By Gene Gonzalez
It has been quite some time since we last saw our Cebu eating buddy Mark Luy who never disappoints us with his new eating discoveries. We all agree that ambiance takes a lower seat to food that seeks not only to fill the stomach but to satisfy the palate and psyche together. Mark talks about this place set up and run by a Hokkien migrant in Cebu that is now favored by the Chinese community in the Queen City of the South.
This place located on the second floor of Times Square seems to have busy mealtimes judging from the number of the service staff and the tables and chairs marked with heavy usage. People were trickling in for dinner, we came in quite early and by the time our orders came out the place had become a truly busy eatery.
We left it up to Mark to order his “classic selections.” There were a couple that seemed to tickle Chef King Estolano’s interests and mine, too. The staff was very helpful in explaining each of the dishes that gave us an opportunity to contemplate on the nuances of each plate.
Dinner started with a curious stir-fry squid and kidney with celery stems. The textures complemented each other as both kidney and squid were smooth and, sautéed, they were given a good silkiness. The watery crunch of celery stalks provided the contrast and also countered the slight wild flavor of kidney and seemed to lift the light fresh squid flavors. This was an impressive starter as I have not had this combination in a long while.
Next came in our Sichuan boiled-beef that had thin and very tender marinated beef slivers coated and flash fried before it joined the mix of bean sprouts, Chinese cabbage, and silky tofu in a fiery opaque broth laced with fresh and dried chilis—a typical Mainland Chinese cookery. The beef slivers were absolutely tender from its marination but I seemed to miss the wood spices and the Szechuan peppercorns or infused oil that could have created the electric sensation on my lips typical of Sichuan dishes.
Our oyster cake had very fresh and clean tasting oysters. The recipe style had a straightforward focus on the oyster and did not add any textures like the customary gooey potato starch that catches the oyster juices during the pan frying of the omelet.
The next two dishes were absolute winners. One of them was a plate of slivered and fried okras drenched with a flavorful but light soya-based sauce. The okras did their job of adding to the body of the sauce. This was highlighted by long and low fired crisp garlic and dried chilis. The other winning dish was one our host really wanted me to try. It was called qiampong, a glutinous rice dish that had a bronze coloring from stock and soy flavor absorption. Everyone loved this traditional favorite as a last touch of finely slivered mustard leaf gave a subtle spice and greenness to the silky grains of glutinous rice that several lesser establishments would serve as a starchy mass.
Finally, we were served our dish of buttered chicken that turned out to be cuts from the wings with bite-sized meat and cartilage soaked in a marinade of custard powder that provided a creamy fragrance to the crisp and freshly fried wing morsels.
Overall, a return to this place to try the very high-end items, especially the seafood, should be done. We neglected to try them because we were so unmindfully eating away, not conscious of our flight schedule, that we had to jump and hurry with 45 minutes left before boarding time. As a consequence, we could have had a heart attack for dessert!