The Adarna experience

This is a feature I wrote for MST Sunday - Lifestyle. It's special because Bea took the photos for this piece -- we conducted the interview together. Published 23 June 2013

words by Adelle Chua
images by Beatrice Adeline Tulagan
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Descend the stairs and behold...!

“It was providential – no, serendipitous -- how we found this place,” muses Elizabeth Angsioco, part-owner of Adarna Food and Culture along Kalayaan Avenue in Quezon City.

The name of the restaurant brings to mind a magical, mythical creature found in a Filipino literary classic. In a sense, that’s what the place is, too.

Sure, it’s the food. Adarna just got named one of the Top 500 restaurants in Asia by the prestigious Mielle Guide – for the third year now.  But it’s more than the food. It’s the experience, one which Angsioco and business partner, executive chef Giney Villar, are only too eager to share.

NGO roots

Beth and Giney have known each other for many years, going back to their NGO days. Angsioco has always been active advancing women’s causes, and Villar with community health and LGBT issues. In the course of their respective advocacies, the two have gone to many places in the Philippines and have acquired many insights into Filipino food and culture.
Giney says she always looks for two things when she is in a place she has never visited before – the oldest church, and the food. She has always loved to cook, even in pre-Adarna days.  Moreover, the stories surrounding food always mesmerize her.  “It’s a real connection,” she says. You have a piece of art and you can only look at it to appreciate it. You have food, with the stories of why this ingredient was used or what cooking tools were available to whom at that time, and you partake of it.
Beth, for her part, describes herself as a “natural basurera”, deriving joy at discovering things other people would consider trash. “I see what others don’t.” One time, she was driving along a town in Laguna and passed by a run-down house with bits and pieces of colored glass.  “I could not help it. I had to stop.”  Her finds are now in the restaurant, incorporated into a sliding door that separates the smoking section from the non-smoking part.

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Villar and Angsioco, collaborators
Heritage food

Established in December 2007, Adarna is, first and foremost, a restaurant. It prides itself in food that may not be familiar even to many who regularly eat Filipino food. Adarna’s offerings are from as far north and far south as one could imagine.
The menu, which looks like a photo album in our grandmothers’ houses, contains an elaborate description and sometimes the history of each dish. Some of the staff note that it takes a while for customers to order because they really get into the text.
“We have a fair share of the reading crowd here,” says Giney.
          Here’s the text for the empanada de kaliskis: “crisp-layered shell whimsically called ‘kaliskis’ holds a delicious chicken filling that has been enjoyed by heads of States and the old-rich families of Bulacan since 1820.” Beth and Giney say there are only two women from Malolos, both in their 70s, who claim to know the authentic recipe.
Items in the menu are periodically reviewed and changed; Giney’s research is constant. Dishes are offered depending on available ingredients and the level of preparation required.  Sometimes balikbayans come and look for dishes that are no longer on the list. “If we have the ingredients, we cook the food just for them,” Giney says. The challenge lies in keeping the authentic recipes alive. Sometimes, as in the Malolos empanada, the secrets face the danger of not being passed on – and the food dies. “It’s important that the secrets are shared, not necessarily to us, so that the dishes can live.”
Here’s a sampling of a full meal: The cocido with tomato-olive dressing -- made of beef chunks, chicken and pork pelotas in a savory ham-flavored broth with vegetables – is a variation of the pochero. Similar, but not quite. 
And then, it takes two days to prepare the chicken relleno circa 1940 with salsa monja – roast chicken stuffed with chorizo, ham, quezo de bola and dried fruits. According to the menu, in the olden days, it indicated the importance of the guests to whom it was served.
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Chicken relleno, morisqueta tostada and cocido = a glorious Filipino feast
A long-time cook for a Manila convent school helped recreate the sigarillas salad with bagnet bits – complete with vinaigrette. Fried rice, a comida China, was christened with a Spanish name called morisqueta tostada. For dessert, there is crepe called platanillos con manga – warm crepe filled with custard and finished with rhum-butter mango. There’s also a new offering – the pinaso, a pudding with both sides burnt and caramelized.
Sometimes people also come just to sit down and have barako coffee – served in special cups and saucers one has to see for onself.

The place to be

The Adarna experience is not complete without looking around and beholding the local treasures that adorn all corners of the restaurant. There are jars and works of art, local kitchen equipment, old bills and coins, photographs of beauty queens and movie stars, even old postcards and manuscripts.
Beth leads us to a tour of Adarna, highlighting the so-called war rooms – favorite meeting places of advocacy groups and, occasionally, politicians.  She points out where and how they obtained this item, and that. One room has a beauty queen theme; the next, show business of old.
Adarna is popular among Filipinos vacationing from abroad, or those entertaining foreigners, or families and groups of friends – so long as they crave the taste and experience of everything Filipino. The place also witnesses a fair share of special events: birthdays, anniversaries, book launches, poetry readings, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, weddings of whatever kind, pagtatapat, pamamanhikan, proposals and the like.
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This place has seen all sorts of occasions, from the traditional to the political to the offbeat.
There are events as well – during an anniversary of the birth of national hero Jose Rizal, guests were invited to come dressed in their favorite characters from Noli Me Tangere or El Filibusterismo. It was proven that the balagtasan, bugtungan and the harana were not dying forms of art. An advocacy party was organized for people of whatever cause. One Valentine’s Day, there was a love letter reading event, and guests brought real love letters, some between their own parents. In another occasion, it was not romantic love but love for country that was paid tribute to.
“In the olden days,” Beth – an op-ed columnist for this newspaper – says, “people had tertulias where they just hung out and have fun.” Whoever wanted to sing sang. Whoever wanted to strum a guitar played. Whoever wanted to recite a poem spoke out.
It goes on. On June 29 at 6:30 p.m., Adarna will hold its Independence Tertulia dubbed simply as “Kabayanihan.” Guests are invited to share a song or poem, or to dance about heroism.  (Go to Adarna’s Facebook page, Adarna Resto, and follow it on Twitter, @adarnaresto, for details on this and similar events.)

What’s probably the biggest challenge is the business side of running a restaurant. Still, as in anything, nothing beats living out your passion and loving what you do.
Beth and Giney say that right from the beginning, right from the moment they settled on the restaurant’s location – even as it was all boarded up and hidden from view at that time, and even as it took a while to find an architect who would turn a run-down warehouse into what it has become – they have had the feeling that there are into something magical and mystical in Adarna.

Many things can be said about Adarna – the food, the place and the people behind it.  But what it is, is truly, wonderfully, Filipino.