Photo by Tina Garceau
My introduction to the cuisine of the Philippines took place more than eight years ago while watching chef Dale Talde prepare a dessert called halo-halo. It is a concoction of shaved ice, evaporated milk, coconut and fruit. More than four years later, I truly was schooled in this style of cooking when chef Sheldon Cimeon won Restaurant Wars on “Top Chef” with his creation of a Filipino-style restaurant. He made sinigang, a sour soup with pork tamarind and vinegar. It also contained garlic, bok choy, and potatoes. Chicken adobo could be the country’s national dish. It is usually prepared with chicken thighs, tomatoes, onions, scallions, soy sauce and peppercorns.
When I read last year that chef Lou Boquila was to open a Filipino restaurant in South Philly, I kept checking online and in the papers for its opening.
Boquila, who is from the Philippines, previously worked at the Knave of Hearts, Twenty Manning Grill and Audrey Claire.
He named his restaurant Perla, after his mother. He wanted to take the dishes of his childhood and give them an update.
Perla opened last month. It was a very hot evening when I went there, yet the doors and windows were open. Ceiling fans did little to cool off the space. There is a deep blue and white mosaic on one wall, and deep blue banquettes line the opposite wall of the BYOB.
The set menu is four courses for $45, with two options for each choice.
I looked forward to a fine Filipino-style dinner. What we received was a taste of Italy, South America, and France with a small nod to Boquila’s native land.
Delicious, slightly sweet small rolls with whipped butter kept us happy. We were told the rolls are an authentic Filipino-style bread. The amuse-bouche consisted of delicious arancini with a bit of spice.
The first course, which each guest receives, was Spanish mackerel done as a ceviche. It was dressed with palm vinegar, which gives a slightly sour note, radishes, and pickled watermelon.
Next up was lechon kawali, which consisted of Berkshire pork belly, heirloom tomatoes, fennel, onions, chicken liver, and dates. The contrast of flavors was exceptional, but I found the pork belly a bit tough. The second option was arroz caldo, made with rice, sage, duck skin, and lemon. It was an uncommonly delicious dish. I can eat duck skin in anything.
The rahon duck breast adobo looked as if it had come from a French cooking book. But the flavors of the Philippines were most evident. The dish was prepared with Romanesco, Cipollini (one of my favorite ingredients), kabocha, and natural pan juices from the duck. Unlike the pork belly, the duck was tender and cooked medium rare. The other option was pinakbet, one of the tastiest eggplant dishes I have ever sampled. It contained carrots, okra, and pattypan topped in a rich demi-glace. This is a dish I would like to attempt at home. It was filled with flavor and contrasting textures. Who knew okra would marry so well with eggplant?
The desserts were a little disappointing. It was a brutally hot night, and halo-halo, which means “mixed together,” would have topped off our meal.
The coconut panna cotta was overly sweet. Mango and crunchy pistachio nuts were included in this offering. Bibingka was a streusel-like cake made with raspberries. It was a little on the dry side.
Service was excellent, but the lighting was not up to par. I invested in a new flashlight several months ago, so I could see the lovely creations on the plates.
I had hoped to sample the soups and stews of the Philippines, but Boquila wanted to modernize the dishes of his native land.
A neighbor of mine is Filipino-American. I have already asked her mother to teach me how to make chicken adobo and sinigang.
Three tips of the toque to Perla. SPR
1535 S. 11th St.