Any excuse is reason enough for me to head up to Baguio. Being one, if not my favorite, place anywhere, taking a leisurely drive up to the summer capital is always a treat.

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By Chef Dino Datu

Photos by Chef Dino Datu and Margaux Salcedo

GETTING invited up to Baguio last February is even more enticing, as it normally is the time of year when the temperature drops even further. If there was ever a time I’d even consider saying no to an invitation to head up, it would be one of three reasons: Holy Week, the week between Christmas and New Year and Panagbenga. I’ve experienced all three occasions in Baguio before, and while any trip to the City of Pines is always tempting, the traffic, chaos in restaurants and the sheer volume of people at every turn can ruin the experience. The last time I’ve been to Panagbenga in the early-2000s, I ended up just staying at our rented house while my friends walked the city, as traffic was at a literal standstill.

This year my Panagbenga invitation came via text from friend and fellow foodie Margaux Salcedo. It was literally a one-word invitation—“Panagbenga!”. What followed were a series of questions and requests, which, deep down, I knew were pointless because whatever Margaux’s replies were going to be, I was in. Adding golf-related requests, asking if I can bring along company, our itinerary for the trip—all those were me, just coping with the fact that I already said yes without actually doing so. I dread traffic. I dread large crowds even more. If ever I see people rushing toward any direction, I’m the guy who stays put or heads the opposite way. But this was Baguio, with foodie friends, with golf, in February. There was never any choice.

Sometimes, so much of the worrying can all be for naught. On a Friday, the relaxed drive up took just a bit over four hours. I was expecting a bit of a bottleneck once near or just as we approach Baguio, but there was none. While I purposely avoided the downtown area, everywhere we went was just like any other weekday. Preparations, traffic advisories and experience from past years have done wonders to how the city administrators cope with the influx of people. Just before checking in, my dad and I decided to try out one of the newer restaurants just outside the city center.

 

 

Lemon and Olives

I’ve seen posts and have heard good things about this Greek restaurant on Outlook Drive. For those not too familiar with the area, Outlook Drive is the road that loops just behind The Mansion, ending near Baguio Country Club. As we were planning to stay away from Session Road and the city center, the location of Lemon and Olives, away from the gridlocks and being close to Camp John Hay was perfect. Located on a ridge and sharing the same mountain range vista that popularized Mines View Park, to say that the views from the dining room are stunning is an understatement. Parking is adequate, with about 10 spaces available plus street- side parking. The white exterior and ornamental plants brighten the entrance of this converted multilevel home, with the main dining area at street level and the rest underneath, against the ridge. While Greek taverns and mountain vacation homes aren’t really a perfect match, the owners did a good job of turning their home into an inviting and charming space. Of course, I didn’t hear about Lemon and Olives because of how pretty the interiors are so we promptly sat ourselves down and read the menu.

While a four-hour drive is no triathlon, we were pretty hungry when we finally got to sit down to eat. I wanted to start with probably one of the most generic of Mediterranean dishes—hummus. As simple as hummus may be, each country does it differently. Normally composed of chickpeas, garlic, lemon and tahini, the proportions and additional ingredients mixed in by each culture makes each version unique. At Lemon and Olives, the hummus is nuttier than I am used to, probably due to the amount of tahini they use. I missed the garlicky bite and I would also have preferred a bit more lemon juice to freshen the dish up. It was still good, though, don’t get me wrong, just not what I am used to. What I did love was their pita bread. Doused in olive oil and then grilled, it is much better than the usual dry and chewy pita I am used to. The olive oil made the pita golden and crispy on the outside, while still having some chew on the inside. It’s the best pita I’ve had, and I’ve had my fair share.

Wanting to try more of their starters, we ordered Poikilia, an assortment of their popular appetizers. The platter had some slices of Greek Village Sausage, some Spicy Soutzouki Sausage, Saganaki Cheese, Tzatziki Dip and some more of that glorious pita bread. It’s a great way for small groups to sample a few dishes without ordering too much. For the main dishes, my dad and I both wanted lamb. Lamb and Greek cuisine is a no-brainer. Dad got Lamb Souvlaki, while I got the Lemon and Olives’ Lamb Rack. Seasoned well and cooked to perfection, both dishes were great. I even noticed bits of oregano leaves on my lamb chops, remnants of the marinade. One bite and you can tell that great care was put in the preparation of the meats, with fresh herbs from their own plants and the finest ingredients used, a lot of them imported from Greece, while the rest sourced from reputable local farmers.

Not being much of a dessert person, I normally skip the sweet stuff. But since I was trying Lemon and Olives for the first time, I was curious about how their sweet stuff were. I am glad I did, because the Baklava Cheesecake was the best part of my meal. To be honest, it’s probably one of the best cheesecakes I’ve tried.

The Baklava crust was genius, a better version of the standard Graham cracker crust. Crispy, buttery and nutty and sweetened with honey, the Baklava crust was the perfect base for their New York-style, baked cheesecake. Not to be a snob, but baked cheesecakes are the only real cheesecakes for me. The no-bake, gelatin-stiffened versions are nothing than a firmed-up mousse as far as I’m concerned. Cakes are supposed to be baked, not chilled! Lemon and Olives’s version has great texture, perfectly salty-sweet, and drizzled with some more honey to finish. If only for their Baklava Cheesecake, I’d come back again and again.

While Greek cuisine is normally associated with seascapes and rocky coasts, Lemon and Olives fills a void in the Baguio food scene. Owners Dr. and Mrs. Mendoza, Chef Takis Polychronis, together with their team headed by Ms. Cindy and our server Ms. Jina, are doing a great job of serving authentic, reasonably priced and quality Greek food to locals and frequent visitors of the City of Pines. With the beaches of La Union being only an hour away, I wouldn’t be surprised if they eventually add some more seafood options on their menu. So if ever you find yourself in Baguio and crave for something different, Lemon and Olives is a must-try!

 

Lemons and Olives is located at # 26 Outlook Drive, Baguio, Luzon 2600, Philippines

 

 

Manor at Camp John Hay

I’ve been fortunate to be invited to The Manor thrice in less than six months. This time we’d be their guests for the Panagbenga Festival. Aside from being billeted at Baguio’s top hotel, our group would also be fed by one of our local culinary icons, Chef Billy King. If that wasn’t enough, they arranged for us to have special access to the Panagbenga activities, plus lunch and dinner at some of Baguio’s best dining spots. Add to that a golf game at Camp John Hay Golf Club, arguably the country’s most picturesque course, and it all equals to one perfect weekend.

Our one-bedroom suite at The Manor was huge. Being a corner room, our suite had two full bathrooms, three balconies, a huge living room, a kitchenette and a dining area. This room for two could comfortably sleep eight people with room to spare.

Dinner was served at Le Chef, Manor’s fine-dining restaurant. Enjoying the cool breeze and the gardens before us, Chef Billy King’s signature dishes was the icing on the cake. While savoring our dinner, a thick fog descended and crept slowly through the gardens into the dining area. It was as if Baguio was giving our group a welcome embrace. After listening to a few songs at the piano bar, it was off to bed in preparation for an early trip to the city center for an upclose seat at the festivities.

 

The Manor at Camp John Hays is located at Loakan Road, Baguio City 2600 Philippines

 

Street Dance parade at Session Road

Early Saturday, we headed to Session Road for the parade. At a little before 8 a.m., the sidewalks of Session Road were packed four to five people deep, starting from the top near SM Baguio, all the way to Burnham Park at the bottom. With The Manor having arranged for our passes, we got to go inside the ropes, close to the action. What followed was group after group of dancers, in infinitely colorful attires and with drums beating while they made their way down Session Road. There were teams from schools, from sister cities and towns, even from foreign friends who’ve made Baguio home. The city government, led by Mayor Mauricio Domogan, joined the parade, walking down session with other city officials, event organizers and the who’s who of Baguio business and cultural scenes.

 

Lunch at Adriana by Hill Station

Hill Station has been around for seven years, and as often as I’ve gone to Baguio, I’ve never really made the effort to head on out to Casa Vallejo to try this much-acclaimed restaurant by Mitos Benitez-Yñiguez. Mitos comes from the legendary Mario’s restaurant, a Baguio and Manila institution famous for their timeless, consistent and high-quality dishes.

My first taste of Hill Station would be through their newest outlet, Café Adriana. Located at the spanking new Ridge Residences just off Outlook Drive, Café Adriana has the advantage of having unobstructed mountain views just off the dining area. I’ve heard so many good things about Hill Station and the stories about Mitos painted a bubbly, down-to-earth and talented restaurateur. Just as our group was ready to sit down, Mitos walked in, clad in every color in the rainbow, her outfit matching her colorful running shoes. She just came from golf, which made me love her instantly. After a quick chat with her friends in our group, the food came out one after the other, with matching earthen pitchers of Frozen Mojito. Mitos’s food is honest, unpretentious and really good. Just like the woman behind the successful restaurants, the dishes are generous, made with utmost care and thought. Mitos calls the food at Café Adriana mestizo, a hybrid between Spanish, Latin and Spanish-Filipino cuisines.

We started with the Café Adriana Salad, a large wooden bowl of mixed organic greens, caramelized cashews, tomatoes, white cheese and fruits in a creamy toasted sesame dressing. Next was their Pizza Margherita, a simple tomato, basil and kesong puti affair on a whole wheat thin-crust pizza dough baked to perfection in their brick oven. The main attraction was the Paella Valenciana, served in a huge terracotta dish, with the all-important soccarat (tutong) along the sides and bottom portions. With the paella, we had tender Roast Beef Belly and Fish Fillet, and for dessert, their Cheesecake Flan. If Café Adriana is meant to be Hill Station’s midpriced sister outlet, the quality, serving sizes and the service is anything but mid-level. Café Adriana’s mestizo food is fresh, familiar but done with Mitos’s touch. It was an enjoyable introduction to the Hill Station group of restaurants.

 

Cafe Adriana is located at Ridge Residences, V. Delos Reyes Streeet, just off Outlook Drive, Baguio City

 

 

Hill Station at Casa Vallejo

After the heavy lunch, some of us went back to the hotel for a leisurely afternoon nap. Dinner was at 8 p.m. at Hill Station, and after just having some of Mitos’s mestizo fare, I was raring to try what the buzz around Hill Station was all about.

If Café Adriana’s food was predominantly Spanish-influenced, Hill Station’s menu seemed to be a “best of” comfort food from around the world. From local favorites, like Sisig to Tuna Tataki, from Shepherd’s Pie to Thai Curry to Lamb Tagine, as varied as the influences may be, one thing is common throughout the entire menu: attention to detail and the highest-quality ingredients sourced, cooked and prepared to perfection.

Hill Station was opened in 2010, under less than ideal conditions as construction wasn’t really finished when they opened. And although Casa Vallejo has always been a landmark in the Baguio cityscape, the lack of parking meant people couldn’t just drive up and park, an essential in most restaurants. But as they say, “when good food is served, people will come”—and they came in droves.

Since we were part of a large group, Hill Station prepared a buffet setup for us. We were fortunate to again have Mitos stay with us and eat. Admittedly, she doesn’t eat off the menu too often. “I love our employees meals, they’re the best!” Mitos shared. “Crispy galunggong with laing, how can you say no?” This is the type of person Mitos is—down-to-earth, no-nonsense and unapologetic. She further shares that a regular customer got wind of the yummy employees meals and started requesting for them when she visits. “I had to tell her that she’s depriving our dishwasher of his meal just to tease her,” Mitos said, drawing laughter from our group. Our dinner started with fish lumpia, served with two sauces, a yoghurt and vinegar dip. The buffet had Ceviche with Crispy Pork Belly as a starter, a sort of Sinunglaw, where the fresh fish steeped in acid is countered with fatty and crispy pork belly. Steamed Upland Rice, Roasted Vegetable Lasagna, Chile Tea-Rubbed Mahi-mahi Fillet, Lamb Stew with Aubergine, Pita and Taro Gnocchi were laid out before us. While all the dishes were superb, I had to come back twice for the Lamb Stew with Gnocchi. It was just perfection. As a chef, I’d normally taste dishes and think, “I can do this better” or “this could use a bit of this”. Not this time. The Lamb Stew was amazing, especially the pillow-soft and unbelievably light Taro Gnocchi, which was a puzzle to me. Gnocchi is typically quite dense and heavy. Adding taro, another dense and heavy root vegetable should make gnocchi doubly heavy and dense. But Hill Station’s version was so light, I managed to eat six or eight pieces and felt like I had room for more.

It was the perfect accompaniment for the mildly spiced and tender Lamb Stew. For dessert, we had Mango Chantilly, a sort of semifredo with soft frozen sweetened cream flavored with mango and with cashews on top and at the base.

I finally get why people flock to Hill Station. It’s like visiting your favorite aunt who is hilarious as can be and who happens to also be the best cook you know. Great food and laughter go hand in hand and with Hill Station and Mitos you get a combo that’s pretty hard to beat not just in Baguio, but anywhere.

 

Hillstation at Casa Vallejo is located at the Luneta Hill, Upper Session Rd., 2600 Baguio City, Philippines

 

Camp John Hay Golf Club

On our last day, we were scheduled for our much-awaited golf game. After a hearty breakfast at Le Chef, our golf foursome: myself, my dad, my publisher and our friend Fernando, eagerly headed out to the golf clubhouse. John Hay has one of, if not the prettiest, layouts in local golf. Tall pines, well-manicured fairways and the country’s only bent grass greens mean a day of fun surrounded by magnificent views. It was the perfect ending to an awesome weekend of food, festivities and friends. Baguio’s cool weather is reason enough to head up north. But with the great food, topnotch accommodations and a fun group of foodies to share the experience with as an added bonus, I can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend. Panagbenga is as festive as ever and with the traffic around the city vastly improved during the event, there really is excuse not to come.