Revisit classic Filipino flavors at Alab’s new branch
There's more to love beyond laing ice cream.
Venice Grand Canal Mall, McKinley Hill, Taguig City
Contact: 960-1770; 960-1771
Open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (Monday to Sunday)
(SPOT.ph) You've been missing out if you haven't tried Alab. The Filipino restaurant has been making waves since opening their first branch along Scout Rallos, Quezon City, all the way to their second branch at the UP Town Center—and they’re bringing their signatures closer to food lovers of Taguig, with their newest branch at Venice Grand Canal Mall, McKinley Hill.
Taking on a new direction under the Moderne Group of Restos, Inc., the Alab of today is a "melting pot"—showing the diversity of Filipino cuisine with the best of the best across the regions. They’ve retained the original dishes from the previous branches, with a few new additions sure to be family favorites. But the menu is surprisingly concise—a welcome alternative to the typically overwhelming selection in other Filipino restaurants. “We try to avoid putting in the mediocre, so-so dishes. Dapat masarap talaga,” shares Christine del Castillo, who co-owns the restaurant with Cherry Pie Picache and Joel Fernando. Quality over quantity, so to speak—you can be assured that each and every dish has a story, and a soul.
More exceptionally, Alab makes a bold statement in relentlessly standing by the classics. “We believe Filipino dishes are good enough as they are. You don’t need to change them,” says Christine. “You just need to find the original recipes in the provinces that have been perfected over the years.” Alab pays homage to tradition, using the best ingredients and making as many components from scratch as possible.
Kinilaw na Isda
As with the other branches, the menu is primarily divided into two parts. Hinahanap-hanap Kita is their collection of tried-and-tested classics—dishes that are essential on any Filipino menu, using traditional methods and real, good ingredients. Their Kare-Kare (P458), for example, is made the old-fashioned way—with house-ground peanuts (“We want people to feel the sauce na dinikdik,” says Christine), and absolutely no pre-made mixes. Their Kinilaw na Isda (P348) is no run-of-the-mill affair, either, with premium chunks of tanigue left succulent and plump, brightened with the zing of coconut vinegar, onions, ginger, tomatoes, and cucumbers.
The O Lumapit Ka half of the menu is dedicated to the lesser-known, undiscovered dishes that nonetheless deserve their time in the spotlight. They sure know how to bring out sophistication in simplicity; their Okoy (P128), for instance, arrives hot and ultra-crisp, with just enough batter to hold together shredded sweet potato, bean sprouts, and shrimp. The generous strips make for a satisfying bite, and it’s especially addictive with the piquant vinegar dip. Worth trying, too, is their deceptively simple take on Guinataang Monggo (P128)—an “unassuming dish,” says Christine, with coconut milk and smoked fish flakes, for a whole far more than just a sum of its parts.
But it’s definitely worth stepping out of your comfort zone here. The paella-esque Palabok Negra (P240) is outstanding (and, arguably, the most photogenic)—a jet-black bed of palabok in a squid ink-based sauce, and a festive plethora of toppings: squid, shrimp, tofu, quail eggs, and smoked fish, which permeates the entire dish and ties all the flavors together. The Kalderetang Kambing (P445) is another revelation—in place of beef is goat meat (!) braised to an unbelievable tenderness, with nary a hint of its typically off-putting ‘gamey’ flavor. With a rich tomato-based sauce (topped with quezo de bola!), this is the dish to pair with mounds and mounds of steaming hot rice.
The star of the table at this point, however, is the Pianggang (P290), a Tausug specialty that has become a popular choice among customers, and for good reason. Chicken breast strips are marinated in coconut milk and palapa (a spice paste of aromatics and burnt coconut meat), grilled, and finished with even more of the flavorful sauce. This results in ultra-succulent meat of superb flavor complexity—all at once sweet, charred, robust. “It has a Malaysian influence to it,” says Christine, who cites this dish among her personal favorites. “And people are usually surprised to learn it’s chicken.”
New York, Cubao Bibingka Cheesecake
There’s more than enough belly-bursting goodness in here, but the desserts are worth saving room for—it’s in the sweet stuff that Alab freely welcomes innovation. The New York, Cubao Bibingka Cheesecake (P158/small, P508/big) is a returning favorite—a dense, creamy cheesecake with all the flavors of the noche buena favorite, right down to the salted egg, and the smokey, charred top. Be sure to try the Sapin-Sapin (P148), a triple-layered treat of ube and langka glutinous rice cakes and a thin pandan sponge, ingeniously topped a swirl of inutak (broiled coconut cream) and crumbled bits of latik. Take it as a sweet lesson in harmony—each layer makes a statement yet all flavors come together beautifully.
For Christmas, they’ll be introducing the Pianono—their version of the panaderia staple, quite literally blown up to massive proportions—in two variants: Ube and Chocolate, both topped with powdered sugar. They’ll also be bringing in their bilao and the boodle packages, which were hits at their previous branches.
A meal at Alab simply cannot end without a scoop—or two—of their ice cream, made with Carabao milk. With 10 variants on the lineup, there’s bound to be something for everybody. While they’re known for their more unusual flavors (such as the infamous laing ice cream), they excel at familiar ones, too: the Barako Pastillas (P140/75ml, P360/360ml) is robust yet creamy, with chunks of pastillas for an addictive milky chew; a more refreshing choice is the decidedly zingy Calamansi (P100/75ml, P270/360ml)—perfect as a palate cleanser after a heavy meal.
“We wanted to keep this space conducive to families and groups,” shares Christine. “We believe in families gathering together to eat—that’s what eating is all about.” And, in line with their philosophy of promoting the local art scene, they’re planning to make use of the space to exhibit works by Filipino artists. “Talented ang Pinoy e!” she says, and we couldn’t agree more. Beyond the food, Alab truly understands—and embraces—the beauty of being Filipino.
Photos by Vincent Coscolluela