By GENE GONZALEZ
Last year, I attended a street food event and got to try some creative sausages and smoked ribs in bun combinations from a stall called the Hungry Ape. The owner, Morris Uy, who I deemed had an experimental soul, turned out to be the owner of the Penong’s group restaurants known for their lechon manok, chicken inasal, and barbecue. This was a great jump from a business that catered to more traditional flavors preferred by the Davao eating public.
A few months back, I got to try the 24-day aged rib eye from Chef Morris through the kindness of Jj Luy, who cooked up a few steaks in a bar with his brother, Mark. I was all praises for this richly flavored and intensely beefy steak. It turned out that Morris has been aging steaks for three years now and has more or less come close to a dry-aged method that consistently yields good results. I was probably one of those who pushed him to put his misgivings aside since the Davao market has a selectively knowledgeable clientele that can appreciate the machismo flavors of a well-developed cut of beef. After all, this is a macho country anyway; where developed scotch, malt, and budding wine culture are brewing.
Next thing I knew, I got invited for a preview of the new restaurant dishes to Chef Moe’s The Hungry Ape, a well-lit bistro in the old part of the Davao City business district. And to return a kindly gesture, I promised to bring wine worthy of the three years of toil on aging meat in a tropical setting like Davao.
So, our group of hungry apes, quite rotund, was composed of JJ and Mark Luy with Gino, my son, who was very hungry after finishing two classes that day. Moe first served us a crostini of beet-cured salmon that, of course, was curiously red. Its sweet curing seemed to have highlighted the creaminess of this gravlax course, streaked with a compound mayo and capers to balance the richness of the fish. It was a dish quite fitting for a Chateau Prieur 2001 that had been in my cellar all these years and now in a hue of light garnet or brick, showing its age.
The pungent spice characters are now gone highlighting new tastes of hawthorn, dried plums, and fruitcake or sweet spice. This wine was soft enough to handle the salmon and had the structure to take his Sicilian Timballo. What seemed to be well thought of was the giant dish our quiet and contemplative chef made. Plated before us was macaroni and herbed meat sauce surrounded by a baked buttery crust.
Next came was a lightly cured pork belly that spent enough time in in his sous-vide for tenderness. Coated with salted egg and honey glaze with tidbits of the whites of the salted egg topping the crispy pork, the dish was a balanced taste of sweet and salty complementing the cured meat. Similarly, a plate of Crispy Beef Tadyang was served with infused vinegar, which was made more special for it was Certified Angus short ribs. At this point, I wanted to be an ape and ask for rice as these dishes were screaming for it, but, I had to maintain some restraint because I could see the steaks cooking at a distance in the kitchen.
Our steaks arrived and were one and-a-half-inch thick cuts of 30-day Angus prime rib. For this type of aged meat, there can be no other method but to pan fry it in butter so one can appreciate the patience and technique involved in aging the meat.
There were three gargantuan steaks wonderfully excreting their crust’s aromas of butter, cheese, and caramelized beef suet. Glasses were poured with Argentinian Malbec and Juntos by Trivento, which was one of their premium Malbecs, whose powerful flavors of black fruit, plums, vanilla, and chocolate with a back note of floral talcum powder, went so well with the buttery, lightly cheesy, and the browned flavors of the beef. Its tenderness was well taken care of by the enzymatic action of the process the meat underwent for a month. Juices from the medium rare areas softened the already tame tannins of the wine creating a velvety aftertaste loaded with the dark fruit of the well-barreled Juntos. And if there was any stereotyped question like “Where’s the beef?” Well, the beef was well taken care of, gone, by a bunch of Hungry Apes..
For dessert, we had a simple Cannoli with a generous sprinkling of chocolate chips on both sides. Filled with folds of cream cheese, ricotta, and whipped cream, it was light enough to balance the fried rolled pasta crust.
The night we had at the Hungry Apes was a carnivorous celebration of aged proteins. Still more to come, Chef Moe seemed to have some other exciting plans that will be revealed in a future article on other eating sessions. I’ve always wanted to quote the dialogue on the movie the Godfather, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” Yes, the cannoli—something you shouldn’t miss trying aside from the steak that is worth dreaming about.