Saturday, 29 October 2011

[Restaurant - Filipino] Cravings, Nothing Else but Cravings; Josephine's of Fitzrovia

Location - Fitzrovia, London [UK]

It is peculiar what you are aware of and what you crave, only when that object is no longer part of your surroundings. It is also peculiar to note just why you crave it when you had never sampled it beforehand. Am I pregnant and suddenly becoming awash with diverse cravings? I don't know. What I do know is that lately I have been consumed by an innate desire to feast on the cuisine of the Philippines. This despite having lived the majority of my life within a measurable Filipino influence in the family. And never having any particular engaging with their food. I don't know either.

Throughout my years in Saudi Arabia, the Filipino influence was prevalent, with numerous maids aiding in my upbringing, and a rather prominent Filipino community being based in the country. I would pass eateries frequently, I would be in contact with them often, but never had I had any desire to explore further at the time. Though, it must be said, I probably had little idea of how it differed to other South East Asian cuisines and cultures at the time, I had no idea just how much of a minor obsession it would become. Following on my recent, well, let's just say "mission" for now, to explore the world's cuisines eventually, research had brought me onto the Philippines. A country, whose cuisine seemed to bring in influences from all over, then completely made distinct by varying distinguishing preparations and ingredients. The more I read, the more I became enamoured with the underlying basis of combining sweet with sour, savoury with bitter, all at once. I only ever became hungrier. Why had I not felt this way before, when all of this surrounded me?!

I soon hatched plans, to rectify this situation for whenever my eventual return to Saudi Arabia would be. I am however, grossly impatient, and would need retribution sooner. My first sampling actually came at the Notting Hill Carnival, where I let out a yelp of glee coming across a Filipino stall amongst the hoards of Caribbean fare. Granted, I only bought a Turon and a Hopia, it was a minor victory. A couple of months later saw a further diabetic treat sample in the form of Majablanca from Shepherd's Bush Market, but these were all little treats, not really forming any solid basis of the cuisine of the Philippines, as indulgently delicious as they were. I needed a meal. And rather surprisingly, there were several restaurants available, and not all located in some desolate Ethnic Community hotspot in East-side Ghettotown. Selecting a suitable date, I decided to sample the more renowned of the Filipino restaurants first, one that had apparently been visited by some unheard of celebrities - questionable bragging rights, celebrities have no taste - and was in the nicer part of London. Josephine's would thus be the first to answer the questions of my obsession. 

~ Starters ~
- Tinola Soup with Vegetables

Perusing through the menu, not much was found to be overly unique in the appetizers section, seemingly falling into the usual South East Asian loop of spring rolls, fried seafood and the like. Not that I really should have even thought of ordering starters considering the abhorrent gorging I had engaged in earlier in the day, but perhaps the replacing of oxygen in my blood with cigar smoke prior to dinner had affected my judgement. I also figured I may as well have a token portion of vegetables, in a vain hope of repelling some of the evils. As the Laing as not available in a "Starters" portion, I opted for the Tinola, a ginger-based soup.

Receiving a sizeable bowl filled with plenty of cabbage, zucchini, runner beans and other assorted vegetables, I was issued a warning/disclaimer for the chilli [*scoffs*], and then I took a sip. Ginger was the basing, the predominant, and the general flavour of the soup. A light vegetable broth, defined by the fresh fragrance of ginger. Exclusively so. The vegetables were also similarly plain, being just the right side of being well cooked, offering some bite, but not being terribly flavoured. The chilli was pleasing in its intensity though, its nice heat and zing combining well with the freshness of the ginger. Whilst not overly interesting, the chilli at least woke me up out of my smoky haze, and the copious ginger was at least freshening. And I also had some token fibre in my stomach.

~ Main Course ~
- Adobong Baboy

Whilst I initially had notions of asking for advice on what to choose as a main starter, preferring to leave the arduous task of choice to others - for my inane inability to do so - I quickly settled on the Adobo dish. If ever there were a dish that would offer a basing for the general Filipino cuisine, in my limited knowledge, it would be Adobo. So sayeth Wikipedia. Skipping on the rice, as every little helps, a sizeable plate of some rather delicious pork chunks arrives, rather quite quickly after the soup. Supposedly marinated with vinegars, sugars, and all sorts of spicing, the adobo is supposed to offer a representative realm of typical Filipino cuisine, melding sweet, sour, savoury and bitter tastes.

So I was rather disappointed when I tasted the sauce to find, sweetness. More sweetness. Sweetness some more. Maybe a bit of earthiness. Then some sweetness. It was not overtly sweet, I did not drop any limbs, but it was rather predominantly sweet. It was also rather generic. More than anything, it was similar to a black bean sauce, offering the same sort of earthy sweet notes, with a hint of soy sauce. Some black pepper was evident as well, as well as the fresh note of the garnishing coriander, but there was no sourness, bitterness or other qualities at all. It tasted like it was not new to me at all. The pork chunks however were pleasant enough, being tender and juicy, falling apart rather easily. Not difficult to envision considering the enormous chunks of fat some came with. I was however, left unenlightened. Wishing to discover so mind-bendingly eclectic, I was left with deja-food.

~ Dessert ~
- Halo-halo

Leaving my predisposition towards pastries, creams, and all things bad, I opted for the Halo-halo in the end, for the end of this rather quick-fire meal. Seemingly a favourite in the Philippines, the crushed ice desserts seem to be quite ubiquitous in Asia, something that did not really appeal to me. As much as I try, eating water just does not excite me. Regardless, it's traditional, a country favourite and yada yada, maybe I'll learn something new. Receiving the eating implement though, I also learnt that I would not be receiving it in a bowl:

The spoon amused. Then mildly terrified. What sort of beast would require such a monster of an implement to consume?! I received my answer. Struggling to see over the top of it, I was preseneted with a towering sundae glass of multi-layered, colourful excess. It seemed to contain everything, from the preserved fruit, to a geneorus helping of crushed ice, swimming in coconut milk and finally topped by a scoop of purple [PURPLE?!] ice-cream, and a slice of flan. Perhaps a sprinkling of fairy dust and some forest creatures lay in there as well. I was told to mix it up. Which was far easier said than done, as the layer of crushed ice had seemed to have compacted into a solid mound under the mass of its own gravitational field. So I started with the purple ice-cream, which I presumed to be ube [sweet potato]. Rather ube it was as well, not terribly distinct but rather..earthy, almost starchy in its flavour, not quite of sweet potato, but different all the same. The flan was also enjoyable enough, not too eggy and a light caramel flavouring evident. Attacking the ice without making a mess was difficult. The solid clumps made any effort to penetrate them result in the dessert trying to escape the cup.

Eventually I broke through, the ice not being particularly memorable oddly enough, though the parts drenched in coconut milk were at least a bit more interesting. I eventually reached the preserved fruit, scooping them out precariously trying not to upset the balance of the towering dessert. They were different - not sure what I was expecting, but in texture and flavour they were very much like a very dense jelly. They added a sweetness rather obviously, but, I find it hard to define any actual flavour. More of a flavouring, tasting a bit too commercial grade perhaps. I forget completely what fruit they were. The slivers of buko were nice though, providing some sweet coconut aroma to meld with the coconut milk and generally add some interest to the ice. Annoyingly the ube ice-cream had melted and joined the slush, but there being so much slush meant it was lost in the sea. An imposing, intriguing, and intimidating dessert, all at once. It was quirky, but also rather sedate. It did get consumed to the last drop though.

~ Drinks ~
- Calamansi Juice

Romanced by a notion that I would somehow feel closer culturally to the gastronomic spectrum of the Philippines blindly following what the menu instructed, I opted for a Calamansi Juice as a drink. More sugary drinks. Yay. Whilst the Tapuy I had wanted in vain was not available, I figured being a citrus juice it would at least..well. I do not actually have an excuse for having ordered it. It was rather similar to a lime juice, but an earthier flavour, possibly from the palm sugar used. Somehow it was also not as acidic, and rather subdued. It was pleasant, but not particularly interesting. Though this would be perhaps a case of expecting far more from something than the sum of its parts, it is just a citrus juice in the end.


After the five or so minutes it took for the dinner to start, and then conclude, I was left in a bit of a quandary. Whilst the meal was very much satisfying, it was more so through its safe, rather generic flavouring and ample portions than through any originality, enlightening diversity or eclectic tastes. The service was quick, almost too quick, which perhaps defined the type of food that would be served, the whole three courses being served almost straight after the prior was finished. Whilst I can only speculate, I can only imagine that dishes being made from scratch may take a bit longer than that to create. I was also not sure it was the most authentic of experiences, a point that rings true for many establishments, though once again, I base this without knowing any better. Nevertheless, I was not particularly intrigued by much of the food, the soup being rather basic in its composition, and the main course being rather generic, tasting much like a typical sticky sauce based dish at any number of Asian restaurants. Maybe Wikipedia misled me, but in this meal, I did not feel like anything new was being experienced, like a truly representative culinary image was being sampled.

Granted, the Halo-halo was entertaining, but again, it was simplistic in its nature, more intriguing for its gargantuan size and resultant self-contained gravitational field. However, I was not left completely disappointed. Service was friendly, they actively engaged, though being one of the only patrons there, they probably could. In the end, I came away unenlightened. Be it for the area, the need to play it safe with food in order to attract more of the mainstream, but I did not feel I received a representative meal here of the Philippines - what I had seemed very "tempered" and generic, compared to the extreme notions of sweet/sour/savoury I had read about. Suffice it to say, my obsession has not been answered. For better, or for worse. I will certainly enjoy trying to find out more about what the Philippines has to offer though. Balut and all. 

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