When traveling to the north, making a stopover in Pampanga is always a sensible decision. And why not? Kapampangans are really known for their rich food tradition. But eating takes on a deeper, and should I say cultural, meaning when you make a stop at Bale Dutung. Tucked in a residential village, the place looks more like a house than a restaurant which it actually is, being the abode of chef/cook/artist Claude Tayag and his wife, Maryanne. That said, the treatment we got was more akin to dining in a friend’s house.
The fare is, however, nothing like what is ordinarily served at home nor an ordinary hotel for that matter, not unless your home is one where international culinary celebrity, Anthony Bourdain, made a stop to dig deeper into the Filipino culinary pot for his show, No Reservations.
While Claude attends to the cooking duties, Maryanne ministers to guests and acquaints us with stories, trivia (like how to tell pure bottled aligue from a diluted one) as well as the nuances of each item in our 10-course meal. The 10 courses are meant to stimulate and not to leave any of the taste buds wanting – something we will discover soon enough.
A COLD AND SOUR START. Since we were two hours late for lunch, we were first served crackers with four kinds of dips including balo balo (fermented rice) and two kinds of aligue (crab fat). To assuage our hunger pangs, the Thai-inspired Cold Sotanghon (Vermicelli) was a welcome opener. The Pako (Fiddlehead Fern) Salad followed soon after, a refreshing appetizer and a rather interesting twist in serving Pako. The liberal use of Balsamic vinegar makes it like the atchara, a sour treat meant to tickle and whet the appétite.
The Pinoy Lumpiang Ubod came next, a crispy spring roll served Vietnamese Style with a slightly-sweet, slightly-spicy Oriental sauce. By this time, the fare is getting heavier with Bacolod Chicken Inasal (Chicken grilled and brushed with Annato seed oil) which was flavorful even without the benefit of the usual soy-vinegar sauce. Served with a small portion of Talangka (crablet) rice, we thought were already getting half-full at this point.
A REPRIEVE. We got a slight break from heavy fare when the Kapampangan Sushi was served, thimble-sized treats made with flilleted hito (catfish) fried crisp and laced with Balo Balo (fermented rice), then rolled in seaweed wrapper. It’s a fine introduction to the sour-savory taste of the fermented rice as it was a sampling small enough to offer a taste but not too much as to turn off the squeamish foodie (it’s not called “sukang pusa” or cat’s vomit for nothing).
UPPING THE FLAVORS A NOTCH. The flavors intensify from hereon starting with the un-repentantly salty Adobong Pugo (Quail cooked in oil and soy sauce) served with a delicious piece of soft bread and a siding of liver sauce to temper the saltiness.
Lechon is always roasted suckling pig skewered on a bamboo pole, right? Not quite as Claude serves us his Mexican-style Fried Lechon. You take a warm tortilla wrapper, grab a little bit of crispy lechon flakes, sprinkle some diced tomatoes and onions, and if you want, dress it up with chilli and Oriental sauces.
What follows next is one that resonated most with the group’s collective tummies – Bale Dutung’s Bulanglang. More popularly known as bayabaise, it’s Claude’s take on bouiilabaise. You choose what goes into the soup – pork, Bangus (milkfish) belly, okra, tomatoes, large peppers – and mix it with ulang (prawn) and mix in the rice cooked in banana leaf. The use of bayabas (guava) as a souring ingredient makes the soup sour in a very fruity way, with a nice thick body and just a slightly tart, pleasant taste.
SAVING THE PAELLA FOR LAST. At this point, some of us were already really full as we’ve partaken of food meant to be eaten in 4 hours in less than half that time. Maryanne wasn’t kidding when she told us beforehand that some guests linger up to 5-6 hours to eat and digest their lunch. I myself am nearing satiety that I can hardly recall how the Binagoongan Sisig (Crispy, deep-fried Pig Cheekbone cooked in Shrimp Paste) tasted like because I had to leave some room for the Paella Ilocana. It’s Claude’s version of the traditional paella liberally topped with Vigan longganisa and bagnet (Deep-fried Pork). It’s an interesting interplay of textures and flavors really, with the intense garlicky flavor of the longganisa and the crunch of the bagnet. I wished I could have more but there’s still dessert ahead.
A SWEET CONCLUSION. With all that food, it’s imperative to have something to wash away all those rich flavors. We were served not one but two desserts – the Tibok Tibok, a creamy kakanin (local delicacy) made from carabao milk and Claude’s take on Crème Brulee, a rich compendium of creamy milk and halaya balls.
PINOY NA PINOY TOUCHES. Bale Dutung is unabashedly Pinoy, a refreshing take on enjoying Filipino cuisine with a refined twist. The house is made of wood (hence the name Bale Dutung which means wooden house in Kapampangan) and the open air architecture mean dining is al fresco; should the weather turn hot and humid, a roll of frozen face towel is a welcome alternative to air conditioning. For starters, dips made from balo balo (fermented rice) and aligue are served instead of pate. I saw two duyans (native hammocks) at the entrance and given more time, I could have put them to good use with a siesta post-lunch. There were big parols (Christmas lanterns) all around that lend a holiday atmosphere no matter if it was already January.
NEVER A BLAND MOMENT. Dining here at Bale Dutung is equal parts eating and digesting Pinoy food culture. Maryanne says that when the Pinoy takes his family and friends to dine out, he/she will most likely choose Italian, Chinese or some other cuisine as Filipino food is oftentimes deemed worthy of being eaten only at home. But with the Pinoy fare being served at Bale Dutung, this situation just might change.
Dining at Bale Dutung is by appointment only as the place is not open daily, one of the many luxuries that a reluctant restaurateur and full-time artist like Claude enjoys. Minimum pax requirement is 12. For details/reservation, call 64-45 8885163 or email [email protected]