Friday, July 30, 2010

Of Swiss Cheese and Filipino-made Wine

I've just returned from a busy but pleasant evening that included a cocktail reception hosted by Ambassador Ivo Sieber, the new Swiss Ambassador, in observance of Switzerland's national day, and then a seven-course dinner hosted by Manny Osmena at 101, Enderun's on-campus fine dining restaurant in McKinley Hill, Fort Bonifacio.

At the Swiss national day reception, I was very pleased to meet the new ambassador and his wife, a tall and elegant Filipina. Unfortunately, I couldn't stay very long since I had to make it to Enderun for dinner -- but I did manage to get one serving of raclette cheese. The raclette serving station was definitely the most popular food station at the party; and lining up alongside myself were a couple of ambassadors and honorary consuls. One of them was Joseph Assad, honorary consul from Lebanon, expert (and if I may say so myself, tireless) photographer, and also one of the most popular personalities in Manila's cocktail party circuit. Jo is an Atenean.

The weekend Ateneo lost

"We lost last weekend," I said by way of an opening line. I didn't need to say anymore, but Ateneans would definitely know what I meant.

"Ah, but don't forget, I also went to La Salle," Jo said, without skipping a beat. Of course he knew what I was referring to.

"So you're a traitor!" I responded.

Jo laughed out loud. "I like to think that I can celebrate with the winners and mourn with the losers -- whichever is which."

A seven-course meal at Enderun

Then I made my way from Makati to Fort Bonifacio, where Manny Osmena's wine-pairing dinner was in full swing with over 60 people drinking and dining. When I sat down at my table, my three companions were already on the third course, a cream of celeriac soup with shrimp wrapped in bacon.

"Don't worry," said Chad Davis, Enderun's restaurant director. "We'll get you up to speed."

Up to speed meant tasting three glasses of Manny O wines and having a torchon of foie gras with pineapple chutney and smoked duck breast with hoisin sauce in under ten minutes before my soup.

As some serious wine drinkers will note -- and there are certainly a lot of those in Manila; I'm constantly amazed at being included in casual dinners with friends, where so much effort, time and text messages are undertaken just to decide what wine people will bring to a restaurant. There was a time, after all, when the question was just white or red; and in fact, in much of Europe, it still is -- that Manny O wines are not particularly upmarket wines. In fact, wine snobs will probably have a mouthful to say about these wines, that Manny Osmena created with a very hands-on approach in France, Italy and Spain. But Manny has an earful for them as well.

Snobbery in the wine world

"I hate the snobbery in the wine world," he told us. "Wine's not exclusive. It's been around for thousands of years."

And within their price point -- all his wines so far are way under PhP2000 -- Manny O wines certainly offer very good value. Many of them too have passed all sorts of blind tastings with flying colors, according to Manny O. So, yes, it's an entirely different market and lots of wine snobs in Manila probably sniff haughtily at these wines; but personally, we think it's great that someone is making decent wines that lots of people can actually afford. These wines are also wonderful with food, as our seven-course Enderun dinner proved. Everything really tasted very good with the seven Manny O wines served, and this daring pairing of unusual food with value wines made it a very enjoyable meal.

When we all observed just how good the wines tasted with the food and vice-versa, Manny smiled indulgently at us the way a history teacher might applaud his students for finally getting the reason behind the Cold War between Russia and the United States, or for understanding what autocracy in the modern world means.

"My wines are really made for drinking with food," he explained, almost unable to contain his satisfaction. "That's exactly how I conceptualized them. If I had a Lafitte, for example, I don't think I'd have it with food because it's too good to mix with food flavors."

My favorites at Enderun

In fact, thinking about the meal I just had, I'm hard-pressed to pick a favorite. But if I was forced to shortlist, I would pick the smoked duck in hoisin sauce, the orange teriyaki-glazed gindara with rice and the fabulous -- simply fabulous -- Louis XV chocolate dessert.

When Manny heard that our table had all loved the duck, he revealed: "That's my favorite too. Sometimes I come here and that's all I have -- a one-course meal of duck." Later on, I looked at the a la carte menu of 101 and the duck was priced at a relatively reasonable PhP 490. The restaurant is also open daily for lunch and dinner except Sundays, and I'd highly recommend it for an informal meal of pretty good food at not too expensive prices.

For each course, our table compared and discussed the wines and food and tried to decide whether the pairing worked well for us. About half the time, we didn't agree. But as Manny himself explained with a shrug: "There's no wrong or right about wines. It really depends on your style."

A fantastic chocolate dessert

The most difficult pairing was probably the fantastic Louis XV dessert, lusciously lacquered with chocolate that melted silkily in the mouth, and made with chocolate chips and praline for extra crunch, which Manny paired with the 2008 Sumiller, a wine he made in Spain. Three of us in my table had reservations about this.

"It seems too heavy for chocolate," my managing editor said, while the guy on my right mused: "This might work better with a sparkling wine like Manny's Blanquette de Limoux."

When Manny came back to our table, we bounced these ideas off him. "The Sumiller is supposed to bring out the bitterness of the chocolate and balance its sweetness," he said. "White wine wouldn't work, and the chocolate is too overpowering for the Syrah you had before this?"

"Wouldn't a sparkling wine work as well?" Vladi, the guy on my right, who seemed to know his food and liquor, asked.

"Yes, it would," Manny answered. "But that's because sparkling wines are the easiest wines to pair. They go with practically anything. But because of this, I find sparkling wines lack challenge. Even the most top of the line sparkling wines like Salon, which you can't even buy retail, is not challenging enough."

And with this, I excused myself to attend to another social obligation and then to try to get some shut-eye before dawn. It was past 11 o'clock and I was the first one to leave. The guests in the other tables were still all enjoying dessert, while the gentlemen at mine were just warming up for another round of drinks and fascinating conversations with the irrespresible and energetic perfectionist, Manny O.


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