“Here, we pronounce it pa-eh-lya,” corrects Chef Mike “Tatung” Sarthou good-naturedly as we scan through the seven-page selection of his new restaurant, Agos. “It’s a dish that’s already become a part of Filipino cuisine, and in the Philippines, we call it pa-eh-lya not pa-eh-ya.” His easygoing frankness is as refreshing as his signature iced tea.
This new Filipino restaurant in SM Mall of Asia has a cuisine that the chef describes as Hispano-Filipino. There are convolutions derived from Mexico, Spain; two kinds of paella (an atsuete-coated original with seafood, chicken, and sweetish smoked pork jowls, as well as a crowd-pleasing squid-ink with a good layer of crunchy tutong), a chicken covered in molé or a savory chocolate sauce (beautiful with steaming-hot rice). The menu is sprinkled with references to our colonial past, but this restaurant actually signals progress for the writer-turned-chef.
Paella Fiesta Filipina has smoked pork jowls that taste similar to Chinese chorizo.
Mashed eggplant a la ensalada
Tatung, who is set to represent the Philippines at the Madrid Fusion congress in Spain, shares his deeper insight to Filipino cuisine through Agos. When he began cooking, he admits to be a bit of a purist, settling for the accustomed flavors then broadening his repertoire by introducing more underappreciated but still classic regional fare. But now there is broccoli on his dishes: a tiny fresh flower next to melt-in-your-mouth mushroom roast beef, a bright green sprig beside the chocolate-brown chicken. It’s not your typical Filipino ingredient. The Food That We Are host gives a little chuckle when this extra flourish is called out.
“It’s not about purity, but about making sense of what is available to us. This broccoli is already grown in the Philippines,” explains Chef Tatung. “It’s already indigenized.”
This roast beef with mushroom gravy is cooked carefully fo six hours. The sauce itself uses three kinds of mushrooms.
Chicken thighs shine in the Pollo con Salsa Tsokolate.
Tocino Pork Ribs because that sweet meaty flavor transcends breakfast
He talks about traditions and history as we eat. What is pure Filipino food anyway? “All these ingredients that we consider are Filipino, kamoteng kahoy and the like? They all came to us via the Galleon Trade. It’s really about making things our own. We should just do our own thing,” he says.
These portmanteaus show themselves in the Noel Bernardo-designed interiors: turquoise walls and stunning sunburst fixtures create a calming but chic effect while nipa light shades offer a glimpse of the old-school. Something must be said with the way he takes usual Filipino elements and transforms them into cool new ways. The mint-green server uniforms complete with adorable bow ties are the cheery chef’s own design.
Interiors designed by Noel Bernardo
Eat them like tacos: Chicken Sisig Lettuce Wraps
It is hard not to appreciate Chef Tatung’s playfulness, especially when confronted with the Maruyang Mais. Chef Tatung’s version come as large, deep-fried nuggets of sweet corn and roasted peppers topped with roasted garlic aioli and kesong puti. The cheese itself is tinged with all kinds of spices for an excessive burst of flavor that’s perfect against the subtle fritter.
A maruya is old hat but the deviation in starch spells the difference. Chef Tatung has a flair for creating things that are both novel yet wonderfully familiar. You’ll find chicken sisig served in lettuce wraps a la Chinese restaurant; crusty taro strings replacing the fried noodles for that crunchy element (it’s amazing with a light brush of the mango sauce). Tocino moves past breakfast as that recognizably sweet flavor infuses itself onto a rack of pork ribs. Rainbow-colored crepes turn up the appeal of fresh ubod spring rolls.
A flamboyant trio of Lumpiang Sariwa
Chef Tatung's Three-Cheese Bibingka Delight
It is our civil duty to tell you to order the bibingka half an hour ahead. The kitchen makes it fresh and from scratch: the usual rice cake reinvents itself as a sizzling skillet of three cheeses, custard, salted egg, and slivers of coconut—a steamy sweet-and-savory experience. Cubes of nata de coco hide under all that gooeyness for an extra blast of nostalgia.
Yes, influences flow through Agos’ menu, but it’s clear with every bite of the binagoongan pork chops that food is only as authentic as its intentions. And for Chef Tatung, it’s always about commemorating the ingredients, pushing out their potential, and creating things that everyone could enjoy. While "pure" Filipino food, whatever that may be, must be respected, we shouldn't forget the influences that helped built it along the way.
Agos is at G/F North Wing, SM Mall of Asia, Seaside Boulevard, Pasay City.