Tuesday, September 13, 2011

4 of 10: Le Bistro d'Agathe

[This is the 4th restaurant review I'm doing for our binge bucket list series. Photos here.]

It was a small challenge finding Le Bistro d'Agathe, a hole-in-the-wall in Bangkal, Makati (former location of Fat Michael's). But the search was worth it, for the food turned out to be pretty darn good. Patrice Delobbe, the bistro's chef and proprietor, taking pity on us starving souls as we waited for our dining companions (who all had trouble finding the place), gave us a free sample of the meat terrine to tide us over. Spread on tasty slices of rye bread, the pork-and-liver terrine (described on the menu as "French meatloaf") was cold, crumbly and flavorful. I'm not a fan of creamy pates, so I actually enjoyed the rough texture of the terrine. Yang loved it so much she single-handedly polished off more than half before our friends arrived.

Everyone in our group opted for the set menu (choice of 1 appetizer, 1 entree, 1 dessert), price varying with the entree (range: P680-P890). Chef Patrice and the 2 efficient waitresses recommended some items from the deceptively simple menu. I say "deceptively" because while the dishes sound unimpressive in print, they are prepared and presented quite professionally. I went with the Soup of the Day (tomato basil), the Pepper Steak with Pan-fried Baby Potatoes, and the Apple Pie. Yang had the soup as well, the Tenderloin Steak with Blue Cheese Sauce, and the Chocolate Mousse.

I'm a sucker for a hearty tomato soup, and Chef Patrice's is chunky and comforting, fusing the mild tang of the tomatoes and the distinct aroma of basil to create a delicious, rustic potage. I don't think I should have emptied my bowl though, because I only had room left for half my steak, which was a crying shame as the meat was juicy and perfectly cooked (medium well is SO hard to achieve), and the pepper sauce was so good I could consume buckets of the stuff. Even the potatoes were good, and even though I was already full I still kept popping them in my mouth.

Yang also couldn't manage to finish her steak, in spite of enjoying it thoroughly, and when our plates got sent back to the kitchen the remnants alarmed Chef Patrice, who hurried out and asked what was wrong with the 2 unfinished steaks. I felt mortified, and we reassured him the steaks were fine, but we were just way too stuffed to take another bite.

But of course there's always room for dessert, and I left no trace of the apple pie on my plate. The pastry was flaky but firm, the apples crisp and the right balance of sweet and tart. I was so satisfied with it I didn't even find myself wishing it had come a la mode. I stole a small spoonful of Yang's chocolate mousse, which was smooth, dense and sweet, but not cloying. Tough call which was the superior dessert.

The only thing I found a bit off about Le Bistro d'Agathe was the location, which is not only hard to find but also felt unsafe. It's on a small street that's poorly lit at night, with no other commercial establishments nearby. The restaurant itself is small but cozy, and really looks like an authentic European bistro outside and inside. But it's very much out of place in Bangkal.

That said, we had a lovely time at Le Bistro d'Agathe-- we had the place to ourselves almost the entire evening, so it felt even more intimate and homey (although sometimes it was unnerving having Chef Patrice hovering around, probably checking if we were finishing our food, haha). Give it a try if you're looking for something besides the usual Makati joints. Le Bistro d'Agathe deserves at least one visit... but arm yourself with a map or GPS.

Monday, September 05, 2011

High marks for In the Heights

After being let down by Atlantis' staging of Aida, I had my trepidations about their next production, the recent Broadway hit In the Heights. I'd heard so many raves about the musical during my last trip to New York that I was afraid it might not meet my expectations. In addition, I was watching on opening night, and I was worried there might be kinks that come with a first-time performance. Thankfully, Atlantis was in fine form this time around (they seem to do particularly well with large, boisterous ensemble casts), and I enjoyed the show from start to finish.

Most musicals, even the best ones, have parts where there's a slight dip in action, where things get a little bit slow, including the songs. But just like Avenue Q, In the Heights doesn't seem to have such a lull, even when the music slows down. From the rousing rap that kicks off the story to the joyful finale, the tempo of the play remains upbeat as the audience is given a glimpse into 3 eventful days in a lively Dominican neighborhood in Washington Heights, New York. The lead character is Usnavi (Nyoy Volante), an all-around nice guy who runs the corner bodega and dreams of someday returning to the Dominican Republic, his parents' homeland. He and his cousin Sonny (Bibbo Reyes) were raised in America by Abuela Claudia (
Jay Glorioso), the kindly neighborhood matriarch. Usnavi is smitten with vivacious Vanessa (Ima Castro), who works in a beauty salon run by flamboyant gossip Daniela (Tex Ordonez). Meanwhile, Usnavi's buddy Benny (Felix Rivera), who works at the car service dispatch of Kevin and Camila Rosario (Calvin Millado and Jackie Lou Blanco, respectively), falls for the boss's daughter Nina (K-La Rivera), the pride of the barrio who made it into Stanford.

I've seen Nyoy Volante in 2 previous Atlantis musicals (Legally Blonde and Hairspray), but this performance in In the Heights eclipses them. I don't know if it's because his general look fit good-natured Usnavi to a T, but he made for a quite charming, loveable lead. Also, I was very impressed with his rapping skills, although sometimes I couldn't understand the lyrics because he was going machine-gun fast and "swallowing" some of the words. Ima Castro, who disappointed me in Aida, was pretty good as leading lady Vanessa, getting to show off both her solid singing and dancing skills. Ditto for my Atlantis favorite Felix Rivera, who is always a standout in any role. His chemistry with Nyoy, and more importantly with K-La Rivera, contributed to the great vibe of the show.

K-La was a revelation. My friends and I all agreed she was wonderful, with all the makings of a star. Her crystal-clear vocals had a purity to them similar to Lea Salonga's, her acting was very natural, and she's SO pretty (as Ria kept saying). But I thought the real scene-stealer was Bibbo Reyes, who earned the most laughs from the audience with his comedic portrayal of bumbling tough guy Sonny. I must also give props to Tex Ordonez for her seemingly effortless, flawless turn as Daniela, playing her like a sassier, Hispanic Fran Drescher.

Calvin Millado and Jackie Lou Blanco did all right in the roles of the protective parents, but I felt Jackie Lou's performance was a bit tentative and could have been more forceful, especially in the scenes where Camila lays down the law. But her singing voice was certainly pleasant enough (as Raqs pointed out, you wouldn't expect any less from Pilita Corales' daughter).

The music of In the Heights is more energetic than the usual Broadway soundtracks because it's infused with rap and salsa, and the choreography similarly features hiphop and Latin dances. Given that, I think younger audiences would better enjoy this musical, although more mature viewers might also appreciate the premise of immigrant culture and mentalities, plus the themes of home, belonging and self-actualization.

In the Heights is running until September 18, so you can still catch it at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at the RCBC Plaza in Makati. It's a colorful, fun fiesta of a musical, and the spirit is deftly captured by this well-directed local production. It's nice to see Atlantis back at the top of their game with In the Heights.

Friday, September 02, 2011

3 of 10: Sweet Bella

[This is the 3rd restaurant I'm reviewing from the "binge bucket list" my friend Yang and I drew up.]

I hate the color pink, but somehow the very pink interiors of Sweet Bella didn't repulse me as I entered the dining area on the second floor of the cute cafe in Burgos Circle. I actually chose a table with one of the fat pink couches and sank into it with the cozy feeling of having come home. Indeed, there's a very homey vibe to Sweet Bella, from the furniture down to the food. The menu is what I call simple chic, uncomplicated fare created with quality ingredients and presented prettily.

Yang suggested we try the Quatro Funghi pizza, a thin-crust pie with
oyster, button, shitake, and winsu mushrooms. It turned out to be the best thing we ordered. The crust was crisp, the toppings generous, the cheese rich but not cloying. The combination of the 4 types of mushroom was earthy and tasty, leaving me half-wishing I hadn't ordered an entree so I could have had a second slice. Yang and Angelo split a seafood chowder, while I had the French onion soup. Yang said their soup was good, and was "light for a chowder". Mine was satisfying, but definitely not the best French onion soup I've had. The onions weren't caramelized enough, and the broth could have used a tad more onion flavor.

For entrees, Yang had the salpicao with garlic rice, Angelo had the "Cafe Monster Burger", and I, going on our server's recommendation, had the Spaghetti Amatriciana with Seafood. The salpicao was cooked perfectly, judging from the pink color inside each morsel of beef, and my carnivorous friend polished off everything on her plate. Angelo said his burger (which came with a poached egg instead of the usual fried) was ok, and I'm sorry I neglected to take a photo of its impressive size (we were so hungry I totally forgot to take photos until desserts). My pasta came in a big bowl, with the noodles cooked al dente, and adorned with 3 big mussels and lots of plump shrimp. I loved how the briny taste of the seafood mixed with the mild tomato sauce, and I didn't mind that as a whole the dish was a wee bit dry.

As if we hadn't stuffed ourselves silly yet by this point, we ordered 2 desserts to share: a lovely strawberry tart served with thick chocolate sauce, and Sweet Bella's famous creation, the Chocolata, described as "
moist chocolate cake layered with rich ganache topped with chocolate glass". They were as divine as they looked, and we thoroughly enjoyed them paired with excellent coffee (a Nespresso latte for me) and tea (TWG Moroccan Mint for the Quimsons).

I only have 2 (minor) gripes about Sweet Bella. One is that the service was kinda... scattered. I guess it's understandable given that the waitresses have to keep going up and down the stairs, shuttling between the dining area and the kitchen. But oftentimes the dining area was left unmanned, and it would have been helpful if they had those little buzzers on the tables. Second complaint it that it's pretty pricey. The desserts especially are overpriced (P300+ for a small cake or pastry), and even with our 2 Cash Cash Pinoy coupons (good for P2,000), we still had to shell out a thousand bucks to cover our bill. Then again, considering we ate enough food to feed about 5 people, I guess it wasn't as exorbitant as it sounds. That's what we get for being gluttons!

Sweet Bella would be a nice place for an afternoon or evening hanging out with your girl friends, or for guys, it can be a cute place to bring a date for coffee and dessert (trust me, the cakes make a great impression!). It's everything you'd want in a cafe: cheery ambiance, comfy chairs, and of course, good food to share with good company.