If you've always wanted to try Filipino cuisine, but never had the chance, LaMesa has made it easy for you. This family-owned business has uprooted from Dee Why and relocated to Chinatown, taking over the first floor space next door to Mamak.
Filipino cuisine has yet to reach mainstream popularity, but if there's one foodstuff they've conquered like no other, it's crackling. Yep, that got your attention. The pinnacle of supreme pork skin comes in the form of lechon roast pork, and crispy pata, a pork hock that's boiled and then deep-fried until the entire surface blisters to a pork crackling bonanza.
But first, entrees. The okoy is our pick of the bunch, crisp fritters of sweet potato strips studded with carrot, pumpkin and plump baby prawns. They're delicate and full of crunch, and refreshed by a dip in the accompanying chilli vinegar sauce.
Embotido sounded more interesting on the menu, we confess, but we plough into the traditional steamed pork meatloaf with enthusiasm regardless. The 'sweet tomato sauce' on the side tastes more like sweet and sour.
LaMesa dining room
It's heartwarming to see the dining room filled with Filipino locals too. Word is that dinners have become so popular (LaMesa is still in its first month of operation) that bookings are now strongly recommended unless you want to risk disappointment. There are two flights of stairs to climb from the street, but the newly furnished dining room - resplendent in dark timbers, artefacts and artworks - is a world away from the city streets. Two large TV screens don't really seem necessary but presumably they provide a handy distraction for kids.
Staff are friendly if a little distracted, and we had to go through our entire order again when his touchpad device failed. Our double order of okoy also came out as two deliveries, five minutes apart.
But these are hopefully just opening hiccups, easily forgotten with a slurp of young coconut juice or the lesser seen calamansi juice, a beloved citrus fruit that looks like a miniature round lime. The juice isn't as sour, and tastes more like a marriage between tangerine and lime.
Kare-kare arrives in a miniature black cauldron, a rich curry of oxtail in a thick peanut sauce. Chunks of pumpkin, eggplant and bright green beans help lighten the dish although there's not a strong presence of the promised bagoong, a Filipino shrimp paste. This is a dish that's made for winter, and the sauce needs to be sopped up with rice.
and large garlic rice $14
The pinakbet isn't as feisty as I'd expected, either, the bagoong shrimp paste quite mild in this northern Philippines dish of eggplant, snake beans, pumpkin and pork. Slices of bitter melon are cooked until just tender, adding a pleasing bitterness to the dish.
Ginisang Ampalaya $14
The menu is split up by different proteins, but it's the section titled "Not for the faint-hearted" that catches our eye. There are three temptations for the adventurous gastronome and we have no hesitation in ordering one of each. Please.
The ginisang ampalaya isn't half as terrifying as you might think, unless of course you're averse to the pleasures of bitter melon. Here it's sauteed with minced pork and strewn with egg.
The dinuguan is more my style, a dark and ominous stew of pork neck cooked with pig blood and garlic in a broth of vinegar. It's a dish I keep coming back to, intrigued by the flavour contrast and textures of pork, blood and vinegar, especially the wobbling cubes of pork blood jelly. It works well on so many levels, the heaviness of the pork matched with the metallic echo of blood and the pairing cut through by the zing of vinegar and sprinkling of shallots.
Sizzling sisig $19
And then there's my favourite sizzling sisig, a hotplate of fun with meticulously chopped pieces of pigs head and liver dancing on blistering cast iron.
Mixing the egg yolk into the sizzling sisig
The raw egg yolk on top needs to be tossed through the pork mixture immediately, so it cooks and adds a rich sheen. It's a triumph of offal, where one can be reminded of how good a spiced pigs head can really be.
Adobo chicken $16
There are ten of us dining tonight, so we make some headway into the menu although with 59 dishes on offer, there are still plenty that go begging. We prioritise an order of adobo chicken, often said to be the Philippines national dish.
Priced at $16, the dish is a little smaller than we'd expect, but there's a balance of sweetness and vinegar in the tender chicken pieces, simmered in soy sauce, garlic, black pepper and sugar cane vinegar.
Lechong kawali $16
All eyes zoom in on the lechong kawali when it arrives, a heavenly vision of fat-ribboned pork belly crowned with golden crackling. The pork is tender and succulent, the crackling is crunchy, and the accompanying mang tomas adds a meaty saltiness. Mang tomas is often served with lechon, a thick sauce made from sugar, vinegar, liver and spices.
Sweet tooths will do well to order a serve of tocino, thin slices of sweetened pork that remind me of char siu Chinese roast pork and bak kwa, Malaysian pork jerky. The pork has a caramelly sweetness, a little burnt at the edges in the best way possible, and served with a saucer of chilli-spiced vinegar to counter the sugary excess.
Crispy pata $20
And then there's the crispy pata - guaranteed to stop all table conversation. Even mouse scrolling. Ha.
Crispy pata crackling
Take one pork trotter, boil under tender and then deep fry that baby until all the skin around it puffs into one helluva party of crackling. This is the ratio of meat-to-pork-crackling you've been looking for all your life.
Shreds of juicy, big fat shards of crunchy crackling and a dipping pot of chilli soy vinegar will make your heart sing.
Mirrors on the ceiling
Leche flan $5
Take a breath and plow straight onto desserts. The leche flan is thick and eggy, not as light and delicate as its French creme caramel counterpart, but I quite enjoy this heavier version which we suspect is made with condensed milk.
Turon are dessert spring rolls, the thin layers of deep-fried pastry hiding a surprise of sweet ladyfinger bananas and jackfruit.
Cassava cake $4.50
Cassava cake is another favourite I can't help coming back to - a square of sticky chewy pudding made from grated cassava and coconut milk, baked until the top is blistered and golden.
We finish with another Filipino classic, halo-halo which is Tagalog for mix-mix. It's related to Malaysian ice kacang and Indonesian es campur, but here the combination of mixed tropical fruits and jellies is topped with shaved ice, evaporated milk, ice cream and yes, your eyes don't deceive you, a slice of leche flan on top.
It's not the easiest dessert to eat, digging down through the ice in a tall parfait glass, but that's half the fun, just like all good food should be.
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Level 1, 19 Goulburn Street, Haymarket, Chinatown, Sydney
Tel 1300 880 835
Sunday to Wednesday 5pm-10pm
Thursday to Saturday 5pm-11pm
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6/03/2013 12:05:00 am