Tasting Notes

Servings of Spain

By Sol Vanzi

In the old days, birthday parties were held at home or in hotel function rooms rented for the event. Condo living has changed all that. Condo dwellers no longer have a large household staff to do the cooking, table setting, and serving. Condos also lack the space for large gatherings.

I realized this when a good friend hosted a birthday party for 40, an undertaking which for lesser mortals could be a stressful, daunting task. First, the venue should be accessible and easy to find. There should be enough room for everyone to hop from table to table. When most guests are seniors, the menu should be flexible enough to allow everyone a wide choice while still sticking to their doctor-prescribed diets. Other requirements are: a good sound system, live music, and food that will suit everyone’s taste and dietary restrictions.

Crips Pork Belly

After weighing all the possibilities, my good friend book author Pamsy Tioseco decided the best option was lunch at Alba Restaurante Español on Polaris Street in Makati. Her guests almost filled the intimate ground floor dining area. She asked friends to be there by 11 a.m., which everyone complied with to avoid the midday traffic and give guests enough time to catch up with what’s happened since the last time they met.

Paella

The place was perfect; there was live music provided by three singers playing guitars. They sang Spanish songs, American oldies, and Ilocano folk songs—practically any song requested by the diners, who sang along gamely.

The groaning board had a colorful array of the best, most authentic Spanish comfort dishes. The menu was topped by callos, lengua, paella, and cochinillo, which no decent Spanish-themed buffet table should be without.

Celebrating with food and music.

Everyone in the room was closely connected to government offices and top officials past and present, yet not a hint of animosity clouded the happy event.

I gave the menu my usual Soup Test; one sip of soup is often enough to give a preview of the rest of the meal. And the excellent Sopa de Mariscos, served at the right temperature, accurately predicted the quality of the food and service at Alba, one of the country’s most revered restaurants.

Callos

The buffet was a colorful spread, starting with various kinds of bread matched with bowls of Mediterranean spreads: sardines, olives, mushrooms, garlic, herbs. A huge salad bowl held crisp salad greens beside different dressings.

I could not resist the hot and cold appetizers: fresh mussels in vinaigrette dressing, tender pork loin with pepper, baked oysters topped with melted cheese, and crisp fried baby squid.

Cold cuts and cheeses

The main courses were the must-haves. Aside from callos and lengua, there were Pescado Rebosado, Pollo a la Parilla, and the star of the show: Cochinillo Asado (Roasted Suckling Pig) conveniently and very neatly cut into bite-size pieces.

Another popular pork dish competed with the cochinillo—perfectly prepared crisp cerdo frita (deep fried pork belly) which many called Lechon Macao and Ilocanos label bagnet, another dish that home cooks seldom prepare. Alba’s version used the lean portions of a young pig, which was simmered with herbs and spices, air-dried, then deep-fried.

Cochinillo

The dessert station tempted with Spanish delights. Most popular were airy and light canonigo, brazo gitano (cake rolls), and the pumpkin and cheese cake bars. We barely had any space in our bellies for the excellently brewed coffee to cap the meal.

It was an afternoon that exceeded all our expectations.

This article was first published in Manila Bulletin Lifestyle.

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