Last year, I thought the best meal we had outside a private home in the Philippines was at Antonio’s in Tagaytay (see here and here). We had a superbly executed meal in a delightful setting with attentive and efficient staff. This year we had several very good meals between Mrs. MM, The Kid and myself. The new Sala at the Locsin Building received some great reviews within the family, we had a superb, albeit totally private meal at Old Manila at The Peninsula, and we continued to enjoy delicious meals at all of Margarita Fores’ outlets (including the catered dinner she did for my birthday), not to mention an occasional drive to our “favorite fried bangus hole in the wall place” in Silang, Cavite called LZM. We ate regularly at our fall-back restaurants like Milky Way for Pinoy food, Azumaya for noodles and it’s neighbor upstairs Tsukiji. We were pleasantly surprised by several meals on the island of Boracay. I enjoyed several reef-fresh and utterly memorable seafood meals in Coron, Palawan. But as all of you know, we don’t really eat out all that often, since we cook so much at home… so while we may try new places once in a while, we definitely don’t return if we don’t like the food. But before I detail why we had such a wonderful meal at Mamou a few weeks ago, let me ponder for a bit what constitutes a truly superb and memorable restaurant meal…
There are meals that are “technically” rated over the stratosphere… these are meals done in restaurants that consider their food almost an art… In the U.S., for example, where I have dined at better restaurants more often than in Europe, I find that the French Laundry, Le Bernardin, Restaurant Daniel, Le Cirque, etc. could all fall into that category and I have experienced several wonderful meals at many of these restaurants. The meals are fussy, the portions small, the ingredients rare and costly, the settings superb, the flowers gorgeous, the staff ranging from stellar to supercilious. Overall, each dish is generally technically well done, possessing flavors and combinations you wouldn’t really attempt at home. The Michelin starred restaurants in Europe are sometimes even a notch higher up the ratings scale. I haven’t had much experience dining “at the top places” in Europe, but I can say vicariously, that Sister has made the rounds of more three-starred Parisian restaurants in the past couple of years than anyone else I know. I think she has a personal quest to hit all the top rated places before long. Sometimes, she hies off from a group of travelers or relatives and savors a three hour, three star meal BY HERSELF as a rare indulgence, I wouldn’t want to be the chef at the restaurant if Sister was dining there ALONE. I would be less scared if the reviewer from the New York Times were at the table instead. If she had a well visited food blog, she could close a restaurant with a single post. Heeheehee. These “starred” restaurants are in a class all their own, and on reflection, are often totally worth the seemingly outrageous $150+ per head you would have to pay these days, without wine.
But eating at these “temples” of food also requires that you dress up, that you have interesting conversation, that you behave. You don’t chow down. And while the food, setting and service may be superb, somehow it may not qualify as the BEST meal you may have had that particular year. I think the best meal is very personal. It depends on what you like to eat. How you like to eat it. Who you like to eat it with. What memories or emotional reactions it triggers. Whether it is good value for money or not. Whether one rubs one’s tummy discreetly afterwards, or reaches for an extra dose of cholesterol medicine. It depends on your mood, the company, and of course the food. So let me describe the best meal we have had in a Manila restaurant this year…
Mamou is NOT fine dining. It claims to be a home kitchen, and that is being a bit too modest, but not really. More than most restaurants at the new Serendra complex, this one has a good dose of HEART. Malou Fores (Mamou to some), sister-in-law of Margarita Fores, has been in the Mamou kitchen since the day it opened, several months ago. Malou’s sister, Annie, helps out in the restaurant proper. Malou cooks hearty dishes that evolved from the dishes she cooked for her own family. While the restaurant itself is visually attractive, a combination between a snazzy Parisian Bistro or Brasserie with red and black accents, but in a new mall, it isn’t the most relaxing place to hang out. The chairs are a bit uncomfortable and the din and noise high despite the clever use of eggshell foam under the tables. It has a huge window into the kitchen, which bustles with frenetic activity of the red-capped chefs and cooks on a busy night. Space is tight, neighboring tables are close by and the rent is obviously high. Perhaps that is the reason they have some chillers with steaks in the main dining area. So no, the physical environment wasn’t a slam dunk for me, but it was lively, bright, vibrant and young. Somehow, the lack of pretense or overly interior-designed space is a plus for me… And it’s a nice touch that bottles of all my favorite condiments (ketchup, worcestershire sauce, mustards, cider vinegars, etc. are stacked on the counter near the kitchen… just like home).
The staff are extremely eager to please, though service is sometimes erratic. With Malou’s sister handling the reservations, that process runs quite well. But you might be put off by the two seatings a night, an effort to accommodate the maximum number of guests, but limits your dining time options. The atmosphere is sometimes a bit crazed so you may have to repeat your orders once or twice but overall I think it is more an issue of just having opened to nearly immediate success, than a fatal flaw. But I do wish ALL restaurants in Manila would invest in more staff training as a meal is affected a bit by the quality of service. At Mamou, I would rate their staff higher than most non-hotel restaurants, but there is definitely room for improvement. As for the timing of the food emerging from the kitchen, I thought it was very well paced, and I never felt like it was too slow as I sometimes feel at other places. And here, you can almost track the progress of each dish if you peer into the kitchen since they seem to prepare everything to order with some exceptions. I cannot reiterate enough the advantages of having the owner there every single night (or almost). Malou’s presence is a SUPERB sign of her commitment to deliver the best her team can muster. And she does COOK several of the dishes herself, without breaking much of a sweat and adorned with jewelry no less… in fact, she reminds me a bit of a very young version of Lorenza di Medici, who I once saw kneading pasta dough, diamond engagement ring and pearls in place…
And there is the crux of my delight with this place. It’s like eating, and I mean EATING, in one of the older more traditional homes in Manila, but in a modern, updated cosmopolitan setting. Meals here remind me of an abundant meal in a large New Manila mansion, or a homey setting of a food driven family in a modest Village in Quezon City, a weekend celebration in Antipolo, a chismis laden Makati Sunday meal, etc. This is about food folks really ate, albeit in a somewhat upper crust setting, in many cases, in the recent past. But it wasn’t about being fancy, it was about sheer enjoyment, of abundance, of family and getting together. This is how a segment of Manila USED to eat on a fairly regular basis. But even that is slowly disappearing. Sons and daughters are moving out to small studio apartments or renting with friends. Large houses are no longer staffed or equipped to handle large sit-down dinners. Restaurants have taken the place of dining rooms… So it is a wonderful find to go to Mamou and have your RICE SAUTEED IN THE LEFT OVER FAT FROM YOUR STEAK. It is great to get large portions you can share. Terrific that they serve freshly baked bread. This isn’t about fancy meals, it is about solid, memory triggering food. And not everyone will get it, I bet. This isn’t a date restaurant, in my opinion. You can’t order enough if there are only two of you, and you are worried what you look like chewing steak… This is a place to go with at least 6 people, preferably 8 or 10, and order way more than you think you can eat. And this is what we ate…
For appetizers, we had several orders of cracked cheese with honey and fuet. This terrific pairing of salty cheese, with sweet honey and fat salami. Yum. I have done a version of this at home with my guava jelly or kalamansi jelly and it is delicious. Served with warm baked in-house bread rolls with a fine dusting of flour and the evening is off to a good start. Next, we had a truffle oil vegetable dip with melba chips that belies the link of Mamou to The Blue Kitchen, where delicious dips are a long time staple. I think we also ordered an artichoke dip on another visit that was very good. Next, we had several orders of fish and chips with a batter infused with cerveza negra. The fish and chips were excellent, served with malt vinegar, straight out of the Heinz? bottle. :) The batter was crisp, light and flavorful. The best fish and chips we have had in Manila. We ordered several huge steaks (get the big ones, the small ones aren’t as succulent, I think), with all the possible sidings such as mashed potatoes, white rice, red rice, creamed spinach and corn pudding. The steaks were SUPERB. Done very nicely indeed. Just a tad more watery than say a brilliant steak at Peter Luger’s but pretty gosh darned good for Manila. I think these steaks were wet aged, and apparently from a terrific supplier. Some of the side dishes were a bit blah, and the portions skimpy, so think to order more if you are starch dependent. The red rice sauteed in steak fat is heaven.
We also ordered the Batac Bolognese pasta, which at first glance might raise some eyebrows, but I thought it worked very well. The Ilocano sausage meat is sauteed with tomato sauce and fennel and served with spaghetti. The pasta was properly (not overly) sauced and presented just a slight twist on a well made Bolognese. Mamou personally cooked up an order of Linquine Vongole for our table and it was spot on. Though she frets that clams need a lot of work (cleaning them) before using them in her restaurant. I know exactly what she means, and it is a reason I don’t do this dish as often as I would like to at home…
A house specialty and certified home run dish is the Roast Pork and Chicken served wth rice, buttered onions, saba bananas and black beans. This has shades of a Cuban or Central American dish and it is comfort food at its best. Order the large portion and share it. In fact, if I were sneaking into Mamou for a solo lunch or with a friend, I would order this and a salad and be totally satisfied at a very reasonable total tab.
The one clear stumble was an order of Crispy Roast Duck that the Kid ordered. She is a big duck fan and quite tolerant of most versions, but I have to agree that this particular dish was a bit too dry and not a hit. It has since been taken off the menu, I gather.
Finally, we tried nearly all of the desserts. But here I have to say I am a bit biased as I bake myself. The pecan pie was good but not brilliant (needs more nuts!). If you want to clear your palate try the key lime pie. They also have a Dark Chocolate Sans Rival as well. If there are many of you dining, order a selection of desserts and just share a few forkfulls each. Alternatively, you can head to one of several dessert places in the same complex.
So why was this the best meal we had in a restaurant this year? Because the food was extremely good overall and reminiscent of hearty, comfortable home-cooked meals of a different era (for most, anyway), because we dined with very good friends, because we ordered with abandon and ate like there was no tomorrow, because it all just felt right that night. Some meals are just memorable and this was one of them. It took me many weeks to write this review, as I pondered whether I should post this meal for public consumption (for fear that I will never be able to get a table at Mamou again), but selfishness has given way to sharing this gem of a find with my readers. Oh, and I almost forgot, our meal, for 7, cost roughly PHP1,500 per person… but we ate enough for 12. As I said earliler, there are those who will get what Mamou is about and those who will miss the point entirely. We get it.
Brava Mamou!!! You have a definite winner!!!
Serendra, Fort Bonifacio
Reservations Highly Recommended