In a town that's gone as crazy for foreign flavours as Toronto has, Filipino food should be on the cusp of a blockbuster breakout.
Like this city, the cuisine is built on a jumble of influences: Malay, Chinese, Tamil, Spanish, Mexican (Spanish colonists ruled the Philippines through Acapulco), plenty of mid-century American, even. What is Filipino food? Sloppy, satisfying noodle bowls called pancit, which mix pork, shrimp, scallions and garlic. Fatty, crispy fried chicken served with banana-kicked ketchup. Flaky empanadas made with creamy sweet potatoes and chorizo sausage. There are plenty of tropical sours, too, as in sinigang, a delectably puckery soup that brims with green tamarind and calamansi lime.
And it's a fun food culture. The nation's famous dessert, called halo-halo, is a parfait cup of frozen sweetness: coconut jello, condensed milk custard, sweetened red beans, jackfruit, crushed ice, and silky, crazy-flavoured ice creams like purple yam.
Some 200,000 ethnic Filipinos live in the Toronto area. They're Canada's fastest-growing immigrant group. Yet until Les Sabilano and chef Rudy Boquila opened Lamesa Filipino Kitchen on Queen West two months ago, downtown Toronto didn't have a full-service Filipino place.
Both men are second-generation, and both grew up in the suburbs (Mr. Sabilano in Scarborough, Mr. Boquila in Brampton). Mr. Sabilano learned the front-of-house with the Oliver and Bonacini group, where he spent six years as a server at Canoe and Jump. Mr. Boquila has been a cook in the city for 15 years at such places as the Gladstone Hotel and Oyster Boy.
The room, in the former Rosebud space, is simple but welcoming, with warm light on the wainscoted walls and jars of pickled daikon, ginger and chayote at the back. So far the clientele is largely Filipino: Families that turn up two and three generations strong to try the mushroom pancit; well-pressed professionals with chunky glasses; couples who've trekked in from the suburbs, where they're surrounded by cheap and excellent Filipino places – the usual city food migration but in reverse.
The duo's goal with Lamesa is to bring Filipino food "into the mainstream." No presh, boys. It's no easy task introducing an unknown cuisine to a fickle city at the height of a restaurant boom.
They've softened the cuisine's edges, pulled back the sours and the gut-filling fat. Nothing here is too sweet, too messy, too spicy or too scary. "Our kitchen honours Filipino classics while continuing the tradition of fusing ideas and ingredients from other cultures," the menu says.
There's an amuse of chilled coconut and corn soup with double-smoked bacon when we walk in one night (a sliver of scallion is the only hint we're in an Asian place), and a tasty, two-bite savoury pork empanada served with pureed raisins another time.
The sinigang – that classic sour soup – is tamed here, deconstructed on the plate: there's pork cheek that's been slow-braised to the verge of collapsing, then expertly seared and served with a tidy stack of wok-charred green beans, a bit of eggplant, a few dainty tomatoes, a side-dish of watery tamarind broth. The sisig, which in most Filipino places turns up a mess of fiery garlic, ginger, mayonnaise and cleaver-chopped pork face, is also muted: The pork is garden-variety ground, the garlic subtle, the ginger absent. There's a fried egg on top, and a pico de gallo that adds junior flyweight tomato and scallion punch.
Last week I went with a couple of recent immigrants. They typically go to Casa Manila and Coffee Inn in Scarborough for batchoy, a broth of yellow noodles with fried pork skin, fried garlic, fistfuls of chiles and scallions, as well as pork liver and intestines and pongy fish paste. The one at Coffee Inn tastes almost exactly like home, they said. And while they appreciated the food at Lamesa, they couldn't stop telling me about all of Toronto's "authentic" Filipino places.
I also appreciated the restaurant: the cooking, the room, the warm service, the guts it takes to be the first. I liked the fried chicken with banana ketchup, and that faceless sisig, and the pork belly and shrimp pinakbet that was served with pickled bitter melon (the pork was dry, however). I liked the green mango salad with the dollop of caramelized fish paste, the only huge-flavoured bite I had here. And I loved the desserts, especially: plantain-stuffed empanadas, and dense flan made with condensed milk, then doused with maple syrup.
But I started wondering what the real deal might look and taste like. Deconstructed sinigang is a lot like a hundred other dishes around the city. So are the fried chicken and the pancit noodles. In many cases the food is so toned down that it's not much different from French-rooted cooking that's larded, as is so much the fashion lately, with Asian notes.
I'd love to see a bigger push into the Filipino flavour and texture range – more sours and hots and shrimp-paste pong and offal. There's also room for more fun on the menu: more tropical fruits, more adventure, more messy, sloppy deliciousness, definitely halo-halo on the desserts list (they hope to introduce it this weekend, Mr. Sabilano said).
The city's tastes have come a long way in the last five years. We're ready.
So, we've introduced a star system. Why? Because it just makes things easier for readers. Here's how it works: One star and above is a good restaurant and a place we're recommending. We plan to save four stars for the very best places in the city. Stars reflect the food, service and atmosphere, with price taken into account.
No stars: Fair. Not recommended.
One star: Good, but won't blow a lot of minds.
Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities.
Three stars: Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
Four stars: Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution.