Imagine a native Malay cook with a Chinese roommate being taught by a Spanish chef with a love affair for everything American and you'll get an inkling of what Filipino food is all about. Or so reads the Lamesa Filipino Kitchen website, describing its food as a juxtaposition of sweet, salty and sour flavours with ingredients like rice, pork and fish figuring prominently on the menu.
One would expect that Filipino cuisine would be more popular among T.O.'s jaded been-there, ate-that foodies, co
nsidering this community now makes up about three per cent of our city's population. Owner Lester (Les) Sabilano aims to change all that. Aside from the de rigueur dÃ©cor of whites and woods, that include tables all made from the same tree, Sabilano is the main attraction, a man on a mission to go beyond fast food so local diners can finally appreciate the finer elements of his homeland's flavourful foods.
His infectious smile and willingness to please, including running to the beer store to get your favourite beer, is second to none. Unfortunately that superlative attention doesn't translate into the perfect meal. Lamesa (meaning table in Tagalog) has a very limited offering, though it does change frequently, some things even daily. It all starts out quite impressively with a custard-like taho amuse, a popular street food of a mix of silken tofu, tapioca-like pearls and brown sugar; too sweet for a starter perhaps, but nonetheless delicious. And an order of pork lumpia spring rolls ($8) wows with robust flavours of ground pork, carrots and water chestnuts. Get me more of that smokin' dipping sauce, ratchet up the spice meter a tad, and this is a runaway hit that practically evaporates from the plate in nanoseconds.
Much less exciting is a cast iron pot filled with crispy chicken ($8). Call it what you want but don't call it crispy. Don't get me wrong, mighty tasty it is, but it lacks any hint of garlic or chilli as promised, a flavour absence not made up for with a simple plop of pico de gallo and a fried egg.
A Filipino pot pie ($8), a chef Rudy Boquila special, sounds intriguing. And it is does sport one of the most stunning puff pastries in recent memory. The problem, however, is in the absence of any discernible pork and an over reliance on taro leaves and coconut milk that impart an overly acrid taste. Less appealing is trying to fork these overly large leaves out of a small ramekin like wet sheets out of a washer; very unwieldy and even less attractive. Even a steak ($25), a steak (!), is a near miss, albeit saved by a delectable ginger beef broth dipping sauce. There's no value in the few bites worth it offers; but being barely lukewarm isn't as much of a problem as is the bone marrow potato puree that gives this dish a failing grade, its gloppy, gelatinous texture like cooled Dickensian gruel. Please sir, I want... less.
A shrimp dish ($23) with small pieces of squash, eggplant and green beans in a tomato and ginger sauce fares far worse. Again, I can handle having to tear apart the poor little thing, head and all, and live with fishy-smelling fingers for the night. But the seafood is mushy. The only impressive thing on the plate is a garnish of pickled bitter melon. Thankfully, dessert is outstanding. Whew! A Jackfruit creme brulee ($8) takes a classic Continental meal closer and gives it an Asian twist that really works. An empanada ($8) of tough plantain, jackfruit and brown sugar demonstrates potential if it were lifted out of its puddle of evaporated milk and anointed with more blackberry puree. But a dense bread pudding ($8) topped with cheddar and a side of dulce de leche is a very pleasant surprise.
As it stands, lapses at Lamesa are of the culinary kind. But any flaws are made up in an extraordinary way by the totally unexpected, out-of-the-box service extraordinaire. Little surprise since Sabilano comes from places like Jump and Canoe. But it's for his obvious love for his food and culture that he wants to succeed on. Despite many misses Lamesa is a restaurant built on heart and soul. If there is a God, I will be proven wrong and they will make a successful go of it. No one deserves it more than these guys.