Champetre's Marc Aubry Proves Filipino Ingredients Can Shine in French Cuisine
After being away from a restaurant kitchen for nearly half a year, veteran chef Marc Aubry is looking trim and refreshed. When they tore down walls, retiled floors, and painted over the sorely missed Champetre's signature marigold, the French chef kept busy as a consultant for Diamond Hotel and with satisfying members of the Manila Golf Club with the grill and bar he owns and operates on its manicured lawn.
Between that and testing recipes for his newest restaurant, the notoriously traditional Aubry seems to have crossed over to modernity as well. "Don't mind me, I'm just catching up with our WhatsApp group," he says, peering at his phone through his reading glasses. Famously resistant when it comes to trends and new technology, this WhatsApp-ing Aubry is a whole new organism. But then, so is Sagana, his new epicerie and bistro.
After a good amount of ribbing ("Yes! Techie!"), Aubry snickers but he admits to appreciating the "new blood" that's being pumped into his restaurant. The youthful vigor is evident event at a glance. Designer Kim Lim's airy and rustic interiors are quite on trend: wooden planks on the walls and floor, white tiles on the counter channeling some third-wave du jour; texture gray banquets contrasting the natural wooden hues. Aubry has finally succumbed to updating the French country style he used to favor.
"I initially wanted it to still look French, but modern, Lim says. "But this really isn't just a French restaurant anymore."
Sagana works with the concept of terroir or "from the soil," supporting local farmers who provide the restaurant with fresh produce. Guests are greeted at the door with organic vegetables from all over the country—strawberries and zucchini from the Cordilleras, coconut from the Quezon province, cherry tomatoes from Baguio. All of these for sale. During these conscious times where sustainability is a word thrown around across various industries, it seems that to keep cooking French food in Manila, going local is the answer.
Fans of Aubry's now defunct French bistros (Je Suis Gourmand and then Champetre) shouldn't fret, however. His classics are still available to those who crave them. His bestselling beef onglet (hanger steak pan-seared in shallot butter) has been flying out of his kitchen since they reopened. The Algerian couscous (a recipe from the chef's childhood and served with lamb chops and sausage) is so good that the sizable serving is easily polished off by solo diners.
While his old favorites stay to appease his patient regulars, a more varied and relatively affordable lunch menu as well as some vegetable-heavy options are attempting to attract those previously left out by Aubry's rich and carnivorous bistro fare. Creamy pastas have always been something the chef does well, and his Roquefort carbonara will have the hardiest purist eventually succumbing to its pungent charms. The organic vegetables that headline Sagana are put to work with a stuffed cabbage main course, filled with herbs, vegetables, and brown rice. He blesses his mushroom ragout salad with bacon to create a light yet indulgent starter, while aromatics conjure flavors in his cressoniere or creamy watercress soup.
Some Champetre favorites failed to make the shortlist, like the seared scallops over mushroom duxelle and beurre blanc sauce. In exchange, Aubry's showing how the the diminutive local scallops, when gratinated and cooked just right in a white wine sauce, delivers just as much pleasure as the old favorite.
"What's that?" we ask, as he brings out a round fried thing over lentils. It's baked jambonneau—cured pork hock breaded then baked until golden, served over stewed beans. Homey and oddly familiar to the Filipino palate, the dish uses the same pork pata Filipinos enjoy deep fried or in humba. It's the same with the stewed rabbit, which has the texture anf chicken, and is slow-cooked in afritada-like tomato sauce. Close your eyes, have a bite, and you might just think you're in your lola's kitchen.
Butter chiffon cake with homemade guava preserve
Sagana, with all its shiny trappings and social relevance, manages to stay true to its French roots by following a simple rule: using quality ingredients to make delicious food. Aubry, the hardy veteran, easily adapts and remains relevant without compromising his strengths. Maybe even more. Dessert, which was a former weakness, has improved vastly. A taste of his butter cake with homemade guava preserve (so fragrant he can use it to perfume their dining room) illustrates how he does listen to criticism and make adjustments—yes, even at his age. With his lunch service packed on a stormy day and weekend dinners full to the rails, Sagana proves that good food will always be on trend.
Sagana Epicerie and Bistro is at G/F Net One Center, 3rd Avenue corner 26th Street, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig.