Perhaps, the term bistro is a tad misleading. In the original French context, a bistro is a modest and unassuming dining place tucked away in a cosy little nook somewhere. A place that can seat 200 is neither modest nor unassuming, I daresay. Who knows? Maybe it started that way and just grew over the years to what it is today.
But I am getting ahead of myself as I rather tend to do when I tell a story. Those who are regulars to this site will know that I spent a whole day last week exploring the quaint little town of Taal as well as neighbouring San Nicolas.
Naturally, I had to eat. While exploration is exciting, it can also be energy-sapping. As good fortune would have it, my hosts – my former player Joseph Razon and his lovely wife Mia – were generous in serving a luncheon to die for in their family-owned restaurant Taal Bistro.
For somebody like me who likes to walk, the place has got to be walking distance from anywhere within Taal; and even probably from the neighbouring municipality of Lemery. Even the sedentary will find the restaurant remarkably accessible, a short walk as it is from the Basilica of San Martin de Tours, the public market or the lovely old houses that the town is quite famous for.
One can even say that it is right within a residential neighbourhood. Indeed, with its homey architecture, the restaurant blends right into the place. But who wants to talk about architecture when the subject of the discussion is a restaurant?
The ways to cook tawilis are limited only by one’s imagination; but as with many other things, sometimes it is best cooked simply. Fried crispy was how it was served to me; and exactly as how I love it done. Just like when the tawilis is grilled over open charcoal embers, its taste is not diluted by other ingredients. You only taste the tawilis, which is excellent by itself.
The fried tawilis was served with a vinegar dip. Being Batangueño myself, however, I was trained in the household to even ignore this. The best way to eat crispy tawilis is just to stuff it into one’s mouth and chew: head, tail, innards, scales, fins and all. Fresh as the tawilis was and just laced with salt before frying, it was lovely in its simplicity!
Then, there was the Bistro Chicken. If for the chicken alone, anyone who will travel all the way to Taal and the Bistro will find the trip well worth the bother. Soy and oyster sauce marinade, perhaps? Pinch of sugar for discreet sweetness and a very distinct and palate-titillating garlicky taste. But I am merely guessing here... You have to try for yourselves!
Finally, and for this alone I would have gladly made the trip to the Bistro, there was the maliputo. I have never, I told my gracious hosts, tasted maliputo quite as fresh as that which I was served. The tender flesh of it was sweet in the sinigang. But more about this later...
The maliputo is quite a story in itself. As an adult marine fish it is known as the talakitok, which spawns in the brackish waters of mangroves and river mouths. The young talakitok swims upstream of the Pansipit River; and if caught there, it is known as the muslô or the maliputong labas.
Those which manage to swim all the way to Taal Lake are the most coveted of all; and these are known as the maliputong luob. It is difficult for the average person to distinguish between the two; but connoisseurs do and for authentic maliputong luob, they go to the small town of San Nicolas to buy.
This, my hosts told me, is where they buy their maliputo. Small wonder it was so good! Some tomatoes in the sinigang? It was basically tamarind, I was told; but we dug inside the earthen pot and, yes, there were tomatoes as well. There was still something distinct about the sabaw that I could not, at the time, quite put my finger on.
Later, when I thought about it, I wondered if there was some guava in there as well. Yes, my Mom used to do sinigang na bangus with guava instead of tamarind all the time. I had never tasted it with the maliputo before; and to be fair I’m not even sure that there was guava. Anyway I look at it, though, the one served by the Bistro was by a mile the best sinigang na maliputo that I have ever tasted!
Food aside, Joseph drove me to see their larger restaurant along the Taal-Lemery diversion road. Where the poblacion restaurant was homey, this one was spacious and had the look – from the outside – more of a hotel-resort. The restaurant can seat 500, I was told; and has been reserved for wedding receptions and other banquets. I will just let the pictures do the talking.
Those who happen to be in Taal or who wish make the trip to try the maliputo, among others, the poblacion restaurant is on Calle de las Alas. The diversion road restaurant, on the other hand, is to the left if you are driving on to Lemery, Calacâ and beyond. You cannot miss it. My hosts assured me that the food is of the same quality in either restaurant.
Click on each pictured to enlarge: