Australians may be best known around the world as laidback and easygoing but what many don’t know is that we’re among the most hardworking bunch, too. According to government figures, Aussies work an average 44 hours per week, the longest working week among those who live in the developed countries.

Like many people, I could only afford to take two weeks off work at any given time before they start calling out a search party. Fortunately, I didn’t need 14 days. Ten days in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, was all it took to re-invigorate my soul and retrace my roots.

During my holiday visit over the Lent period last year, I went to a restaurant that is now on my ‘recommended restaurants’ to visit. This was how I recalled that fateful evening.

A visit to La Cocina de Tita Moning was an experience I’ll never forget. It just so happened that we were the only guests for the night so we had the restaurant all to ourselves. There was more pomp and ceremony to the event than I could ever imagine possible in one setting.

For a start, the restaurant was situated within the walls of San Miguel District. You have to make a booking to get through the security and the restaurant is the ‘ancestral home’ of the Legarda family. Apparently one of the relatives (or daughters) now lives in Sydney.

The night started with someone giving us a warm welcome and taking us to the bar, serving us drinks: a choice of either lemon grass or fresh dalandan. But the surprise of the night was that we were served lightly toasted bread with ‘queso de bola’ while we waited for our table. They were so yummy I had to restrain myself from overeating!

Half an hour later, we were led to the house by another guide. The house looked and felt like it jumped straight out of an 1800s movie, in the heydays of Spanish mestizos living in mansions. The only hint that it is a restaurant was that you went up the stairs to see a dining room large enough to accommodate a party of at least 30 guests.

Fine dining at La Cocina de Moning

Fine dining at La Cocina de Moning

Fine dining at La Cocina de Moning

But the evening just got better when we’ve finally done our tour of the house (see picture of the room that displays an ancestral wedding dress) and it was time to sit down. For entrée, we were served “fresh kangkong”. Nothing unusual about that except the kangkong was blanched with caramelised walnuts, grilled pepper salad and homemade walnut vinaigrette. The caramelised walnuts gave the dish that extra oomph.

For mains we had slowly roasted pork with its own chicharon, candied sweet potato (camote) and sautéed fresh ubod. To fill our stomach, Paella Valenciana was served, too.

I would have to say that I liked the dessert best (caramelised saba bananas). And who can say no to “barako coffee”? I certainly didn’t.

All in all a great night. I now understand why the restaurant is one of Manila’s most frequented spots for special dining occasions (it’s jam packed every year on Valentine’s Day).

All up, the meal for two cost around 4,000 pesos (AUS$150 at most), this is on the upper price range by Philippine standards. In relative terms though, getting the same meal in

Love Manila
Book available in Australia in Nov 2010
Sydney would cost at least twice as much. The tour, the service and the taste of the meal makes a visit to La Cocina worth every penny.

Michelle Baltazar’s 10-day trip culminated in a collection of photos and short stories featured in her upcoming coffee table book, ‘Love, Manila’ in 2010 in Sydney.

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