You mustn’t decline an invitation to a degustation, especially if it’s at Bella Yuchengco’s.
The first time I was introduced to Bella and her cooking was a few years back. She prepared a 10-course Japanese dinner that she also personally served with the most whimsical china I had ever seen. The food was just as spectacular. Everything had as much personality as the host herself.
So when the next invite came for Chinese night, I dropped everything so I could make it in time at her Alabang home. Nothing else was more important than seeing her at work and sampling her art again. With Bella, it seems that cooking becomes a spiritual pursuit, where the mind starts blank, leaves the known and then turns wide open for the creative muses to take over. But, she claims she’s just organized.
She keeps 20 notebooks with handwritten recipes and notes on what to improvise and what works. Her kids are gourmands and her critics. She’s got the best cooking staff. And her extensive china kicks off the presentation and inspires us to create the right dish to match.
Here’s her take on Chinese. We had 9 courses in all, of which the Scallop Dumplings with Simmered Corn Soup with Crab Claw, Homemade XO sauce, the Chinese Spaghetti that you drown in minced beef and shredded cucumber strips and the crispy Sweet-Sour Pork were my faves.
I still thought it was a divine ritual. That night in Alabang, Bella balanced the cosmic forces of yin and yang.
Two weekends ago, I invited 7 of my friends to San Fernando Pampanga to sample the cooking of Dennis Lim. I had written and raved about my first dining experience at Lim’s place, and I wanted them to discover Pampanga’s newest culinary sensation as well. A little voice in my head was saying he could get into some sophomore slump, that the first time was just a fluke. But Den Lim didn’t disappoint the group. We were euphoric.
For that weekend, I didn’t tell him what to cook except for his signature Pugon Liempo. He wanted to go “native”, or Pampangan fare with a twist. Bahala ka, I said.
Here’s what he prepared. Yes, for a party of 8.
My favorites that evening were the Pugon Liempo that came with buru (fish fermented in rice; his version was Manileno-friendly – it wasn’t pungent at all) and romaine greens that you wrap the roast pork and buru with); the kilayin (chopped pork and liver marinated in soy sauce, vinegar and pepper); and the asadong lengua (ox tongue that’s cooked forever with tomato sauce).
It’s only been less than a year ago since Den set up his private dining concept after running their family’s L.A. Bakeshop (a popular destination for cheesebread and other pasalubong) for decades. He’d always wanted do that but his mom had insisted that he man the cash register at L.A. Mom has since been impressed and let him free from the bread business.
He’s had no formal culinary training. And I think that’s his edge – the cooking isn’t studied; it’s raw, instinctive and soulful. So he’s technically not a chef yet. He’s simply a cook. A great one at that.
You must find the time to drive to Pampanga for Den Lim dining. His commissary-turned-restaurant is only open for dinner. But you must book way in advance. Heard he’s booked till October. His contact details: Tel. No. (045) 4350067; FB account firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out his FB page for foodies: “FOODY”.