Ariel Manuel, of Lolo Dad's, returns to show us what we've been missing
The next time you spot Ariel Manuel in a dining room, take a picture.
This almost never happens. I don't remember ever witnessing that in his most celebrated restaurant, at least- the now defunct Lolo Dad's Cafe along Leon Guinto, Manila. The charming establishment—converted from the Ayuyao ancestral home, with its precious nooks and crisp linens—was witness to many budding romances, intimate family celebrations, perhaps the occasional illicit affair. The three to four times I had dinner there, I noted that the low-key chef was not in the habit of mingling with guests. He was always out of sight, unless you are seated with a view of the dispatching window where Chef Ariel would be plating an intricate salad, carefully pushing back an errant scallop into place, or slicing a roasted duck breast diagonally to reveal its bright pink flesh, and then fanning it out over immaculate china.
Angel hair pasta, foie gras, oysters, and cheese
Duck, waffles, and foie gras
Lamb on Lamb with Lamb
No one does crispy duck than Chef Ariel
The day I visited him at his brand new Bistro Manuel, however, he was standing in the middle of the dining room casually chatting up a starry-eyed food editor and a photographer he worked with in the past. When introductions were made, there were no imaginary walls that needed scaling, nor was there an emerging arrogance that is oftentimes expected (although never welcomed) from someone of Ariel's stature. There was only warmth, from both Ariel and his brilliant pastry chef wife, Mia Ayuyao Manuel (she's responsible for all their desserts). He then disappears swiftly into his domain where he will prepare lunch, as Mia briskly takes over the conversation, reassuring us that she will be happy to answer our questions. This, I surmised, is how the Manuels navigate their social obligations.
It was obvious that the self-proclaimed "accidental chef" has found his comfort zone in a humid kitchen. He never studied classical French cooking or any cooking for that matter. His first job was at the Hyatt along Roxas Boulevard where the Midas Hotel now stands. Ariel was a room attendant but once in a while he curiously peeked into the busy kitchen to watch the organized mayhem. He saw them churn out tray after tray of canapés, to which the young, inexperienced Ariel confidently thought to himself, "I can do that better." He managed to get transferred to the hotel's kitchen, and there began a career that had him working in metro Manila's five-star hotels, at a time when hotel restaurants were considered the gold standard. He was part of the opening team of Shangri-La Hotel Makati after crossing Ayala Avenue from The Peninsula.
Although Shangri-La is where the couple met ("Niligawan ko siya [Mia] sa kitchen," a smiling Ariel candidly shared), The Tivoli—where Ariel was sous chef for five years—at the Mandarin Oriental seemed to be a favorite of the two. Aside from being the venue of their wedding reception, they celebrated each anniversary there until the hotel closed to make way for an Ayala development in 2014. The same year, in fact, that the Ayuyao-Manuels' legendary Lolo Dad's Cafe permanently shut off its gas burners after 14 years of searing Ariel's signature foie gras to adorned his dishes.
Currently an experiment, Chef Ariel does his own version of a carbonara. It's cream-based, but with an egg that you mix on your own.
Wild mushrooms are always welcome in any vegetable dish.
Can you figure out all the elements of this flat bread?
A technically perfect souffle with a crumbled cake
Homemade filo pastry sheets with dulce de leche and cream cheese.
Bistro Manuel is not Lolo Dad's, and Mia will be the first person to tell you that. "It is irreplaceable, especially for the regulars," Mia admits. "We had so many marriage proposals there! There can only be one Lolo Dad's." Still, the bistro, along with Taperia Poblacion and The Sippery which the Manuels opened simultaneously ("The building owners gave us a great deal.") actually has much in common with its famous predecessor. It is also slightly off the grid, in an unremarkable building along a side street right by Burgos. Location-wise, it is current and on trend. As for the food, it is—unabashedly, unapologetically—classic Ariel, without the fussy trappings of fine dining.The sake boxes filled with salt, carrying two baked oysters with cream and foie gras over angel hair pasta, was already an indication that this was not the venue where outlandish experiments in flavor will transpire. In fact, quite the opposite. You didn't have to have dined at Lolo Dad's to know that: foie gras, when seared to a proper crisp and paired with sliced duck breast, is textbook decadence; that lightly poached shrimps are sweet like cherries swimming in a light seafood bisque; or how despite the myriad of components found in the Lamb and Lamb with Lamb, it satisfies in that way only a good meat and potatoes dish can.
Ariel Manuel does not do "bold" or "molecular" (the only science-y technique you might find coming out of his kitchen is the dry ice in those familiar brown mini-kettles he uses to serve sorbet). His humility keeps him grounded and reliant on his strengths, which are classic continental dishes done with elegant restraint, using the finest ingredients available. Sometimes he does allow himself some indulgences, such as the Only for the Rich Pizza—hardy flatbread topped with foie gras, scallops, lobster tail, prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella, and arugula—to wow and amaze the jaded. So conservative and self-aware is Ariel that, despite Taperia Poblacion being his second Spanish-inspired release this year (after consulting for Alabang's Un Cuenca), he still refused to call his arroz dishes "paella" because, according to him, that's just his version. Probably too humble to a fault, a tad stubborn perhaps, but he would almost definitely not budge from his comfort zone anytime soon. Do we really want him to? Probably not.
Bistro Manuel, Taperia, and The Sippery are all at 2/F Six Axis Center, 4347 B. Valdez Street, Poblacion, Makati City.