You enter XO46 Bistro Filipino on Valero Street in Salcedo Village, Makati, through a gate and across a pocket garden with a garden set. The few steps to the restaurant’s door give you just enough time to transition from the hustle and bustle of the Central Business District to the refined and genteel world waiting inside.
A clue is the appearance of the wait staff standing at attention by the vestibule. “Magandang gabi po, señorita, señorito,” they chorus, and you almost expect them to do a little curtsey in their modernized Filipiniana ensembles of kimona and long embroidered skirts or barong and dark pants. On my first visit, I was taken aback, for I hadn’t been called a señorita (young madam) before then. The only formality from house help I could tolerate was to be addressed as “ate” (older sister). But colleague Jullie Yap Daza so delighted in the formality that she demanded: “Don’t call me señorita. I want to be called doña (senior madam).” And Doña Jullie she has been ever since.
Complementing the service are the interiors, done up in a merry mash-up of traditional Filipino architectural flourishes (carved art deco lintels, a bar fashioned from dark wood) and modern accents (an edgy dining set crafted from indigenous materials). Then your ears pick up the OPM tunes wafting through the sound system. Slowly, you are sucked back in time, to an age of leisurely dining, home-cooked food prepared by a devoted kitchen staff and supervised by maiden aunts and grandmothers, and being waited on hand and foot by servants anticipating your every need.
You may be a workaday journalist yoked to daily deadlines and routines, but inside XO46 Bistro Filipino, your consciousness shape-shifts to that of a lady of leisure, shedding the world outside and its niggling concerns.
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And have I told you about the food?
My son swears by the Bicol Express, a hot and spicy dish of sigarilyas, chili and pork bathed in coconut milk. I have two favorite seafood dishes: the bangus belly salpicao, flour-dredged bangus belly sautéed in olive oil and chilies (warning, the dish can be hot!); and deep-fried butterfly-cut tilapia with a sharp tamarind and calamansi sauce. The contrast in texture and flavor sets off fireworks inside the mouth! For carnivores, there’s deconstructed kare-kare, crispy beef ribs served separately from the peanut-flavored broth and boiled vegetables; binagoong baboy in coconut gravy; lechon sisig; and classic fiesta fare like callos and lengua.
Every meal starts with miniature plain and ube puto served with two kinds of butter: savory aligue and sweet mango. The good news is that patrons can order the puto for take-out, extending the XO experience for a day or two more. I usually order chilled salabat and tanglad juice, the zing and sweetness a great beginning to what invariably becomes a great meal.
In the short time our family has patronized XO46 Bistro Filipino, the place has become our default go-to place for family gatherings and hosting visitors from abroad. It’s often difficult to find a place to bring balikbayan that is both stylish and offers great ambience while offering memorable Filipino food at reasonable prices.
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Now there’s another such place and it’s right next door!
Taking the place of a Japanese ramen house (called Raku) also owned and managed by Sandee and Andrew Masigan, the young couple who conceived and created XO46, The Visayan Room can be viewed as either an adjacent function room or a different restaurant entirely.
While the interiors of XO46 hark back to an ancestral home, at The Visayan Room, the ambience is more contemporary, done up in a dramatic black-and-white palette, with a mirrored accent wall of wood and glass candle containers.
With Chef Christian Kalaw, Sandee and Andrew made several scouting trips to Cebu and other Visayan destinations to research the best of Visayan cooking, sampling dishes from classy restaurants and roadside eateries, to markets and private homes.
The star of The Visayan Room’s menu is of course the Cebu lechon, succulent from skin to flesh with no need for liver sauce or even condiments. Some other offerings, which I look forward to trying in subsequent visits are: the “Dumaguete Express,” a medley of lapu-lapu, squid, mussels and shrimp in coconut cream; relyenong talong; sinugbang liempo (roasted pork belly). And while XO46 serves puto with flavored butter for appetizers, at The Visayan Room, diners are treated to savory piaya with queso de bola spread.
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“Heritage cuisine” is how the Masigan couple and Chef CK describe the food they serve at both XO46 and The Visayan Room, and future dishes they plan to develop and create.
Central to the idea is basing their offerings on dishes that Filipinos (specifically the Masigans) grew up with, with fresh, contemporary twists that surprise and delight without sacrificing the comfort of the familiar. And judging from the reactions of diners—including my family—the combination is working. Other restaurants may try nouvelle touches that deconstruct and reconstruct traditional dishes, with varying levels of success. But XO46 and The Visayan Room serve up old reliables without being boring or predictable, tweaking the familiar just enough to make dining exciting and memorable.
Besides, señoritos and señoritas can well afford trips back to the days of old, visiting the past while enjoying the new, straddling both eras with ease, and basking in the ambience of an age gone by but still accessible.