In my line of work ('paid hobby,' my friends correct me), days come when I get to eat an entire ecosystem. No kidding. As a matter of fact, just last week, I recall eating: two types of beef, chicken cooked in three ways (grilled, roasted, and baked), pork hamonado, pork dinuguan, chicharon, burger, pizza, shrimps, crabs, tuna, dory, salmon, leche flan, black forest cake, and salad - all in one day!
Not surprisingly, I felt crappy the next morning. After eating all of that, who wouldn't? Sluggish and reluctant to eat anything else other than salad for the rest of my life (or okay, at least the rest of the week), I remembered Chiqui Mabanta, owner of Corner Tree Cafe, and a certified vegetarian who's had a meatless diet for 10 years. I wondered what she'll think of the things I ate. Horrified will probably be an understatement.
I met Chiqui a few months back when Corner Tree Cafe was around two and a half months old. The restaurant is a one level bistro located along Jupiter Street, right where Palatofino used to stand.
"Why Corner Tree Cafe? Well, there's a giant tree around the corner. It's like a homage to the tree," Chiqui answered.
So what was I, the last person on earth to turn vegan, doing in a vegetarian restaurant that time?
Taking my well deserved break from all grease and gore of my unhealthy diet.
I started off with Mango Lassi (P110), healthier than the sugar-laden sodas and iced teas I regularly drink.
There wasn't really anything spectacular or unique with the lassi I ordered, but Corner Tree's version is nevertheless good and decent. Those of you who seek a more refreshing and simpler option, try the Lemongrass for P70.
The Corner Tree Starter Plate (P180) followed right away. When Chiqui mentioned this as their best selling appetizer, I was even more excited.
Corner Tree Starter Plate
I stared at the dish as it was carefully placed in front of me. Eeeep! Carrot sticks?! I wasn't sure how to react. Should I go over the menu and look for some greasy and salty fries again? Maybe I missed it the first time I browsed?
But before I could get a hand on that menu and escape my fate to eat carrots... "Dip the singkamas and carrots in the hummus," Chiqui instructed.
And so I did. I'm partial to singkamas so that's what I tried first. Hummus instead of bagoong? "Why not," I encouraged myself.
I took a tentative bite of singkamas the size of the tip of my pinkie, after I enveloped it in as much hummus as possible. Chomp. Munch. Munch. In all fairness, not bad! I loved the light, almost whipped consistency of the white-bean hummus and the nutty kicks here and there of the bean bits. It was relatively lighter than the other hummus I've tried before. Maybe salt control is also vital in a vegan diet? Even sans the saltiness, I was satisfied. I gave the carrot a pass (sorry, raw carrot stick phobia) and proceeded to the other three-fifth part of the dish which is Dukka, a popular Egyptian spice blend in which you dip a toasted crusty bread.
As far as my eyes deciphered, the dukka dip had sesame seeds as a majority. The other spices ground into powder form can no longer be distinguished. I tried hard dissecting each and every taste present. Sesame, of course. Hmmmm. Nuts. Walnut perhaps? Or no, chickpeas? Pepper is definitely present. It makes it taste fierce. Hints and traces of coriander and cumin are surprisingly tame if ever I'm right that they're incorporated in the dip. For all I know, Chiqui just tossed all the good stuff in.
After that interesting introduction to what Dukka is, we were served Spinach Feta Croquettes (P160).
Spinach Feta Croquettes
Still Mediterranean in nature, this three piece dish is a curious combination of Spanish croquettas and Greek spinach Feta pie. Instead of a heavy dough as batter, these triangles with layers of spinach and cheese are wrapped in paper thin filo dough that makes them light but still, crunchy.
With lotsa cheese? You bet I enjoyed this very much. So much that it made me unsure if what I was eating was actually healthy. It's cheesy and rich. It was just like eating a greasy Jamaican Pattie, without all the oil and meat of course.
Once done with the appetizers, we were more than ready to dig into the Vegetarian Shepherd's Pie (P220)
Vegetarian Shepherd's Pie
What is shepherd's pie without all that ground meat? Well, it's the kind of shepherd's pie you'll eat at Corner Tree: with lentils, layers of vegetables, and mashed potatoes. The veggie version does not approximate the real deal in terms of taste, but I believe Chiqui does not intend to replace the flavor of meat, anyway. I found it odd (in a good way) that it tasted more like pochero instead of shepherd's pie, perhaps because of the tomatoey flavor, stalks of vegetable, and potato on top. The overall taste and feel, thanks to the creatively varied texture, created something else and that something else did not fail my carnivorous tastebuds. All in all, this will pass as comforting and filling to everyone.
The Baked Tofu Walnut Burger (P240) came as a finale. According to Chiqui, this easily is their bestseller. People coming for the Tofu Burger don't surprise me at all. Non vegetarian customers who go to vegan restos tend to go for the familiar.
Baked Tofu Walnut Burger
The Tofu Walnut Burger is made up of, well, tofu and walnuts. Based from its ingredients, the best thing it can do is approximate the bite and roughness of the burger patty. Its taste is an entirely different story. To how they combined two relatively mild tasting things and made them give off a much bolder flavor at par with the meaty counterpart, I have no idea. But I must admit, the burger is impressive.
I say, go ahead and take a bite of Corner Tree's Tofu Walnut Burger but be sure to forget about your Big Mac for a moment to fully appreciate it.
I was surprised how light I felt after four dishes. "That's good, because when it comes to desserts, we go all out," Chiqui proudly said.
And oh yes, all out it was. A Banoffee Pie (P140) slice sat right across me. I instantly loved the "not perfect" look: banana chunks about to fall off, cream plastered unruly, and a not so sturdy-looking grainy crust. It seemed much more homey, as if it just came out from my mom's oven.
All the elements of a good banoffee pie were there, perfectly balanced to give off that sweet-but-not-so, flavor.
The entire thing being slightly flawed in presentation just made it even more perfect.
As I type right now, I recall the blast I had in Corner Tree, sampling a fair amount of good food without the heavy feeling nor guilt right after. Does this mean that I will soon stop my horrendous consumption in favor of a healthy lifestyle? I wish I can everyday, but for now, at least I know where to go to every time I need a break from my baneful diet.