbaga 77’s menu is the Pinoy spaghetti – the sweet variety complete with hotdog and banana ketchup that other fancy Filipino restaurants shun.
Guests can choose to pair these sumptuous dishes with plain or garlic rice, but the more adventurous ones can opt for bagoong rice (fried rice with shrimp paste mixed with ripe mango, garlic, tomatoes and white onions) or danggit rice (fried rice with dried rabbitfish and scallions with sliced scrambled eggs and tomatoes).
For customers who prefer healthier beverages, they can enjoy a Mabuhay smoothie (coconut milk syrup with pineapple and celery); minty mango watermelon slush; or lemongrass iced tea with calamansi, while those with a sweet tooth can order the pastillas de leche smoothie. The restaurant also boasts of its L77 coffee, a concoction of organic beans from Mt. Atok in Benguet and Mt. Kitanglad in Bukidnon that is served with balikutsa, a uniquely Ilocano saccharine treat that can be used as sweetener.
Aside from the usual alcoholic beverages such as beer, wine, and liquor, Limbaga 77 also has its own specialty cocktails – General Malvar, which is made with Batangueño lambanog infused with labuyo, calamansi liqueur, fresh organic dalandan juice and turmeric; and Legacy, which combines lambanog, calamansi liqueur, sioktong (traditional Pinoy herbal wine), cold-pressed pineapple juice and celery.
And since there is always room for dessert among Filipino diners, Limbaga 77’s sweet creations include the brazo tablea cake (made with cacao tablea and Batangas barako coffee) and bikoron (a portmanteau of biko and turon – sticky rice cooked in coconut milk topped with latik in lumpia wrapper, served with peanut sauce).
“We are not a pretentious restaurant. We do not reinvent the wheel,” Fortuna said. “We want our guests to feel that Limbaga 77 is like an extension of their own kitchen, serving food that is familiar and comforting.”
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Photos by Sonny Espiritu