A Wood-Fire Grill Brings Out the Natural Affinity Between Filipino + Latin-American Cuisines at This Degustation Spot

Alegria Manila,
PHOTO BY Sonny Thakur, Patricia Baes

Alegria Manila
G/F Uptown Parade, Uptown Bonifacio, 9th Avenue Corner 38th Street, Taguig City
Contact: 0956-834-8677
Facebook: ​​www.facebook.com/alegriamnl 
Open from 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. (Monday to Thursday), 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. (Friday to Saturday), 5 to 11 p.m. (Sunday)

(SPOT.ph) Folks often caution against playing with fire. Given its aggressive, if not savage nature, it takes skill and patience to understand the nature of, and ultimately work with, the medium—but Chef Charles Montañez isn’t afraid to take on the challenge. The young chef is known to make use of the parilla, an open, wood-fire grill of Argentinian origin, to cook up Latin-American eats at Alegria Cantina, which breathes smoky, charred life onto everything from meats to veg on their menu.

“From the flavor that it gives, it gives a different heartbeat in the kitchen. It gives you a different energy,” Montañez explains when asked about his fondness for the woodfire grill. “When I started getting the feel of [the parilla], I had this idea of not doing anything else without it.”

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Alegria Manila, parilla fire
PHOTO BY Sonny Thakur

Montañez remains true to his parilla-fueled, Latin-American-meets-Filipino culinary origins. But he showcases this philosophy in a more fine-dining light at the recently opened Alegria Manila in BGC, where he crafts a tasting menu that unites the best of the said cuisines, lent spunk by the heat of the open-fire grill.

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Alegria Manila, dining room
PHOTO BY SONNY THAKUR

Fire ties different elements together at this Filipino + Latin American Restaurant:

Every Alegria has a distinct identity, Montañez explains. It was just in June that they opened the more casual Alegria Cantina in Alabang, in addition to his other open ventures—among them Mexican-Japanese boutique club Buena Vida by Alegria in Bonifacio High Street and Café Alegria at Forbes Town (apart from his establishments abroad). But Alegria Manila is “more mature,” Montañez says. The restaurant is his foray into the fine-dining scene where you can partake in their distinctive tasting menu (P2,600/five courses, P3,595/seven courses, P5,400/full course)—a “translocal” degustation that unites elements from his home country and South America, with every course involving parilla cooking in some way or form.

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Alegria Manila, chef charles montanez
Chef Charles Montañez (of Alegria Cantina, Café Alegria, and other sibling establishments) spearheads Alegria Manila—which he describes to be the more "mature" spot of the bunch. 
PHOTO BY SONNY THAKUR

There’s a sophisticated element evident from the moment you enter their premises. Opposites work in tandem here: think dark and brooding in backdrop, which only allows the other more vibrant elements—admiral-blue armchairs, turquoise lights, potted greenery—to shine further. Trumpet-shaped lamps hang from the ceiling, shimmering against the purplish glow emanating from the bar area. On the walls you’ll also find works of art selected by Montañez (who took up interior design before ultimately shifting to the culinary arts) himself, some with faces or skulls and flower motifs in generally warm colors.

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Alegria Manila, interiors
Alegria Manila nails a distinctive look that's at once brooding, yet vibrant. 
PHOTO BY SONNY THAKUR
alegria manila, paintings
 
PHOTO BY Patricia Baes
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Alegria Manila, bar lights
They stock topnotch bottles over at their bar area. 
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The life of the restaurant, of course, can be found in the kitchen, which comes equipped with the aforementioned parilla and other modern kitchen gadgets. It’s here that Montañez, Sous Chef Gilbert Borja, and the rest of the Alegria Manila team work their magic on an assortment of ingredients—some local, some sourced from South America, consistent with Montañez’ own cooking.

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Alegria Manila, parilla wood-fire grill
All dishes at Alegria Manila involve parilla cooking in some form. 
PHOTO BY SONNY THAKUR

The chef’s love affair with Latin American cuisine goes deep. He’s long loved tacos (a “comfort food” for Montañez) growing up—not necessarily the real-deal sort you can find in it country of origin, but the kind his mom would make using “grocery taco shells” plus ground beef and cheese. By the time he started working in food and exploring different cuisines, he was naturally drawn to Latin American for how it brought together the best of two culinary worlds he loved—European cuisine and the “discipline” it calls for, and Asian cuisine and the “explosive flavors” it produces. “Like in the middle, you get both.”

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Go ahead and kick your journey off with one of their cocktails, like the Jugo de Risa with Aperol, St. Germain Elderflower, calamansi, and Prosecco. 
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The Latin bit is fairly easy to spot, apparent from the tasting menu’s very beginnings. Golden-brown ellipses of Inflatida make it to our table; think masa tortilla in its nutty-tasting glory, fried until each little piece puffs up, then stuffed with parilla-smoked mushrooms and a “soil” topping from the mushrooms’ trimmings. The Pao de Quiejo is a contemporary take on the Brazilian cheese bread of the same name with quesillo cheese, though Alegria Manila amps up the flavors with the addition of huitlacoche, the so-called “corn smut” of a fungus with a funky, earthy character. Think blue cheese with the nuttiness turned up a touch. With it you’ll want to down one of their signature cocktails, courtesy of Head Bartender Cholo Valencia. The Promitto (P350) unravels a fruity-floral profile care of gin and sampaguita, while the Jugo de Risa (P400) charms us with its sprightliness, thanks to calamansi, Aperol, and Prosecco.

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alegria manila, inflatida, pao de quiejo
Chef Charles gives Mexican classics like inflatida (essentially "inflated" tortillas) and pao de quiejo his own fun spin. 
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Montañez never forgets his Filipino roots, though, and this is made more evident over the next few courses. The Inihaw na Talaba presents Aklan oysters in a ceviche-esque light, being grilled over the parilla for a smoky undertone and cured with a leche tigre of Yakult (!) then topped with mangoes and corn nuts. With it come balls of Dinuguan Sinuglaw, where pork-blood “cups” are stuffed with a sinuglaw-style mix of smoked pork and tanigue, then topped with potato hay and glistening beads of ikura. Pop a ball in the mouth and you’re met with a push-and-pull sensation between crisp, chewy, meaty, bright, and savory.

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We get to know his Filipino roots better by way of the smoky, succulent Inihaw na Talaba... 
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...And flavor-bomb Dinuguan Sinuglaw. 
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Filipino and Latin American worlds make tighter crossovers as the menu progresses. In the Pyanggang Coxinha, Montañez gives conxinha—a classic Brazilian croquette characterized by its teardrop shape—a Filipino spin with a smoked-coconut and chicken filling inspired by the Maranao dish pianggang. The Okoy Tostada involves okoy—their version of which has kalkag baby prawn with flax and pumpkin seeds—used in the manner of a tostada, by also serving as the vessel for a topping of blue crab in a parilla-smoked mussel cream, plus squash, carrots, and sinamak vinaigrette for brightness. Similarly merging its namesake dishes is the Ilocos Empanada Birria, with their own homemade Ilocos longganisa, green papaya, and quesillo cheese folded into mustasa-wrapped tortilla shells. Slather over the salted egg mousse served from the spoon, then dip it into the consomme served alongside—as you would any birria taco. It’s all a garlicky, meaty, cheesy, slightly pungent ride from there and we are all for it.

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This take on Brazilian coxinha (a croquette-like street snack) is filled with a smoky chicken filling inspired by Maranao's chicken pianggang
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Tiny okoy with kalkag serve as the vessel for a smoky blue-crab topping in the Okoy Tostada. 
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The Ilocos Empanada Birria melds the two dishes of its namesake—specifically the garlicky, meaty characteristic of Ilocos empanada, plus the soulful richness (and dipping action!) of birria tacos.  
PHOTO BY Patricia Baes

Local ingredients are made stars where applicable, as with Cordilleran baby corn in Montañez’ funkified take on Elote. Harvested from La Trinidad and visibly larger than your regular supermarket baby corn, the corn is cooked over the fire with chipotle and Smoked baguio strawberries to bring out its natural sweetness. From there, it’s given a crust of popped quinoa—which helps mimic real corn’s appearance, but also lends each chomp an addictive crunch. Heavenly stuff it is, especially against the juicy veg underneath.

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alegria manila, elote
We can't get enough of the crackly-crispness of the puffed quinoa against the crisp-juicy baby corn from La Trinidad.  
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In many ways the menu is also a personal one, with Montañez paying ode to his favorites. He professes his love for corn as an ingredient for its versatility: “It doesn’t really overshadow anything, but it’s capable of being a star of its own. It goes well with everything,” he raves. His edible love letter, if you will, comes in the form of the Nicuatole—another Filipino-Mexican crossover served as a transitionary piece between the small plates and mains. Best likened to maja blanca with its corn-centric profile and pudding-y consistency, it features the grain in multiple forms: corn kernels (burnt in the parilla), corn foam, corn caviar, popcorn, corn powder, and a kesong puti sauce with corn. It all sounds like a mouthful, but it’s all harmonious (with added complexity from the contrasting textures) as you take in everything together. The viral corn kid would be pleased.

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The Nicuatole—a corn-on-corn (on-corn) creation taking after Montañez' fondness for the ingredient—can be likened to a smokier maja blanca with plenty of textural contrast.  
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Worth noting at Alegria Manila is the way that—fine-dining genre aside—Montañez’ playfulness and penchant for experimentation remains evident. The Squid-Silog illustrates this beautifully. ‘Silog meals are generally a straightforward affair, but Alegria Manila injects complexity into the typically-simple meal and turns the flavor intensity up several notches. They begin with black rice, itself naturally nutty in taste; it’s also lent smokiness from being cooked straight over the fire (“using a strainer,”). For the aromatics base, they swap the usual garlic for calamari—thus infusing every grain of rice with its unmistakeable seafood-y essence. A hint of squid ink adds subtle brininess, and stuffed squid (notably cooked just a tad but still succulent!) embedded in the rice make for soft, substantial spoonfuls. And then there’s the kicker: golden, gleaming confited egg yolks that flow freely as they’re pierced open, adding richness to the mix—not to mention making for a seductive food-porn moment.

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alegria manila, squid-silog
Photos don't do justice to how much the Squid-Silog brims with umami. Plus points for that sexy egg yolk. 
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We’re now at the menu’s carnivorous arc, introduced by way of the Kare-Kare. Alegria Manila does their foundations right by employing premium meats—Kurobuta pork, in this case, which they cook over the fire. Keeping it company are tripe smoked over the parilla grill and squash blossoms, and underlining the composition is an earthy-nutty puree reminiscent of kare-kare sauce, but with roasted squash and almonds (the latter, perhaps as a nod to Mexican mole). Finally, a spoonful of salsa X.O., made umami with fermented baby shrimp, functions as the bagoong in the equation, working as a savory counterpoint to the sweeter, milder sauce.

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alegria manila, kare-kare
With the Kare-Kare comes a sauce reminiscent of the eponymous Filipino dish, but thickened with almonds as a Latin-American style touch.  
PHOTO BY Patricia Baes

It doesn’t take long before we’re led to the arguable star of the show. Featuring Black Onyx striploin cooked over the fire (peep that schmexy charred exterior), Alegria Manila’s take on Bistek Tagalog carries the savory-earthy-subtly sour flavors of the original, alright. But it takes things into umami overdrive with a sauce of 30-day fermented black shallots brightened with calamansi and soy sauce, and a puree of 30-day fermented black garlic. Chimichurri, fried onions, fried leeks, and a powder of burnt onions amplify the allium element in the resulting plate, which is as complex and impactful as it is ultimately comforting and familiar.

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alegria manila, bistek tagalog
With fermented black shallots and fermented black garlic incorporated in the Bistek Tagalog, this is one deeply savory composition. 
PHOTO BY Patricia Baes

Alegria Manila pays as much attention to their desserts as they do their mains, with Pastry Chef Chico Orcine behind the restaurant’s sweet creations. A dessert plate graces our table, holding a trio of bite-sized Filipino-Latin American treats: the Champorado Brigadeiro, a spoon sweet with chocolate foam hiding a mochi-like palitaw filling plus an exterior of puffed rice and dilis; Sundot Kulangot, bonbons with a chocolate shell and filling of kalamay and muscovado caramel; and the Banana QT, banana cue-inspired bites of banana mousse, banana cake, and banana chips in a white chocolate shell, shaped like its namesake fruit.

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alegria manila, champorado brigadeiro, sundot kulangot, banana qt
(Clockwise from top left) We cross over to the sweet size with these bite-sized confections of Sundot Kulangot, Banana QT, and Champorado Brigadeiro—all whimsical interpretations of their respective traditional sweets. 
PHOTO BY Patricia Baes

The real kicker of the night comes by way of the Halo-Halo, which arrives as a shallow bowl of macapuno mousse, ube halaya, a langka compote, pandan sago, nata de coco, leche flan, and red bean puree. As it’s served, liquid-nitrogen milk ice cream is scooped over, making for a dramatic smoky effect. Mix everything together as you would the OG samalamig, then dig in to get the full icy-creamy-sweet-slushy sensation.

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Underneath globules of milk ice cream (prepared with liquid-nitrogen action involved, and scooped onto your bowl right upon serving) is a party of halo-halo style ingredients. 
PHOTO BY Patricia Baes
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Bonus: that's no pepper mill. Alegria Manila serves shots of top-rated tequila Casa Azul—which goes down smooth and warms the senses. 
PHOTO BY Patricia Baes
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Crossing over between cultures isn’t always easy, but Filipino and Latin American cuisines have a natural compatibility that Alegria Manila happily draws out. Add thetelltale scorch and smoke of the fire from the parilla to the mix, and the result is an exhilirating tale that unfolds by way of flavor.

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