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The housewarming that wasn't

Updated: Mar 27

Mae West once said, “I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.” And that is certainly the reason that I jumped at a chance to attend a friend’s recent housewarming in the Philippines. That, and the fact that I haven’t traveled since my chasing the Taal Volcano trip in January 2020. I didn’t need convincing and barely needed to know when – I just needed to know, you know, when (I mean the dates on a calendar) and where.

It turns out, paying a bit more attention to when the when was might have given me more pause than it did (which was none). Let’s begin a bit more from the beginning.

I had jumped through every Covid-travel hoop to get to my flight from Guam to Manila, with an intermediate stop in Palau. I was pleased to be upgraded to business class, but before I boarded was moved to a different seat to accommodate the President of the Republic of Palau. I’ve been bumped, moved, etc. for all kinds of government officials before, but this was the first sitting President for me. Still, the leg from Guam to Palau was uneventful – as was the longer-than-expected layover. While we were waiting for some ETOPS-related documents the flight attendant handed out Philippine government immigration and customs documents. But I had forgotten to bring a single pen with me. Fortunately, I had been restored to my original seat and noticed that the President had thoughtfully left a pen for me to use. Unfortunately, the pen leaked profusely and by the time I landed in Manila, I looked like I had lost a fight with a squid.

But, who cared, I was in the Philippines, had been found by a cab hawker so I could overpay for a ride in lieu of waiting in one of the long taxi queues, and was racing towards my hotel at record-breaking speed. The first hint that I might have arrived on a less than perfect weekend was that the major intersection of Ayala and Makati Avenues was cordoned off to make room for a huge stage. It turns out it was for a full weekend of political rallies, concerts, and general political slogan chanting. I had arrived on the weekend preceding the presidential election. And this, it turns out, meant that finding a taxi to move about the city or seat at a restaurant was going to be a challenge, and movement away from the area around my hotel was going to be nearly impossible.

My first full day, Saturday, was greeted with a constant stream of crowds wearing pink, carrying signs and banners, and generally having a good time traversing the city towards the previously described political crossroad, so to speak. I caught up with my buddy and his family at the Filling Station Bar Café (5012 P. Burgos Street, Poblacion, Makati), which was only a few blocks from my hotel. Filling Station is an old standby that has expanded significantly over the years and is copiously adorned with typical nostalgic cafe decor, including several circa 50s cars. But what it perennially lacks is decent service. There are lots of staff members who seem to doddle about with little focus. This is a place that can do with some serious Lin-Kernighan treatment… or training. My breakfast came out forty-five minutes after it was ordered. But once you flag down someone who appears interested in helping, you’ll find a great selection of tasty dishes. I’m particular to the four-cheese pizza (love the blue cheese), garlic shrimp Diablo, chorizo pasta, and beef steak Filipino. Still, weird food delivery times aside, catching up with old friends, and a goddaughter I haven’t seen in four years, was an excellent way to start my visit.

While my Buddy went to get his family into the swimming pool, I headed back to my hotel to plan a couple of things for the day. First, of course, was to plan lunch. I was crushed to learn that Le Souffle Restaurant had shuttered permanently since I had more than one Covid lockdown dream of their foie gras salad. But the internet wasn’t going to leave me hanging, as it pointed to a restaurant called Le Petit Souffle (Third Floor, Century City Mall, Kalayaan Avenue, Poblacion, Makati), which I was hoping was an abridged version of the non-petit version. I then walked to Marketplace by Rustan’s at Century City Mall to buy a bottle of something nice for the housewarming and did a little window shopping before heading to the third level for lunch. Le Petite Souffle is welcoming with its un mall-like design and airy feel. But they were out of foie gras so I couldn’t try their specialty mac and cheese. I opted for a French onion soup, the “Just Mac and Cheese” and a vanilla bean soufflé. As it turned out, it was a bit more like mall French food than I had hoped - so mediocre food in a nice venue.

As the afternoon wore on my Buddy informed me his contractor was behind on punch list work and furniture was still being delivered so the housewarming wasn’t going to happen this trip. Instead, he, his daughter and I headed into Poblacion for dinner. Poblacion is an interesting neighborhood that has seen extraordinary changes over the past decade. What was once one of the seedier parts of Makati has gentrified into a neighborhood of luxury apartments and condominiums, hotels, and restaurants. But I was concerned that some of the smaller restaurants, run by smart, aspiring chefs, might not have survived two years without economic activity. It turns out they not only survived but by moving across Kalayaan Avenue, deeper into the residential neighborhood, they developed a destination brimming with restaurants and bars for the young and hip, as well as the occasional middle-aged traveler. Dinner at the Japanese restaurant, EB10 (Don Pedro, Makati), which had moved from Felipe, was fantastic. We ate all the expected fare, Tempura, Maki, chicken Karaage – you know the drill – but the showstopper was the spicy oysters. The oysters take a bit of time to prepare, but we were there a couple of hours, so we had enough time to order several rounds. I could easily have eaten every meal of the trip here.

Sunday morning started a bit late since I experienced a bit of enthusiastic drinking after dinner the night before. Therefore, breakfast consisted of the complimentary coffee and teas stocked in my room. But lunch was never far from my thoughts, so I ferreted around the internet and learned that Le Souffle had simply rebranded as Chef Jesse’s Rockwell Club (Ground Level Amorsolo Square, Amorsolo Drive, Rockwell Center, Makati). Now arriving on the weekend preceding the presidential election posed its share of issues but showing up at Chef Jesse’s without a reservation on Mother’s Day (I didn’t even know it was this month) was foolhardy at best. Consequently, I counted myself lucky when offered a seat at the rarely used bar. I had been waiting for two travel-restricted years to enjoy an order of beef carpaccio and a double pan-seared goose liver salad with raspberry vinaigrette. It felt like crossing the finish line of an endurance race.

But – and I have to start so many travel experiences this way – Le Mans victory aside, my double Ballentine’s request was rejected because of Sunday anti-drinking restrictions, so there was no podium dance for me. It turns out the bar/coffee/drink station was a bustling place to enjoy my meal - a bit like eating at the French Laundry in their laundry room, I imagine. Still, I was grateful for the accommodation. And, despite the enthusiastic pianist playing every song I wouldn’t have on my playlist, except for Éponine’s “On my Own” (by the original London production. of course) - but I have said too much - I had a very nice meal. And at 1:11 pm I was back in the hot Manila afternoon.

It's not worth talking about the bad meals and experiences that filled the balance of my Sunday, caused mostly by the throngs of political activists that filled every available restaurant and booked every taxicab and Grab. We’ll chalk this up to paying the piper for poor travel planning. And alliteration behind us, on Monday (aka election day) I was on a flight home.

Overall, being able to travel again, seeing friends, and having a couple very good meals were more than enough to overcome the not-so-great meals and the complexity of travel during these Covid-complicating times. It’s nice to be back – knock on wood.

(All photos, such as they are, were taken by me; all copyrights are reserved).

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