Try to come up with a more obvious recipe for disaster: I get an invitation to dine at the home of a woman who tells me that she and the entire "Filipino community" of Denver are upset over my recent review of the area's only Filipino restaurant, Nipa Hut. The woman, Florliza Obana, said they felt I'd denigrated the cuisine (I had said the food was simple and unsophisticated and that trying the dishes was like eating from science-lab jars); she wanted me to come to her home so she could prove me wrong. And could she invite a few other Filipinos, too? Hey, I can take it. So I did--and wound up having the time of my life.
Florliza and her family--husband Fred (who drove in from business in Wyoming to get a look at this so-called food writer), daughter Carmeliza and son Bennii--put together a feast of fabulous food, not just for a few of their friends but for more than twenty people, including their priest. His arrival alleviated any lingering suspicions that it would be me, not the strips of beef marinated in garlic, soy sauce and 7Up, that would be skewered and roasted. But from the start, my fears had seemed unfounded; this group was as welcoming and friendly as my own family. And it turned out they didn't have a problem with my review so much as they did with the restaurant I'd reviewed. Although they were reluctant to criticize Nipa Hut, they did want to point out the differences between rural food--such as Nipa's--and the nonrural food the Obanas eat.
And, oh, what food. Florliza had gutted a whole milkfish, deboned it and then mixed the ground meat with peas and raisins, restuffing the fish and baking it until the skin was a crispy shell. She'd rolled dozens of lumpia (vegetable-stuffed egg rolls) and Shanghai-style lumpia (tiny rolls filled with seasoned pork). She'd put together an adobo of chicken and pork, which she braised for three hours with apple-cider vinegar flavored with garlic and salt. Meanwhile, her brother, Cesar Jara, stir-fried an industrial-sized wok's worth of pansit: rice noodles with soy and fish sauces, chicken stock, Chinese sausage, shrimp and cabbage. The desserts were as impressive--cassava root sweetened with condensed milk, a leche flan as soft as silk, imported saba (a banana from the Philippines) wrapped in crepes and deep-fried.
While they plied me with food, they gave me a history lesson, had me watch a video on the Philippines and generally made fun of me in a good-natured way. I vaguely remember something being said about breastfeeding and cream for my coffee, but that was after I had tried their fermented coconut juice, 80 percent alcohol and a candidate for rocket fuel, so I could have been mistaken.
One thing I am certain of is that no one ate with his hands, which the Nipa Hut folks told me was how everyone did it in the Philippines. The practice actually is limited to remote rural areas, and in fact, Filipinos pride themselves on living in one of the two Asian countries where silverware is used rather than chopsticks (Thailand is the other). But I stand by my description of Filipino cuisine as simple and unsophisticated--those words don't translate into crude and stupid, which is what they thought I meant. Rather, I find Filipino food not complex and not pretentious--and that describes my meal in both settings. Except that at Nipa Hut, I wasn't treated to renditions of "You Are My Sunshine" and "Home on the Range" by the Filipino Waltons.
If only all misunderstandings had such a happy ending.
Back to the Gardens: In last week's item about Marvin Gardens and the departure of Marvin Bronstein, Gardens co-owner Lance Katcher, who'd returned to the restaurant after a stint at the Wellshire Inn, told me, "We got rid of Marvin. There were complaints that the food wasn't up to par." In reality, says the other owner, Chris Korisis, "Marvin was given the option to stay on and work with Lance, but he chose to leave on his own instead." Bronstein says that's not true, either--but he's happy just to have his name cleared. "I quit the day Lance came back," Bronstein says. "I have never been fired, and I stand behind my reputation. I think when Lance says there were complaints about the food, he means that some people weren't happy that I made a few changes to the menu. They wanted everything on the Gardens' menu to stay the same."
There's no chance of that: Korisis and Katcher have turned the place into a new restaurant, the Gourmet Seafood Cafe.
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