HAD lunch with Doc Efren ‘Boy’ Vazquez at Haru Sushi Bar & Restaurant along West Capitol Drive in the restaurant row of Barrio Kapitolyo, Pasig City, last Friday (April 5, 2013). Haru was Doc’s newest restaurant venture, and I had been dying to try it since it ‘soft-opened’ in September 2012 – especially after repeatedly passing in front of it on our shortcut route to the FLAVORS Magazine office in Makati. It stands right next to the new Café Juanita of Doc, and the white, Zen-like Japanese structure with the name Haru surrounded by lovely pink cherry blossom flowers always look very inviting to me.
Anyway, I had known Doc for a long time. I met him for the very first time when he was still a practicing OB-gynecologist and I was just fresh out of college and starting to write for a weekly women’s magazine. My then editor, Ernie Evora Sioco, had made me tag along to Doc Boy’s SoHo Japanese Restaurant (also in the Kapitolyo area, just a corner away), and the Doc who was introduced to me then was a serious medical practitioner. The next time I met him was many years later, when we traveled together to Ilocos Sur with Chef Heny Sison and her team of chef-instructors from the Heny Sison Culinary School to judge in the ISHORE Chefs on Parade culinary competitions being held annually in the Northwestern province. He was a changed man already, bubbly, always smiling and cracking jokes, and so much more relaxed after having retired from his medical profession and concentrating on his restaurant business.
SoHo had ‘given birth’ to Café Juanita, a Filipino specialty restaurant that serves Filipino comfort foods, both traditional dishes that diners would look for in a Filipino restaurant and modern concoctions that the younger generations would find difficult to resist. The critically acclaimed restaurant, which is always fully booked, now also serves Asian specialties, including Thai and Vietnamese dishes.
But I got really close to Doc when we traveled together to Thailand, also with Chef Heny, Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Norma ‘Omay’ Chikiamco and Eunice Rochelle Fernando (who was then with Manila Bulletin but is now with Manila Hotel) to cover the Amazing Tastes of Thailand event in Bangkok and Pattaya upon the invitation of then Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) Philippines’ marketing representative Dave de Jesus. It was our group which ran smack into Typhoon Ondoy on the day of our arrival back in Manila and got stranded in the airport for very long hours because the entire metro was flooded. But that’s a totally different story.
Anyway, Doc Boy and I finally decided to have lunch together at Haru last week, and it was exquisite Japanese food that I filled my tummy with. My husband Raff and I arrived at Haru early for our appointment with Doc. The first thing that greeted us upon entering the restaurant was a spacious sushi bar with Doc’s partner, Japanese chef Tom Yamazaki (formerly of Sugi) behind it. A lot of diners would head straight for the sushi bar because it looked very inviting, indeed, but the restaurant had a private dining nook to the right and a mezzanine that led to a small, Zen-like pond, lined with private areas for dining. We chose to stay in the private dining nook right in front of the sushi bar, because it had a dining table for four towards the window and two smaller two-seater tables where we could take pictures of the food before we ate it. The waiters served us Iced Toasted Rice Tea as we waited for Doc.
Doc was his usual jolly self when he came in, even as I made him recount how he and Chef Tom met and why they decided to partner up in a new Japanese restaurant. Chef Tom was a regular diner at Café Juanita every Wednesday, Doc recalled, and one time when they happened to walk out of the restaurant at about the same time, he talked to Chef Tom, introduced himself and said, “So you’re a Japanese. You know how to cook. So teach me.” Chef Tom chuckled, and when Doc found out that Chef Tom was the chef of Sugi, he was so embarrassed that he dropped the subject. But, as fate would have it, and contrary to what others believe that Doc pirated Chef Tom from Sugi, the two of them met at the right time and at the right place, just when Chef Tom was bidding ‘Sayonara’ to Sugi, and the two of them hit it off so well that it was inevitable for them to join hands and open a new Japanese restaurant together.
“Chef Tom was delivered to me by the universe. I did not pirate him. I believe in karma. Now our partnership is based on mutual respect. I take care of the physical appearance of the restaurant. He has a free hand in the kitchen. I had him take a look at my existing Japanese menu from SoHo, and he improved on it and added his own inputs to come up with a new menu for Haru. What we serve at Haru is authentic Japanese food, prepared the original way,” says Doc.
True enough, Doc gave Chef Tom free hand in choosing a lunch menu for us. We just specified seafood, no meat, and it was entirely up to him. So what he was going to serve us was a surprise that turned out to be more than just pleasant. It was excellent.
First course was Hama Ebi Sashimi, which is sweet shrimps served shelled but head on. The shrimps were very fresh and sweet, as Chef Tom does his marketing for fresh seafood at the Seaside Market every morning. It was complemented by Haru Sashimi Moriawase, a combination platter of Hamachi, Salmon, Tuna, Uni and Saba Sashimi – all lovely, especially the uni (sea urchin) and my all-time favorite fish, salmon. The hamachi (Japanese yellowtail or amberjack), which is the premium fish on the platter because it commands a high price in Japanese markets, was also very good. It was firm and fresh and had no fishy taste or smell. Afterwards, Chef Tom came and collected the Hama Ebi shrimp heads, deep-fried them and served them again, this time with a crispy, crunchy and fried flavor to it.
Kani Mango Salad (Japanese cucumber with crabstick and ripe mango) followed. It was served with two dressings, the usual Japanese mayonnaise and a refreshing sesame vinaigrette dressing. Since I always had the salad with the Japanese mayonnaise, I tried it with the sesame vinaigrette and never looked back.
All three of us – Doc, Raff and me – also had Emperor Soup, which was served in an elegant teapot designed with a matching mini tea cup inverted on top of the lid. You pour yourself some soup into the mini tea cups and sip it, and when you’re ready to partake of the shrimp and mushrooms in the soup, you just pull up the lid and dip your chopsticks into it. Besides being a nice and unique vessel to serve the soup in, the teapot also serves a purpose: It keeps the soup warm until you’re ready to sip it. And, mind you, the Emperor Soup is refreshingly flavorful, and the clear soup is really clear, not cloudy at all.
For the main dishes, Chef Tom served three seafood dishes. One was the Kaki Furai, huge imported fresh oysters the size of a human finger each, covered with Japanese breadcrumb coated batter, fried to a golden crisp and served on a bed of sliced tomatoes and cucumber and shredded cabbage, and served with tonkatsu sauce. The other was Salmon Hasami Yaki or grilled salmon layered with shiitake mushrooms in between and served with teriyaki sauce. The third one was Seafood Teppanyaki , which was a sharing size platter of salmon, tuna, shrimps, squid and oysters cooked on the teppan table.
We had all these with a bowl of Yaki Meshi (fried rice) each. Normally, Raff and I would just ask for plain steamed rice, but Chef Tom recommended Yaki Meshi, so Yaki Meshi it was. When it arrived and I had my first ‘chopsticked’ mouthful of it, I was delightfully surprised. It was so good. Doc said it’s probably the rice, because they use Japanese rice at Haru. But it was more than just the rice. It was the way it was prepared by Chef Tom. Lightly flavorful, with a toasty afternote, and with the chopped green beans and diced carrots at just the right doneness, with still the right bit of crunch left… I shamelessly finished my whole bowl of rice.
Finally, it was dessert time. And the surprise of the dessert course is that you can cross-order desserts from the next-door Café Juanita, whose desserts are as much a big favorite as its main dishes are. I ordered Doc’s famous Sticky Toffee Pudding, served a la mode with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Raff asked for Saba con Yelo, which came in a generous serving, and Doc had his favorite Sans Rival.
Lunch with Doc at Haru was a meal like no other. I’d do it again soon.
Two thumbs up for Doc Boy Vazquez’s new Japanese restaurant, and two thumbs up for the exquisite cooking of Chef Tom Yamazaki.
(Haru Sushi Bar & Restaurant is located at 21 West Capitol Drive, Barrio Kapitolyo, Pasig City. For inquiries and reservations, the number to call is 631-0597.)