Kartilya: A Traditional Dining Revolution in the Heart of the City
We arrive at Kartilya and find the staff getting ready for dinner service. Over the next half hour, they prepare tables, setting woven placemats on dark, polished wooden tables typical in any traditional Filipino home. A bartender polishes a cocktail shaker and lines colorful bottles of local liquor on a shelf.
Behind a lattice capiz windows is the sound of laughter and conversations about preparations for the night ahead. At one point, someone brings out a huge bowl of sinigang to share, and the staff settles down to eat together. It could have been a scene out of any Filipino family enjoying hapunan.
In the midst of all the activity, Chef Lica Ibarra emerges from the kitchen in a chic denim chef's coat. Strikingly pretty and soft-spoken, she allows us to join her in the kitchen after initial introductions have been made.
She is in full command of that kitchen. She moves seamlessly from station to station, amazingly able to keep tabs on the liempo sizzling on the grill, the preparations for the delicate souffle, and the plating of Pinoy Pintxos we're lined up to try first, as well as reminding everyone to smile for a photograph. The smell of tangy broth, the hiss of the grill as it meets pork fat, and the colors delicately laid out on each plate made it quite a sensorial experience.
It is this scene that stays with us when we sit down with her for a chat. For the uninformed: Chef Lica Ibarra was one of three Filipino contestants in last year's Masterchef Asia. She ultimately placed ninth, and was the last Filipino to leave the show—but left the judges and thousands of viewers with a great impression of Filipino food and flavors.
Upon her return to Manila, Lica returned to her day job until a group of friends asked if she could be the chef for their planned restaurant. The reality show star was on board from the very beginning.
"They said they wanted Filipino food," she shares "But I said we needed to make it traditional and different at the same time." The inspiration comes from personal experience. “I never went to culinary school,” she shares. “I learned to cook when I was eight years old, in my lola’s kitchen. Everyone in my family–my lola, my mom, my titas—they all cook. But I learned the most from my lola, who would cook the traditional way, with a pugon or kaldero over fire or uling. It would take a very long time. So that is what I teach my line cooks here too—to slow down, to let flavors come out because that is what makes Filipino food taste good.”
“Do you think your Masterchef experience had influenced the food here in any way?’ we ask between hearty slurps of kansi. “Yes!” Lica replies excitedly, “Especially when it comes to plating. Everything here is big—meant for sharing—but I insisted that all dishes still come out looking good.” All your orders at Kartilya are garnished with red amaranth or basil microgreens—adding a nice touch of color to whatever is placed before you.
Taking Western techniques juxtaposed with traditional Filipino flavors, the kitchen manages to create a menu full of unique dishes that you won't find elsewhere. Guided by the philosophy of the shared Filipino family meal, the biggest challenge during is in exercising self-restraint and trying not to overeat.
Such is the inspiration in the name. Kartilya is the bible of the Katipunan. In historical discourse any mention of the Katipunan implies a sense of pride of place, nationalism, and even a little rebellion.
The homemade Tostadas, or sisig, pulled pork adobo, and beef kaldereta, come out first, delicately plated tostadas that are far from your typical grocery-store-variety tortillas. They are homemade and the difference is obvious in the shattering of the chip between our teeth.
Liempo Queso Fundido
The pork belly is also quite as unconventional: chopped up and swimming in a cast-iron skillet full of cheese. This is Kartilya's Liempo Queso Fundido, grilled liempo served with a three-cheese mornay sauce. It's a great alternative to all the raclette pop-ups around the Metro. The creamy, rich cheese works strangely well with the juicy, tangy pork. Ask the chef to grill the fat until it's crispy. The results are akin to chicharon in cheese—something we apparently need more of.
When asked what her favorite dish at Kartilya is, Lica is quick to say, "I like them all...but the Corned Beef Kansi is very special to me." She had kansi for the very first time during a trip to Bacolod and fell in love with it. Determined to recreate it herself, she practiced the recipe until her Negrense friends were convinced that they were tasting home. "It's like a combination of sinigang and bulalo." she adds with a smile.
The aroma of lemongrass and galangal fills the air the minute it leaves the kitchen. At first sip, the kansi broth is sour, like a Filipino tom yung goong. The corned beef is so tender that it falls apart when you run your fork through it. Just before we're about to mop up the last drop of the broth, Lica says, "The soup is unlimited, by the way." What a mind reader.
The most indulgent dish on the menu—although rightly so given how premium the ingredients are—is the Rib Eye Steak Tagalog, made with U.S. rib eye, caramelized onions, butter, french beans, and carrots. The steak itself is perfectly done at medium rare, with the classic calamansi-soy sourness oozing out with each bite. A popular alternative lunch option would be the Cho-Tap-Ci Bowl: chorizo, beef tapa, and tocino on rice served with a sous vide egg. Protein that packs a punch. Match it with the Aligue Rice, which, if your EQ permits, you should let linger for a little while. The flavors develop further.
Corned Beef Kansi
When we think it is impossible to eat any more food, rich, sweet smells start wafting our way from the kitchen. Suddenly hunger returns and mouths water at the idea of having dessert next. An anecdote about their Panghimagas selection is another clear example of their unique approach to Filipino food.
The partners first requested to have turon on the menu, but Lica insisted that they mix it up. “Turon is P15 on the streets, and if anyone has perfected that recipe, it’s street vendors. It would make little sense for customers to come here for something like turon.” Instead, she came up with Kartilya Pop Tarts: homemade Pop Tarts stuffed with banana saba preserve and topped with vanilla frosting. It is an innovative dish that marries that innate Filipino love for turon with a childhood favorite.
The carioca, sweet rice flour balls stuffed with white chocolate and with a latik dipping sauce, holds significance to the chef. “This is something I grew up eating as a kid,” she shares. “The carioca balls sold as street food are fried and covered in sugar, but we did something different by making a sugar syrup sauce.” The sweet coconut-y latik melds well with the warm burst of white chocolate.
Finally the pièce d’ resistance emerges from the kitchen: the Queso de Bola Bibingka Soufflé. This was Chef Lica’s audition piece to Masterchef Asia, and the one that sold the judges on her ability to cook. It's a no-brainer that it's the restaurant's signature dessert. It is delicate and fluffy, stuffed with actual salted egg and local edam, best eaten when smothered in the Crème Anglaise sauce.
Tito and Juana
Nightcaps are in order with cocktails designed by Proudly Promdi. All the liquor on Kartilya's shelves are locally sourced. The Tito is their take on the whiskey sour, using local bourbon with the same tart-yet-sweet taste of the classic Western equivalent. The must-try, however, is the Juana—a local version of sangria made with bignay wine. It is easy to polish off a glass; fruity and only subtly alcoholic, it is the sort of drink that you could enjoy by the carafe-ful. Kartilya is currently trying to engage a bigger drinking crowd. They even threw a Jura whiskey all-you-can party last Friday.
It could be said that Kartilya is the perfect spot for the modern-day Katipunero. Weary soldiering souls from work, school, or life can seek refuge here to have spirits replenished by great food, regain the energy to fight new battles and be reminded that there is so much to be proud of when it comes to Filipino cuisine. Just as Rizal's Crisostomo/Simoun incited a revolt in El Filibusterismo, it may be worth heading "home" to the dining revolution at Chef Lica Ibarra's Kartilya.
Kartilya is at Two Parkade, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City; opens at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. and until 2 a.m. Friday to Sunday.