Friday, November 8, 2013

La Mesa: A first taste of the Philippines

With limited knowledge and experience in Philippine cuisine, it was with excitement that I gathered a group for dinner at La Mesa; a several-months-old, casual Filipino restaurant a few doors down from ever-popular, queue-covered Mamak in Haymarket.

Lumpiang Shanghai from La Mesa, Goulburn Street, Haymarket
I had previously sampled a few select Filipino desserts, but that was about the extent of my acquaintance with the cuisine. It's one of those mixing pot food cultures, taking influence from Malaysian and Chinese food, and also Spanish and American – the latter two post periods of colonisation.

The Chinese influence was obvious in our entrée of lumpiang Shanghai: deep-fried spring rolls filled with unidentified minced meat and an array of vegetables, and served with sweet chilli sauce.

While the shape and condiment were both familiar, there was an unexpected flavour profile or seasoning to the lumpiang that made it distinct from Chinese or Vietnamese spring rolls.

Kare Kare
The huge pot of kare kare was the first main to arrive, striking some fear that all dishes would be this big. The dish comprised sections of oxtail – a great, meaty cut with bone and cartilage – with chunks of pumpkin and eggplant, and snake beans.

The vividly coloured peanut sauce had me thinking curry, although it wasn't spiced and despite looks, it was a little bland. One of the restaurant's most popular dishes, the kare kare was served with bagoong Filipino shrimp paste which added flavour by way of a fishy oomph.

Adobo Chicken
I've heard of adobo as being a classic Filipino dish, but I never actually knew what it was. We ordered the chicken version, which were thighs served on the bone.

The chicken was marinated and cooked in sugar cane vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and black pepper which then formed a thin sauce. With steamed rice, the adobo chicken was a homely-tasting comfort dish that I wouldn't mind attempting to make at home.

Daing na Bangus
At this point, I should mention that La Mesa's menu is absolutely enormous with the seafood section particularly large.

We ended up choosing the previously unheard of milkfish in Daing na Bangus; two serves for a total of four deboned, deep fried milkfish. The small fish themselves were marinated in vinegar and garlic, although most flavour came from the deliciously refreshing hot chilli and vinegar sauce on the side.

Crispy pata
We knew we had to get one of the signature pork dishes and it was very hard to go past the idea of a "deep fried pork leg with crispy skin". The crispy pata was as good as it sounded, if not better.

A platter of pork – bone, meat and deep-fried, crispy skin – had me salivating on sight. The meat was impressively moist and tender despite the deep fry treatment.

The crisp, cracking skin was undoubtedly the highlight of the crispy pata – some of the best pork skin I've ever eaten, with the layer of fat normally beneath the skin completely rendered. The dipping sauce of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and onion was barely necessary as the pork was so darn good on its own.

We sought meat relief with pinkabet from the vegetable selection. The dish was flavoured with the bagoong shrimp paste and garlic, and actually came with large hunks of softly-cooked pork.

Not so great for any vegetarians (the restaurant recognises and highlights the lack of pure vegetarian options), the vegetables included a pretty medley of eggplant, snake beans, pumpkin, bitter melon, onions and tomatoes in the fishy sauce.

Leche flan
It seems there are plenty of Philippine desserts, and we had room to share a few. Leche flan is the first thing I think of when talking Philippine cuisine so it was a must to try La Mesa's version of the egg custard pudding.

Flavoured with vanilla and topped with lashings of caramel sauce and a wafer stick, the leche flan was unbelievably rich and thick in texture – no wobble – like softened butter or a really heavy pate. I could only bear a couple of teaspoons of this leche flan before conceding defeat and moving on to the next dessert.

Ube yam
The fantastic purple hue of the ube yam dessert was striking, served alongside white strips of jelly-like coconut. The scoop of ube – sweetened, baked and mashed yam – was a little grainy and thick with a texture not all palates will like.

Cassava cake
My unexpected favourite dessert of the evening was the baked cassava cake – itself a yellow, starchy and not-too-sweet pudding. The square of cake arrived smothered in sweetened milk, which was then baked or grilled to look like certain supermarket cheeses when they're grilled.

Not cheese, the thick, sweetened milk provided all the saccharine kick to the cake, which was thankfully served as a small, rich portion.

Having sampled the hits of Philippine cuisine, I'm looking forward to sampling more of the La Mesa menu, especially some of the more exotic-sounding dishes. As my first taste of the Philippines, La Mesa has got me wanting more.

La Mesa on Urbanspoon


gaby @ lateraleating said...

I haven't tried Filipino food either. Although it's similar in some ways to Peruvian cuisine, it's not quite the same, so I'm very keen on giving it a shot, specially after seeing that photo of the crispy pata.

Ramen Raff said...

You cannot go wrong with their crispy pata. Best one I've had in Sydney. The kare kare is normally made to be a bit bland to give way for the shrimp paste to do its magic. Love this place and nice review Tina :)

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I've been to La Mesa in Dee Why but this is much closer to get to! :D

Sherrie Huang said...

The crispy pork! Who can say no to crispy pork!

Tina @ bitemeshowme said...

I haven't had filo food and I've been wanting to for ages. Raff has raved on plenty about it! Oh man...

Helen (Grab Your Fork) said...

Um crispy pata. HELLO! And their cassava cake was my favourite dessert too.

Tina said...

Hi gaby - Yes, lots of varied influences which makes it very interesting..!

Hi Raff - Thanks! I'm not a huge shrimp paste fan, but I did like the kare kare (love ox tail). Crispy pata is amazing!!!

Hi Lorraine - I believe this is the same one - they've moved, I think.

Hi Sherrie - Definitely not me!But the fact that it wasn't dry at all - so good!

Hi Tina - Yeah, it's new to me; so much more I'd want to try!

Hi Helen - Yup, AMAZING.

Ross said...

Thanking you for sharing a great dessert.


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