Thursday, March 26, 2009

Cafe Juanita: A Melange of Colors and Flavors

No. 2 United cor. West Capitol, Bo. Kapitolyo, Pasig City

The Bait: Good reviews from friends and media
The Line: Eclectically Romantic (according to Awesome Planet)
The Hook: Simply good cooking
The Sinker: Less than stellar service
The Catch: P400++ per person

This is the opposite of zen. The beyond-kitsch, bordello-like decor is a minimalist's nightmare. Gordon Ramsay would have a fit with the fusion-confusion of its ultra eclectic menu, which mixes Mediterranean with Asian. Cafe Juanita is a visual melee but a gustatory delight.

My husband, knowing I've been wanting to try the place, decided to treat me and my mother in law on the eve of my birthday. But he was noncommittal about the time so we weren't able to make reservations. And the place, with two floors and several family size dining tables, was packed. We missed the chance to dine at the main dining rooms. Instead, we slummed at their meriendahan. That there was no a/c on that hot March evening would be enough reason for me to go for a plan b resto. But I really wanted to try it, so we chose a table close to the blasting electric fan and ordered from the main resto's menu.

My husband will never pass up on his national flower, the Chicharon Bulaklak (P189), so we started with that. What can I say, it's good. Hard to go wrong with that.

That was followed by Sinigang na Corned Beef with Chorizo (P389). What's great about the dish is that before they served it, the server came out with a little cup of the broth and asked us to sample it the way they'd ask you to sample the wine before serving. You can ask them to adjust the acidity or the sourness. So the soup they delivered was just perfect. As sour as we wanted it. We rarely have this kind of sinigang broth, thickened by gabi. Really good, or it also could be that we were very hungry when we got there. There was nothing extraordinary with the corned beef, but the chorizo gave it a unique twist.

My favorite dish was the Tinuktok (P199). I suspect a lot of diner miss this as it is on the bottom of the comprehensive menu. Imagine this: crabmeat and buco wrapped in taro leaves topped by two sauces -- coconut and crab fat. Something I would definitely order when I go back.

Hubbalicious wanted Thai Style Crispy Dalag (P295), but they didn't have it that night. So we settled for Sole with Lemon Butter Sauce (P368). Faultless. Perfectly pan-grilled -- crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.

The Spicy Spare Ribs (P160?) was not listed on the dinner menu, but I saw a picture of it and ordered. The ribs have the kind of sneaky spiciness that creeps up on you, seems mild at first and next thing you know you're sneezing as the well hidden labuyo pepper bits tickle your nostrils and taste buds.

For dessert, Hubbalicious and Mom in law split a halo-halo. I sampled it but did not detect anything special about it. Plus it seemed to have too many beans, which I don't like in my halo halo. I don't like beans. Period.

My Cafe Juanita experience was capped by the famous Sticky Toffee Pudding (P89). This affirms what I've always known -- giving up dessert for life is just plain wrong. The pudding was very moist. The caramel sauce could be too sweet for others, but for me the combination of pudding, caramel sauce, and vanilla ice cream was just, uhm, I'm struggling to articulate how good it is. It has an old-fashioned, homemade appeal to it, but it is exceptionally good.

Our server was very pleasant and helpful, but she still needed a bit of training answering some of our questions. In fairness to her, I was inquisitive and my husband was determined to charm her with his corny jokes. She was very patient with both of us.

After dining, I checked out the main dining area again, and I think it's worth a second trip to have the full experience next time.

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