Entrance to Bale Dutung Restaurant
From Laguna, we travelled to the Culinary Capital of the Philippines which is Pampanga, just to have lunch. But it was not any ordinary food trip. We dined at Chef Claude Tayag's famous Bale Dutung Restaurant to sample the best of Pampango cuisine. What we had was actually a dégustation - "a culinary term meaning a careful, appreciative tasting of various foods and focusing on the senses and high culinary art."
Upon entrance to Bale Dutung, which literally means wooden house, we were greeted by a wooden artwork that was most probably made by Chef Claude himself. Being a multi-talented person, Chef Claude has many (too many!) credits to his name as chef, book author, food writer, painter, sculptor, collector, and traveler. His art gallery is also located here in Bale Dutung. We arrived early for our appointment so we had plenty of time to walk around and shoot photos of the many interesting artifacts that adorned the premises.
"Dirty kitchen" at Bale Dutung
Chef Claude's wife, Mary Ann, warmly welcomed us into their home/restaurant. It was like being invited to a friend's house to sample the lovingly prepared dishes. But what sets Bale Dutung apart from any other dining experience was that the host (Mary Ann) patiently described the origins and/or evolution of each dish and what flavors to expect from it. Just like having a "tour guide" while eating.
Inside Bale Dutung Restaurant
Bale Dutung offers three kinds of menu to choose from - Anthony Bourdain menu, Lechon menu, and Kapangpangan (Kapampangan) menu. We chose the Kapampangan menu because it was the safest and healthiest of the three (seriously!). We prepared ourselves for a very long lunch that took about three to four hours to finish. On that note, it is not advisable to bring young kids along because they will really get impatient.
To prepare our taste buds for the ten-course meal, Mary Ann initially served plain crackers with three different kinds of dips - pesto made from basil and pili nuts, pure taba ng talangka (crab fat) and balo-balo (fermented rice with freshwater shrimp). The combination of pesto and crab fat was the best tasting for me. Their balo-balo was only mild but I don't have an acquired taste for it.
The first dish served was the Ensaladang Pako or fiddle head fern salad. The fern was really fresh and crispy and the dressing was sweet and a bit sour at the same time (must be honey with calamansi). We should appreciate this humble fern because according to Mary Ann, it sells at $20 per pound in the USA!
The second dish was Piniritong Lumpiang Ubod sa Claude'9 Oriental Sauce or fried vegetable spring roll with lemon coriander Thai basil sauce. This spring roll must be eaten together with the lettuce leaf for a refreshing taste.
The third course served was Inasal na Manok at Claude'9 Talangka Rice or barbecue chicken wings with lemon grass marinade and crab fat rice. As you may see in the photo above, the portions were really very small so that there would be enough space left in our stomachs and we would be able to finish the tenth course.
The fourth course served was Adobong Pugo or adobo style quail. We learned that quail is a very common food for Kapampanagans. But in the Tagalog region, quail meat is very unusual such that it was only in Bale Dutung that I ate a quail dish for the very first time. The quail was small enough to fill only half of the plate. Its taste was very mild, no overpowering soy sauce or vinegar taste. I just found the quail meat to be a bit dry. But the quail liver was very delicious, perfectly paired with the tiny pan de sal or bread of salt.
The fifth course was Balo-Balo Sushi or catfish and fermented rice sushi. We were served only one piece each so it was not enough for me to appreciate its flavor.
Finally, what everyone was waiting for - the sixth course served was Tortillang Lechon or crispy roast pork flakes on a tortilla.
Lechon floss was mixed with tomatoes, onions, coriander and kimchi on a bed of warm tortilla. Since the lechon meat was shredded and fried to come up with crispy pork flakes, I did not expect this dish to taste like lechon at all. And yes, it was a very unique combination of flavors in a most delicious way. The kimchi made from apples harmonized the different tastes and textures.
After eating the tortillang lechon, my stomach felt full already. I did not think that I could take another bite. But the next course, the seventh, was Bulanglang Kapampangan na may Tian ng Bangus, Ulang at Tadyang ng Baboy or milkfish belly, spareribs, and crayfish soup, flavored with native guava. Surely, I did not want to miss this.
We trooped to the soup station so we could get our share of the bulanglang. The soup was very thick because of the addition of taro and steamed rice. We were instructed to get one of each vegetable and meat/seafood. This was how my plate looked like:
The bulanglang was best eaten with bagoong (fermented shrimp paste) or patis (fish sauce) as the soup was very sweet because of the perfectly ripe guava. It may also be eaten with brown rice or white rice (wrapped in banana leaves).
At this point, I was really very, very full. And the next course (eighth) to be served was Begucan Sisig Babi at Ensaladang Talong (Sisig with grilled eggplant). Oh my! How would I be able to eat another bite? Thankfully, and mercifully, it was a small serving, just enough to taste the flavors:
The ninth course was the most beautifully created dish of all - Kare-kareng Laman Dagat or seafood cooked in peanut sauce. It was a medley of flavors because of the combination of peanuts, coconut cream, and taba ng talangka in the sauce. New Zealand mussels, cuttlefish and prawns were the stars of this dish. Look at the size of those mussels:
The mussels were very fresh and delicious but the cuttlefish was chewy and bland. I did not eat the shrimps anymore.
For the perfect finish to a very amazing dining experience, we were served with Paradiso, the tenth course as dessert. Balls of ube, macapuno and yema on a bed of water buffalo's (carabao's) milk.
By far, this is the most delicious dessert I have ever tasted! I really savored every bite so as to prolong this truly heavenly experience (I now call this dessert "three balls from heaven"). It was also served with coffee, named as sinaunang kape because it was flavored with fresh carabao's milk and sweetened with muscovado sugar.
After our lunch ended at about past 3PM, Chef Claude joined us for some picture-taking and autograph signing of his book, "Linamnam, Eating One's Way Around the Philippines." He co-authored this book with his wife Mary Ann. His book can also be bought at Bale Dutung, as well as his bottled dips and sauces under the Claude'9 brand.
To the Tayag couple, thank you for promoting Philippine cuisine through Bale Dutung.
Note: Bale Dutung is strictly by reservation only, with a minimum of 12 persons in a group. For your reservations or inquiries, you may contact Bale Dutung at the fllowing:
Villa Gloria Subdivision,
Angeles City, Pampanga
(045) 6250169, (02) 6684038