Making the grade: What makes a ‘best’ restaurant?

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In photo: Gallery VASK. The subjective and nearly arbitrary task of finding the “best” restaurant is validated by the rigorous and methodological approximation to make a restaurant guide — an attempt taken upon by Philippine Tatler. Its list of the Best Restaurants of 2017 is a lesson in food standards, and the small immeasurable things that makes good cuisine. Photo by FRUHLEIN ECONAR

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — To ask what makes a best restaurant for the curious, adventurous diner is akin to asking what makes a best song for someone who lives by music. There will be biases, mostly based on sentimentality and experience: you love Japanese, for example, because you’ll never forget that first bite of sashimi, in the same way you’ll hold a special place in your heart for soul and the blues, because they're what first made you feel anything at all.

The crucial element, unfortunately, may not be something objective, and therefore every standard will always be subject to a sole exception that has to be made in the name of heart, soul, or memory. With food or with dining, as with songs, there might never be an accurate answer on what is “good” or “best”: there is only an approximation of it, an attempt to come close to a love that a diner will never fully understand or know, but can only hope to enjoy for as long as it lasts.

That’s what any kind of food or restaurant guide is, no matter how authoritative or popular it may get: an approximation, an attempt. For Philippine Tatler’s Best Restaurants of 2017, a narrow but sizeable volume published just recently, there is an attempt for a rigorous and methodological searching on what makes a good restaurant. In Tatler’s guide, any restaurant that makes it to the list is scored based on four key areas: setting, food, wine, and service, with each rated on a scale of one to ten. Restaurants are reviewed by anonymous individuals — all of which are discerning, sophisticated diners, who know about food and eating, according to co-editors Maritess Garcia Reyes and Shauna Popple.

“It’s a rule that it has to [have been] opened for six months,” adds Popple, to make sure that a restaurant does not merely ride on the hype of newness. The list includes not only fine dining but also casual dining restaurants, “provided everything makes good sense, has a high-quality level under all these categories,” says Popple. “It can’t always be just about fine dining — sometimes you want a good, Chinese meal … it’s about the overall best dining experience you can have.”

Chele Gonzalez of Gallery VASK. Photo by FRUHLEIN ECONAR

There are 172 restaurants on Tatler’s guide, with 20 making it as the top restaurants of the year. Barring social media hype, the magazine’s editorial staff make sure to follow up on recommendations and go out there to try and test things for themselves. “We also listen to our Tatler readers,” says Reyes. “There is nothing wrong with saying, when we’ve had our reviewers come in and tell us that something that has been [on the list] for a while, and their experience was not good, [so] we remove it,” adds Popple.

To come up with such a lengthy list takes a year’s work. Restaurant names are gathered and research commences in the beginning of the year, with nominations for inclusion made in the middle of it. Reviews are made by the third quarter of the year, and production — for the book to come out early next year — begins in the fourth quarter of the preceding year.

Nevertheless, there is something indeterminable in the way a restaurant tries to put its philosophy together, something that escapes even the most exacting of standards. In Donosti, one of the top 20, where operations manager Tippi Tambunting and executive chef Pablo Lopez Iglesias try to transport diners to the charms and pleasures of Spanish cuisine, the indeterminable element may be that of consistency: of ensuring guest satisfaction for each time that diners come and order food.

Tambunting and Iglesias assure, for example, that visiting Donosti once is not enough to get a full hold of what the restaurant has to offer. “For me, they haven’t really experienced the full Donosti experience if they haven’t tried the cordero de lechal and the arroz caldoso. Those two are what make it a bit special, because those are our pre-ordered … signature dishes that differ us from the others. The cordero, we bring it from Spain, we cook it like a lechon. That’s basically our house special.”

Gallery VASK, where Gonzalez takes on the role of both wide-eyed child and fascinated food explorer, ready to tell you about an ingredient he has found and how he plans to cook with it. Photo by FRUHLEIN ECONAR

Another unmeasurable element may be that of learning experience: especially distinct from food, wine, service, or setting, and has something to do with how you eat and discover your food.

“Usually people order their appetizer and main course and they come together,” explains Tambunting. “Unlike here, it’s Spanish style, it [usually] comes one by one.”

“Ideally, a person usually orders first their pinxchos, meaning small bites [not the tapas], meant to be two to three bites, a small piece of something,” says Tambunting. “Tapas are appetizers, meant to be shared.” A pinxcho mostly consists of a bread, and a protein to go with it, or a vegetable. “We only have the bread with dishes that are best accompanied with bread,” she adds.

These may look like small details, but for what makes a good, or bad restaurant, it’s the accumulation of small, interconnected things — how the food goes together with the wine, how service tries to mimic a memory, or how the setting tries to imbibe a certain character — that often makes a difference.

Another of the top 20 restaurants in the list is Gallery VASK by Chele Gonzalez, whose culinary memories are traced back to Basque country in Spain. It is important to note here that most diners mistake the tapas bar next door as Gallery VASK, 39th in Asia’s Best 50 Restaurant List for 2016. Not that it may matter, since Gonzalez is at the helm for both; however, to be specific about it, the tapas bar is where he plays around with the evolution of Spanish comfort food and contemporary cuisine, while in the gallery, Gonzalez takes on the role of both wide-eyed child and fascinated food explorer, ready to tell you about an ingredient he has found and how he plans to cook with it.

Donosti operations manager Tippi Tambunting and executive chef Pablo Lopez Iglesias. Photo by FRUHLEIN ECONAR

The way Gonzalez talks about his restaurant, like Tambunting and Iglesias do in Donosti, represents another standard that may be futile to measure: imagination — apart from imagination in the food itself — but imagination in terms of vision and advancing the culinary conversation beyond the table.

In Gallery VASK, one can expect two and a half hours of a sensory experience, “where we construct our culinary language,” says Gonzalez. “We create a language for our cuisine. It has never been done before, we cross the limits … we make alive what we do here.”

To “construct” that language, Gonzalez asks a question: “For you, what is luxury?”

In the attempt to come up with a clever answer, I look around the restaurant’s interiors and point to them. There is “covetable art,” as Tatler describes it, the kind that straddles mythology (there’s a Mebuyan-like figure with what may be a boar’s head) and pop culture (I have interpreted the circular figures scattered on the wall as hidden Mickeys). He has an open kitchen with ingredients such as sinamak, on display. The napkins are embroidered with an inviting, esoteric-sounding message. I say that is luxury, and perhaps also caviar.

But for Gonzalez, luxury is ultimately knowing exactly what ingredient you need, knowing what farmers can contribute to the table. It’s going back to, literally, the roots of one’s food, the way he has always used to before he came to the Philippines. “[You’re] trying to get the best tomato, and the only way you can do it is because you go to the farmers and explain exactly what you need,” he says. “You want to go to the place, see how the tomato grows up, the soil, how the nature is, you understand the ingredient by itself.”

Donosti, where the appetizer and the main course are served one by one, in Spanish style. Photo by FRUHLEIN ECONAR

“Our mission is … from a chef who grew in another country, who had the best training in the world, to come here and see things with a different perspective. And I create a language, with everything that I learned in the Philippines, but translate it in my own glasses,” says Gonzalez. It’s almost the same as with Iglesias, who, after years of working abroad, has a better understanding of Filipino people, and tries to present food the way he thinks local diners might like it, balancing it with the core tenets of what makes Donosti’s cuisine distinctly Spanish.

“The most important thing here is, since I didn’t grow up here, I don’t have society to pressure me about how I have to do things,” says Gonzalez. “I have freedom, and I do it the way I feel I do it, the way that my values as a chef and as a person dictate me to do it.”

In the end, if one talks about what makes a good restaurant, the attempt may never be about food alone, or what manifests in the service: there is always an intricate interweaving of history, culture, interconnection, gastronomy, and of course, memory, to guide a diner who navigates through the jungle that Manila’s culinary scene is becoming. Add to that the chef’s and restaurateur’s conviction to bring all of that in a single dining experience, which Tatler tries to bring together in its guide, as it makes sense of what the Filipino dining experience — or just dining, in general — looks like at a certain point in time.

Simply: “You want to leave the table feeling like you got value for money,” says Popple. "[Because] even if it was an expensive meal, you’d be like, ‘That was beautiful, I’d come back again.’”


Philippine Tatler’s Best Restaurants 2017 is available in bookstores.