This Four-Hands Dinner Marries Culinary Innovations From Japan and The Philippines
The speakers blared 90s hip hop, but despite the flurry of activity that afternoon in popular BGC eatery Hey Handsome, it was the only sound reverberating in the dining room. The staff was covering the granite table tops with ironed white linen and then topping that with heavy tempered glass. Behind the counter, bowls in various makes and sizes are inspected and laid out and wine glasses are polished. It’s like watching the orchestra pluck, tweak, and tune their instruments before a performance, but with the volume in mute.
The one-night-only collaboration between chef Nicco Santos (Hey Handsome, Any Any, Your Local) and Tokyo food scene’s It Boy Yusuki Namai is arguably this year’s most anticipated event. Namai’s Restaurant Ode is barely a year old yet it has captured the attention of the Asian food capital. His refreshing interpretation of French cuisine is coupled with a seemingly unshakable reverence for Japanese ingredients which makes his style and brand truly his own. Namai is synonymous with his brand- quiet, reserved, thoughtful, and deliberate.
Santos, with his brash and unapologetic layers of southeast Asian flavors, seems like the unlikely candidate for a collaboration. “I honesty don’t know why he picked me,” Santos muses. When Restaurant Ode’s Japanese PR Eisei Saito approached industry insider Angelo Comsti, he gave a handful of recommendations. While one or two seemed a more obvious fit, the Japanese rising star picked Santos. We, too, wonder why. “He (Santos) works with ingredients I’m not so familiar with,” Namai says in his charming English. “That’s exciting.”
Namai adds that Santos is flexible and “open-minded,” something the Filipino chef demonstrated in their first collaboration in Tokyo. For the dinner at Ode, Santos opted to use superior Japanese ingredients aided simply with a few choice Filipino flavors. Santol, for instance, is normally contraband in Japan. “But it was just the fermented rind that we used,” Santos shares. “So, good thing they allowed it.”
For their collaboration dinner in Manila, Santos insisted that Namai serve his signature dishes. “I want the local diners to experience his food the way he would prepare it in Ode,” Santos explains. “Kakaiba kasi talaga.” The meal is opened with the dragon ball, a truffle-like bite of molten lobster bisque that is an explosion of seafood in the mouth. A shot of blood orange Cointreau rounds up the classic French pairing of lobster and the fragrant citrus.
Namai’s signature “Grey” dish–pickled sanma fillets, beef tartare, and shards of ash-colored merengue made of fish bones and innards. Namai insisted on using local ingredients and sourced Bukidnon Wagyu tenderloin from Kitayama Meat Shop for the tartare. While visually a singular experience, the flavors of pickled fish and onions are comfortingly familiar.
Santos delivers a similar fish dish and admits he adjusted his style to make the meal more “seamless.” His hamachi tartare is delicately-smoked and layered over creamy avocado and laced with sili labuyo oil for a bit of kick. However, Santos allows his strengths to shine through with his duck breast dish and it’s layers of sweet tamarind, fragrant kafir, and delicate jus. “This is what I know,” Santos casually admits.
As for Namai, it’s difficult to tell where the French cooking ends and the Japanese influence begins. A sign, perhaps, of successful execution. His scallop gnocchi, for instance, is delicate dumpling mixed with water chestnuts for textural contrast. The delicate sauce is actually made with “lots of butter,” an indulgence typical of French cuisine. Black seaweed swims in the creamy sauce if only to remind the diner of its true provenance.
The most interesting dish has to be the one the two chefs truly collaborated on—braised pork rib topped with nori-seasoned chicharon. While most of the dish was prepared by Santos and his team, Namai brushed it with his version of a barbecue sauce- simply miso, yuzu, and moderately hot Japanese peppers. The sweet and tangy from the fruit is just the right balance with the buttery miso, another delicate play on flavors that, quoting Santos’s description of Namai’s style, “never over promises.”
They close the meal with Namai’s interpretation of a Filipino dessert using pandan-flavored agar-agar and a light caramel sauce. His petit fours are flavored with exotic yet emblematic southeast Asian flavors such as durian and kaffir. Our meal ends as the preparation for the real dinner begins. There is neither applause from an impressed crowd nor self-indulgent speech from the stars of the evening. Between Santos and Namai, there is only quiet admiration and respect. The food is the symphony.