Crisostomo, if you’re no stranger to the Philippine restaurant scene, is a Filipino restaurant and another one of the many establishments under the helm of Chef Florabel Co-Yatco. At present, this thirty-something restaurateur has the following: there’s the famous Florabel in Podium, the less than a year old Sweet Pea in McKinley Hill, the newly-opened Market on 5th Avenue in St. Luke’s Medical Center at Global City, Johnny Chow at Resorts World Manila, Sumo Sam (co-owned with actor Marvin Agustin), Floring’s Famous BBQ, Commons Bar & Restaurant in Salcedo, and finally, Felix in Greenbelt 5. I hurriedly scribbled on my notebook as my elderly host proudly enumerated all these, warming my heart in the process, because the charming man who has put it upon himself to welcome and entertain me in Crisostomo that day is none other than Felix Co, father of Chef Florabel, He beamed with that last mention, “Felix,” and I saw the eyes of a proud father crinkled with delight.
There’s a kind of a fuzzy, lived-in feeling when you enter Crisostomo, located at the second floor of the new Eastwood Mall. The lights are yellow-tinged, the tables and chairs exude understated elegance, and the walls have life-sized drawings of characters from Dr. Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo.” After all, the restaurant was named after the novels’ protagonist, Crisostomo Ibarra. The place is decidedly easy on the eyes, but not overwhelming nor intimidating.
Survey their menu and be entertained with how they creatively incorporated Noli and Fili characters and plots into the names of the dishes. It will surely elicit a chuckle, or start an interesting conversation amongst Filipinos and those familiar with the Rizal masterpieces. It is noteworthy that whatever you see on the photos inside Crisostomo’s menu is exactly what you’ll get on your table—exact presentation, portions and all.
Bravo de Balut
I started my meal with an appetizer called Bravo de Balut (P220), a very savory balut dish infused generously with garlic and served on a sizzling plate. Mr. Felix told me in a low voice, “The secret is in the sauce: it’s actually mechado sauce.” True enough, the balut would be naked and uneventful without its tomato-based sauce—which is so tasty, it’s almost a sin to eat it without white rice.
For something to warm my tummy, I had the Mais ala Sibyla (P395), their own version of my favorite suam na mais—which is soup made of white or sweet corn and sometimes made healthier with malunggay, talbos ng kamote (young leaves of the sweet potato) or dahon ng sili (chilli pepper leaves).
Mais ala Sibyla
I’m used to the thick, creamy kind of suam na mais, which is made from grated white corn. Crisostomo’s version is clear and has huge, fresh prawns and halved cobs of sweet corn in it. The corn kernels are cooked just right and had the right amount of sweetness. This soup is food for the soul, also perfect for those suffering from a cold.
Kare-Kare ng Kura
For first timers in the restaurant, Kare-Kare ng Kura (P400) is highly recommended. For the non-Pinoy reading this, kare-kare is composed of oxtail, native vegetables, tender beef chunks, peanut sauce and peanuts. It is always paired with shrimp paste or what is called bagoong in Tagalog.
This dish is one of my favorite all-time Filipino specialties, which is why when I heard that Kare-Kare ng Kura is a Crisostomo bestseller, I just had to try it. I liked that they served it with the vegetables on top of the meat, not allowing them to get overcooked and drowned in the heavy peanut sauce. The oxtail is tender, with fall-off-the-fork meat that is lean and not oily. The sprinkling of chopped peanuts punctuates this dish with many exclamation points.
Lamb lovers will be thrilled to know that there’s adobong Cordero (P395) (Spanish for lamb) in Crisostomo. Aside from being cooked adobo style, the dish has crispy kangkong with kesong puti (white cheese) chunks.
I am not a fan of lamb, but I have respect for this brilliantly simple recipe, primarily due to the adobo sauce that accompanies the meat. The adobo sauce is perfect for the short ribs because it has minced ginger, which balances the gamey taste of lamb.
No holds barred, I had to taste the delightfully-sounding Legazpi (P495), which is a dish made of tempura-style prawns stuffed with laing and crab fat sauce. For the laing stuffing, Chef Florabel Co used dried taro leaves. There’s a Japanese sauce provided, but I personally don’t need to dip my tempura anymore, since I appreciated tasting the laing and the crab fat on their own.
The Legazpi is proof of Chef Florabel’s creativity and unabashed experimentation with different flavors and textures. It’s a work of art, if you may call it that. The only way it disappointed is the assurance that it will be wiped off from its plate sooner than you think.
Then there’s Mr. Felix Co’s favorite, Cervantes (P410)—which is pork leg, chestnuts and quail eggs with bihon. I’m not sure if his doctor would approve, but I don’t blame Mr Felix for partaking some. The bihon is flavorful, with the chestnuts providing a unique, sort of surprising, texture. The quail eggs are a welcome addition, making the entire dish very filling and tasty.
Don’t leave Crisostomo without tasting their KKK Barbecue (P150 for 2 pieces), which is what propelled Floring’s BBQ to success. As of late, this is the best pork barbecue I’ve eaten. It’s so good, you can enjoy it even without the sauce. The recipe for the marinade is a well-kept secret, Mr. Felix said. He then proceeded to show me a text from his mobile phone inbox wherein the recipe for the phenomenal barbecue marinade is saved. Good for him I don’t have photographic memory.
Because the recipe is top secret, all I can tell you is that the barbecue is cooked over charcoal. This adds the smoky flavor that seems to seep in every fiber of the meat. Nanunuot is the best Filipino term for it.
The desserts in Crisostomo deserve an entirely separate article, but since I’m limited to this space, I’ll make do with what I have.
Sorbetero sa San Diego
Since this is a Filipino restaurant, they have homemade ice cream called Sorbetero sa San Diego (P100). The flavors to choose from are quezo, macapuno and chocolate. The consistency is creamy; not airy like the typical grocery store-bought ice cream. It also doesn’t melt easily and has a soufflé-like texture.
If you like sorbetes, then you will love the taste of this homemade ice cream. Personally, I found it too grainy. The taste is great, but the flatter-than-usual consistency is something I need to get used to.
I fell in love with this next dessert, though. Crisostomo’s best-selling cake: the Quezo de Bola Cheesecake (P200/slice).
Quezo de Bola Cheesecake
The cheese lover in me could wax poetic about this divine creation. From the graham crust at the bottom, the compact cheesecake in the middle, to the creamy swirls of caramel on top, this cake is sweet and salty in all the right places. Do yourself a favor and try it soon.
The year has been generally good to Manila restaurateurs, proving that Filipinos remain passionate about their food and drink. What sets Chef Florabel Co, however, is her ability to transcend trends and rise above constraints. Whether it’s 2010, or any other year, she keeps on pushing the envelope, steadfastly providing more choices for the Filipino palate and in her own way, telling us, that there will be more exciting things to expect and hope for in the future.