YES, you read it right – potato. And, yes, it was a safari that we embarked on because we went from one restaurant to another not just to see what four of Cebu’s top chefs could do with U.S. Frozen Potatoes but to taste them as well.
My husband Raff and I were in the company of U.S. Potato Board (USPB) Philippine representatives Reji Retugal-Onal and Evelyn Valdez Mercurio, publicists Dessa Virtusio and Joy Bordador, and a small group of print and digital media practitioners on a three-day trip to Cebu from February 3 to 5, 2014. The event was the 2014 U.S. Potato Safari organized by the USPB in the Queen City of the South to showcase the creative ways by which U.S. Frozen Potatoes could be prepared aside from French fries.
The potato safari began at Marco Polo Plaza Hotel Cebu along Cebu Veterans Drive, Nivel Hills, Apas, Cebu City. Marco Polo stands on Nivel Hills, which gives it a breathtaking view of the city’s skyline, and it served as the group’s home for our three-day stay. We got to Cebu at around 10:00 a.m. last Monday, February 3, 2014, had a short briefing about the U.S. Potato Safari in the Manila A function room of Marco Polo officiated by USPB international marketing manager Susan Weller (Chefs Sau del Rosario and Hylton le Roux, both of whom the Philippine office of the USPB often works with, were also with the group), checked in to wash up, and then embarked on the first stop of the potato safari for lunch.
FIRST STOP: LAGUNA GARDEN CAFÉ
Our first lunch in Cebu on February 3, 2014, took place at the Laguna Garden Café located at the Ayala Food Terraces area of Ayala Mall in Cebu City. Featured chef was Laguna Garden Café’s Chef Raki Urbina, who was joined by his mom, Julita ‘Lita’ Urbina, who introduced Tagalog-style cooking in Cebu. The restaurant was named Laguna Garden Café because Chef Raki’s dad, Dr. Ricardo Urbina, hails from Laguna.
Chef Raki, who originally planned a career in banking, had his culinary training in the Royal Culinary School of Thailand and the Culinary Institute of America in California, USA. He now serves as the corporate chef and managing director of the Laguna Group of Companies, which includes Laguna Garden Café.
He found it a bit tricky to work U.S. Frozen Potatoes into Filipino dishes, but he came up with a really impressive menu for the U.S. Potato Safari. He made Patatas Tinapa Croquetas with Pako Salad, served with a side of Okoy de Patatas; then followed it up with Baked Adobo Potato & Eggplant Relish paired with Beef Cocido for the main course, and Buchi Patatas and Ube-Patatas Halaya for dessert.
My favorites were the Patatas Tinapa Croquetas with Pako Salad and the Okoy de Patatas.
SECOND STOP: MARCO POLO PLAZA
Getting back to the hotel mid-afternoon, there was a short rest period before it was time for early dinner right at Café Marco of Marco Polo Plaza Hotel Cebu. I spent the rest time working, catching up on my writing chores, after which I took a quick shower before heading down to the Lobby Level of the hotel for dinner.
A private nook of Café Marco was dressed up cowboy style for the Potato Bonanza themed dinner, with checkered placemats dressing up the table. There was freshly made Potato Chips on the table courtesy of the hotel, of course, plus delicious Potato Foccacia Bread.
Joining the group were Hans Hauri, Marco Polo Hotels-Philippines area manager and Marco Polo Plaza Cebu general manager, and sales and marketing head Lara Constantino.
Marco Polo Cebu’s executive chef Stefano Verrillo took himself to task to prepare a really good potato-based meal. The energetic Italian chef brings with him more than 30 years of culinary experience, which helped earn for Café Marco honors such as being one of the Miele Guide’s Top Five Best Restaurants in the Philippines and Best Buffet in Cebu City, among others.
For starters, Chef Stefano prepared Seared Tuna Crumbed with Crushed Fried Straight-cut Potato Kani Salad, which was served in a crispy shell made from frozen potato skin with Ponzu dressing and tomato salsa. It was refreshingly light. Next came Fish Chowder Blended with Puree of Potato Skin Torched with Annatto Royal and Sprinkled with Garlic Chips Made from Roasted Frozen U.S. Potato Wedge, which turned out to be my favorite for dinner.
Granny Smith Apple Sorbet, rolled in grated potato skin and lemon and splashed with Galliano, served in an egg-shaped ice container, cleansed the palate and got it ready for the main course, which was Lamb Cutlet on Stir-fried Three Cabbages with Roasted and Crushed Potato. The roasted and crushed potato was made from triangle potato patties and battered eight-cut wedges with horseradish, honey, mint jelly and red wine jus.
Dessert was a double-potato treat of U.S. Potato Wedge Tarta Tin and Crushed Potato Skin Souffle Glace with Mango Ice Cream, Raspberry Espuma and Rum Drunken Grapes. It was really good, considering that potato is not usually used in dessert, but Chef Stefano was successful with his attempt.
THIRD STOP: BLUEWATER MARIBAGO BEACH RESORT
Lunch on our second day (February 4, 2014) on the potato safari was a longer ride away, as it was at the Bluewater Maribago Beach Resort on Mactan Island. But the trip was worth it, as the group got to marvel at the resort, which formed part of the wholly Filipino-owned Bluewater group of resorts showcasing the best of Filipino culture. The lush 7-hectare tropical paradise included a beach area, which led to The Cove, Bluewater Maribago’s cool and breezy premier restaurant which extends out to sea, overlooking the resort’s private little Alegrado Island, the venue of many weddings and receptions in the past.
Chef Dennis Uy, Bluewater Maribago’s executive sous chef, drew up a menu that syncs harmoniously with the very nature of The Cove, which is a live seafood restaurant. An al fresco restaurant that looks out to the sea, The Cove boasts of seafood dishes prepared from live seafood fished out from giant aquariums in the restaurant.
He had everyone served with a platter of starters, which included U.S. Potato Curry Pan with U.S. Hash-brown Potato Beef Filling, U.S. Mashed Potato Scallion Pancakes with Chicken Adobo and Japanese Cucumber, U.S. Potato and Crab Chawanmushi with Ebiko Caviar and Dashi, and Homemade Smoked Tanguige and U.S. Hash-brown Potato Tapas. My favorite was the Chawanmushi.
For the main course, Chef Dennis built it around The Cove’s fresh seafoods, which he and his kitchen staff grilled on the spot depending on everyone’s own preferences. He then had platters of side dishes – U.S. Potato Mashed Guguma, Crunchy U.S. Hash-brown Potato Kimchi, and 3-Flavored U.S. Potato Sushi – served at the table so everyone could enjoy it with their main course. I really loved the Crunchy U.S. Hash-brown Potato Kimchi.
As for the dessert, Chef Dennis outdid himself with his 3K Ice Cream (Kamias, Kasuy and Kalamansi-Mango), Fried Chocolate-dipped U.S. Potato Chips, and U.S. Potato Cheesecake with Coffee-infused Maple Syrup. I’m going to try making the Fried Chocolate-dipped U.S. Potato Chips at home one of these days.
FOURTH STOP: ANZANI NEW MEDITERRANEAN RESTAURANT
Dinner on our second day on the potato safari was an exquisite Italian meal at Anzani New Mediterranean Restaurant, which was just a stone’s throw away from Marco Polo Plaza Hotel Cebu. We occupied a long table in the main dining room, although we got to take a good look at the basement wine cellar, which also serves as a private dining room, as well as the al fresco dining area, which had a breathtaking view of the cityscape since the restaurant stands on high ground on top of Nivel Hills. The al fresco area with a view deck is great for having a drink or two with friends and colleagues.
Chef Marco Anzani, who is celebrated by the New York Times as a pioneer of New Mediterranean Cuisine (giving a new coastal spin on classical Mediterranean flavors while retaining key ingredients like olives, chickpeas, tomatoes and cheese), personally welcomed the group with his Filipino wife, Kate Dychangco-Anzani. The Italian chef, who has worked with Michelin-rated chefs such as Alain Ducasse and Roger Verge, prepared a creative menu built around U.S. Frozen Potatoes. Prior to the starters of the set menu, everyone had a choice of either Moroccan Bread, Whole Wheat Bread or Tomato Bread, which was served on a clay pot-like container. At first sight, I thought the bread was on top of the pot like container and might fall off. But when I touched the bread and lifted it up, I got a pleasant surprise – the bread looked like it was baked in its container because it had a tail that extended to the bottom of the pot-like container. And it was crunchy all the way down. Of course I went for the bread that was most unfamiliar to me – the Moroccan Bread.
The set menu began with Spinach Flat Bread Roulade Stuffed with U.S. Skin-on Fries, Fontina Cheese and Crisp Parma Ham String. Next came Charcoal Grilled Vegetable and Potato Tian on Layers of Seasonal Veggies alternated with U.S. Criss-cut Potato on Purple Beet Paste. The Homemade Raviolo with Fork-mashed U.S. Hash-brown and Peas on Truffle Cream that followed was lovely. The main course was Seared Ostrich Scallopini Wrapped with U.S. Battered Wedges on Tomato Stew and Wild Mushroom Ragout. It was exquisite, especially when you stare at it and realize that potato wedge strings were carefully wrapped around the ostrich meat instead of the usual bacon strips or ham or noodles.
Bringing the dinner to a close was Potato Puff Caramelized U.S. Crinkle-cut Potato and Custard with Avocado Ice Cream.
To wrap up the whole 2014 U.S. Potato Safari was an exhibition lunch prepared by celebrity chef Sau del Rosario on the third and final day (February 5, 2014). Chef Sau often serves as a consultant and resource person for the Philippine office of the U.S. Potato Board, and so he was tasked to prepare the culminating meal of the potato safari in Cebu.
The Manila A function room of Marco Polo was set with two long banquet tables for the guests. True to Chef Sau’s nature, there were no menu cards on the table, and he presented his dishes per course in a most creative way. For his salmon starter served with potato brioche, USPB Philippine representative asked everyone to lift their service plates and see if there’s a recipe title hidden below. No less than USPB’s Susan Weller found it under her plate and read it.
For the second course, the Egg and Cocotte with Duck Liver and Potato, one of the guests received a text message, and it turned out to be one of the members of our Manila-based media group, Tin Samson of Food Magazine.
For the third course, the Garlic Onion Soup with Potato Crouton, a waiter brought out a paper boat and handed it to a Cebu-based media practitioner, who read the title for everyone’s benefit. After all, Retugal-Onal had created a scenario in the beginning of exhibition lunch about being stranded on an island, and she explored this scenario one more time with the fourth course, the fish course, which was Baked Chilean Sea Bass, Brandade, Green Pea Puree, Truffle, Beurre Blanc, revealed from a message in a bottle.
For the fifth course, Retugal-Onal had two pieces of paper where the name of the dish, Potato Crusted Confit of Duck Breast with Onion Jam, was written, and had all members of each table memorize it and pass it on to the next person until it reached the last person, who had to say it as accurately as possible.
Finally, for the dessert, there was no announcement as to what it was going to be. But when the dessert was served, there it was, the name of the dessert, Potato Butter Pudding with Potato Orange Ice Cream, written on one side of the plate in black sign pen, then signed by Chef Sau in red.
Count on Chef Sau to think up these creative gimmicks to go with his lovely food. I loved everything from start to finish!
It was a wrap after Chef Sau’s exhibition dinner, and everyone went to pack up and head for the Mactan Cebu International Airport for a late-afternoon flight back to Manila, armed with new knowledge on how flexible an ingredient U.S. Frozen Potatoes can be and the host of culinary possibilities that one can achieve with a little creativity.