These Millennial Chefs Break Filipino Tradition at This QC Restaurant
“It’s Filipino,” replies chef Thirdy Dolatre, when asked to describe the concept of Hapag. It doesn’t claim to be modern. It doesn’t promise classics with twists. It doesn’t even aim to redefine anything. It’s simply, humbly, proudly Filipino.
Yet the restaurant is void of typical Filipino restaurant elements—the usual solihiya woven furniture, capiz windows, framed family photos, banana leaves, and sizzling plates. No, these are nowhere to be found. There isn’t even adobo on the menu, save for the adobo aioli that makes a minuscule appearance in an appetizer. There is plentiful use of wood—from tables and chargers to serving vessels—but they’re done tastefully and with adherence to the intimate setting.
The walls are bare. The open kitchen is minimal. The restaurant itself, a mere concrete box, is hidden behind a bula-lugawan on one of Quezon City’s busier avenues.
The walls are bare. The open kitchen is minimal. The restaurant itself, a mere concrete box, is hidden behind a bula-lugawan on one of Quezon City’s busier avenues. But there is an indubitable excitement in the air; there is an energy that draws guests to enter, to inquire, to linger, to celebrate.
This is Filipino for a band of brothers who first met as grade-schoolers. They eventually went to culinary school but went separate ways.
This is Filipino for a band of brothers who first met as grade-schoolers. They eventually went to culinary school but went separate ways. Thirdy went on to master French cuisine and classic techniques. Kevin Paolo Villarica, who also happens to be a jewelry designer, worked at an Indian restaurant in Singapore, while John Kevin Navoa, or Nav, harnessed his kitchen skills in Malaysia. Thirdy, incessantly jotting down inspirations and concepts in a journal, brought up the idea to start offering private dining in Manila. Soon, they got back together and serviced homes all around the metro. Hapag was a lucrative enterprise, but the challenge of not having their own commissary or central kitchen eventually surfaced. And so, with help from a couple of other friends and two years of experience serving discerning appetites, the group opened Hapag’s brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Their familiarity with each other’s skills works to Hapag’s avantage. “At first we didn’t know how we’d collaborate,” admits Kevin, “but it turned out well.” The trio of chef-owners is slow to claim ownership of any dish on the menu. “If someone thinks of an idea, we try it out and everyone helps to make it better,” says Nav. Just like in the sinuglaw that Thirdy suggested and Nav executed: The product is a refreshing starter of delicate fish and grilled pork tossed in a zesty dressing of sukang tuba, coconut milk, and fermented mangoes.
Pan de Kalinga
Kwek-kwek na hipon
This brand of Filipino—that is ingenious, colorful, and lively—is a product of their youth. Pares is made with oxtail and served on top of toast. Kwek-kwek is wrapped in ground shrimp and fried just enough to keep the yolks gooey. The Apahap Mayonesa, which comes with both beetroot and calamansi-malunggay aioli, is plated to mimic a vivid masterpiece, so is the dessert of mangga’t suman, which features shards of meringue hiding a luscious Guimaras mango semifreddo.
The playfulness goes both ways, as Hapag prefers its diners interact with its food, too. Such is the case with the Laing Stones. The dish arrives in a palayok filled with stones, twigs, greens, and flora. Some of the stones are squid ink balls that are filled with laing. The idea is to eat each ball together with the other trimmings—orange and purple cosmos, purslane, or fennel fronds—to create varying flavor profiles.
Kare-kare ni Lola V
But the team, composed of millennials as they are, is not to be misjudged for going over the top. On the contrary, it seems to have mastered restraint in creating its dishes. The Pan de Kalinga, which greets guests upon arrival, is a sourdough variant fermented with local mangoes for seven days. It’s studded with black rice from Kalinga and served with butter from Bukidnon and tanglad honey from Palawan. The team doesn’t just settle for what is trendy or novel. It pursues what is storied.
The magnificent Oyster Bonete is borne out of Kevin’s affinity with the classic panaderya bread since childhood. The team made its own buttery version and Thirdy stuffed it with crispy kangkong, torched fresh Aklan oyster, and a sweetish mulberry reduction. The Kare-kare ni Lola V, too, promises much authenticity as it makes use of the recipe of Kevin’s grandmother. “I dry the oxtail flakes and already sauté it in bagoong,” says Kevin. “I serve it deconstructed with the peanut sauce, fried vegetables, smoked eggplant puree, and bagoong rice.”
It’s a challenge to limit into words this brand of Filipino. But Hapag does so in such a thoughtful manner via its food preparation, menu construction, and even service. It’s undoubtedly creative; there is a flowing narrative here. It’s undoubtedly heartfelt; there is a concern for others—evidenced in the pricing of dishes and in the attention to service carried out by the chef-owners themselves. It’s undoubtedly impressive; there is a yearning to keep coming back for more.
Photography by Jonathan Baldonado