Filipino Flavor ExcursionCourtesy of Hallie Homes
The mission statement for À La Carte Café has always been a bit different for this area. Owners Susan and Jon Lumsden have a personal mission to expand your palate while using sustainable, preferably locally sourced foods prepared in simple healthy manners. While they do this week to week by changing the weekly and daily specials, Susan went all out and created the Filipino Flavor Excursion in early Spring.
The dining room at the café was transformed with tall tablescapes (centerpieces) full of entirely tropical flowers. When the flower delivery driver brought them he told Susan that in the 20-plus years he had delivered to West Plains, he had never delivered so many tropical varieties. There were gingers, two kinds of stem orchids, anthurium, birds of paradise, heliconia and aspidistra, in addition to the banana leaves already delivered.
Under all the florals were tablecloths made from Indonesian batiks. The banana leaves became placemats that ran the length of the tables—each leaf averaging 8 feet long. Paper lanterns were filled with lights and even the flowers had submersible LED lights that glowed through the stems. Many dried shells, starfish, sea urchins, sand dollars and beach glass filled in spaces. Tall red candles glowed atop tall stemmed martini glasses placed upside down and filled with flowers or shells.
As the 20 guests were brought in, en masse, they carried with them glasses of champagne mixed with mango nectar. Upon choosing their seats they found a copy of the menu as well as a map of the Philippines to help keep them oriented. The music was a gentle Asian background appropriate for a massage, perhaps. The seating was in a single, long community table, more often found in a European setting than an American one. This was deliberate, to encourage the discussion of the experience with new acquaintances. Greeting the diners on their plates were simple summer rolls—rice paper wrapped around lettuce, shrimp or pork strips, and crispy ingredients like carrots, sprouts, cilantro, and cellophane noodles and served chilled. A rice vinegar-based dipping sauce called nuoc cham added heat and texture. As guests nibbled on these treats Susan explained a bit about the Filipino culture and typical food sources.
Prior to the 1600s the Philippines were settled by multiple Austronesian peoples. That is, exploring peoples who lived among the thousands of islands of the Pacific. They brought with them knowledge of cooking methods and agriculture as well as favorite flavor ingredients. Rice came from the west from Taiwan and China.
Being situated in the middle of the spice routes, many wonderful flavors hit their shores and were incorporated into the culture. India brought them curries and mangos. Being in a tropical climate, coconuts and papaya as well as ginger became major ingredients with rice being the carbohydrate staple used in both sweets and savory dishes.
The next food to greet the guests was a chicken satay. This method of cooking over an open grill is typical of foods from the food stalls in the markets. It was accompanied by a ground-nut dipping sauce—ground-nut referring to peanuts. This course was paired with Sequin Pinot Grigio— a slightly effervescent white wine.
Next came a soup made with chicken and fresh coconuts that utilized both the fresh coconut water as well as the fresh coconut shreds. It had a very light texture and mouthfeel. When finished with the soup the Filipino Paella was brought in. Because the Philippines were under Spanish rule for four hundred years, many of the flavors of the region are Latin inspired. The Filipino version of this seafood/ rice dish features lots of fresh ginger, and the seafoods included were gi-normous U.S. Gulf shrimp, Prince Edward Island fresh mussels, mahi-mahi, gulf crawfish, calamari (squid), octopus, and clams. This dish was paired with a New Zealand Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc.
Normally a feast in the Philippines would have all the food on the table at one time. So as not to overwhelm, each course was brought out separately or in pairs. The salad and fruit were brought out together. The salad was a green papaya salad made with shredded green papaya, carrots, plump raisins, shredded peppers, ginger and a dressing made with limes and ginger. The fruit, which is the most common dessert for island families, was papaya, mango, pineapple, star fruit (carambola) and kiwi.
Next came the poultry and pork entrées—chicken adobo with turmeric and coconut, chicken with green papaya, and pork adobo. The ubiquitous rice accompanied each dish and soaked up the flavors in the juicy sauces. Adobos are the unofficial national dishes and originate from the Latin cultures of Spain and Portugal. An adobo is made by simmering the meats in a spicy vinegar-based sauce. They can be mild to quite spicy. In this case, with the turmeric and coconut, , it had almost a curry feel without the curry tang— the influence of India. The chicken dishes were paired with California Toasted Head Chardonnay that repeated some of the fruit notes in the sauces. The pork adobo was paired with California Fess Parker Riesling—a somewhat off-dry white wine that picked up the notes of citrus, ginger, honey and lime in the pork sauce.
After all that food, the dessert was kept very light. Early in the meal the guests were surprisingly quiet as they dove into their dishes. Later, once the immediate hunger was lifted, the chatter rose a notch and by the time the dessert of cashew custard wrapped in a meringue was served, the decibel level had risen to a crescendo.
Three hours after arriving, the guests slowly peeled away. The staff that had worked tirelessly to prepare the foods now dove into the mountain of dishes—100 wine glasses, 200 dishes and plates. In very little time all was cleaned up and the dining room transformed, once again, to the usual dining experience. Only now there were still those tropical flowers and scents lingering and a feeling that one had BEEN somewhere—a magical experience that didn’t require a tank full of gas, a passport or a long plane ride.
The next delightful dinner will be Moroccan themed on June 22, 2013 at 6:00 pm. Call À La Carte Café at 417-505-0302 for reservations and directions. The cost is $60.00 per person wine included. Maximum of 40 reservations will be taken.