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July 18, 2021

18 July 2021

Dear Members and Friends:

Occasionally, I come across feedback from our members, which I think is worthwhile sharing. Attached is one from John Silva.

ROBERTO V. ONGPIN
Chairman

 

LETTER FROM BALESIN
By John Silva
July 17, 2021

It had been a year and a half since I flew out of Manila. I peered, out my window the whole 30-minute flight, fingerprinting the glass to see the clouds, the sea, the dotted islands, and reestablish the exhilarating sensation of flight once more.

I was the guest of the Vallejos, Gus and my sister Marie at Balesin, this island resort just off Quezon Province due south of Polillo Islands. Businessman Roberto Ongpin had bought the island years back to set up a club house and develop seven (now eight) different country resorts with both themed rooms and restaurants (French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Thai, Indonesian, a new Chinese addition, and our very own Philippine). In the main clubhouse are more dining rooms, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, a German beerhouse, and a steakhouse. As for the rowdy millennials and under, there are jettys on parts of the island acting as informal seafood hangouts or bars for their thumping non-stop music.

There were other non-gnoshing activities to do like snorkeling, archery, bike riding, or that on horses, and massages, but this trip had little of those intentions. We’ll leave them to the kiddies. My hosts and I had the sole intention of dining at all the restaurants in my week’s stay.

There were dining high points moments starting with Thai night at the charming Salathip Restaurant where we pre-ordered one large native black crab along with an order of their sea-farm grown Vannamei shrimp, a white variety found in the Pacific Ocean. I had been told by long standing locals that the chef could do it in the butter garlic Than Long style (San Francisco restaurant) I adore. As for the shrimp, Dennis Adan, Salathip’s Village Manager knew his cooking and promised a Shrimp Ceviche and a Tom Yam soup using the heads and shells.

My palate went aflutter first tasting the richest Tom Yum soup ever with streaks of shrimp oil from its fried heads, laced above the floating sticks of lemon grass, the mushrooms and the cheery cherry tomatoes. I vowed that moment to always maximize the use of shrimp heads, aside from just sucking on their cavity.

Peeled and cleaned shrimp doused in lemon and a squeeze of our native kalamansi, with wansoy, chopped onions, chili and peppers were served in its “au naturel” state. Each bite was totally succulent sashimi style, its freshness novel to city slickers who have much of their seafood bought frozen. I will never forget shrimp served me on a Guimaras islet that I saw friskily jumping about in nets by the shore just minutes before and minutes later, my lips trembling at their utter, indescribable sweetness. This moment was that same moment.

The very bountiful crab made its appearance almost hidden from a shower of julienned bell peppers, onions, an obscene mush of dripping minced garlic, indiscriminate peppercorns and a pool of butter around it.

A claw, huge, conveniently cracked, had a pampered meatiness from growing in their laid-back island pens. There’s a virile Polynesian texture in contrast to the tender, flaky, Dungeness crabs of the temperate Northwest. We at the table swooned, moaned and surrendered to a heavenly delight from Balesin’s bounty.

The new restaurant addition, the Chinois Tang Palace, was both Architectural Digest divine and very yummy offerings as well. The Crabmeat in Sweet Corn Soup was superb, a perfect starter, and authentically “Chinatown,” rivalling the best of the restos in the city.

The ordered Vannamei shrimp was transformed into Live Drunken ones, barely cooked and tender to the bite. The Braised E-FU noodles (also known as Yi Mein, a fancier “long-life” version) were uniquely spongy and a wee bit crunchy at the same time. The dessert, a perfectly chilled mango sago was palate soothing and, like a child, I tongued the slippery sago beads in my mouth.

Europe, especially parts I like, as of this writing, seems verboten to travel to. On the island, I fantasized, cruising down palm tree lined roads surrounded by the never ending cicada refrain to get myself to Italy, to Toscana Village to try their version of Spaghetti Vongole (I try any Vongole dish I see on a menu the world over). This one had just enough olive oil and a generous portion of clams to merit it on the top ten of my Vongole world review. The small and thin crusted pizza was the evening favorite of all, with little anchovy squares and sliced olives dotting the cheese laden circle. That cheesy stretching in the mouth with a hit of anchovies was unforgettable.

I don’t want to give the impression that food was all I thought of. Waking up and throughout the day, there was cooing, singing, cackling and chirping that I had to look up and about and be enchanted by so many birds of so many colors flitting about the various branches. The most alluring songs came from the yellow breasted black naped Kilyawan (Orioles) with a four-tone song of lament.

One late afternoon I hiked to the Bali Nusa Dua bar at the end of a jetty. There were no millennials about, the sunset came and the world and humanity became enchanting again, aided a bit by a lively G&T garnished with my favorite lemon squeeze. There was a stunning cloud show which in minutes transformed from cottony white to red to deep indigo shadows. I remembered once being with other long-haired sunset watchers on a California coast and we were smoking some pretty strong Thai sticks. When the sun finally sank into the ocean, we all wowed and giggled and rocked back and forth, clapping and thanking the universe for another super light show.

This time when the sun disappeared on the horizon I clapped once again for old-time sake, and continued clapping for the lingering colors that strayed behind.

And then I was hungry once more.

Much as one tries to avoid rice, it’s impossible with foods from our part of the world. Like our Balinese dinner, with their version of Hainanese Rice and an epic satay with peanut sauce and another round of fragrant yellow rice with garlic sprinkles.

I cannot not mention the Han Gang Korean Restaurant with its bowls of snackies and condiments to go with what I consider to be one of the best Bulgogi dishes ever made on this planet. Dark and moody, livened with pears to tenderize the sliced beef and sprinkled with sesame seeds, I was right in there scooping to my plate, once and many more.

If you wander to the tip of the island, to the photo-op blue and white Mykonos Village, you must, must not miss the Lamb Moussaka. The hummus and the other appetizers were quite delish but the tender Moussaka will be your poundage rise at this Greek fantasy resort.

Desserts have been my death knell from the dietary discipline I’m supposed to keep. I have secretly harbored the notion that the Thai version of Halo-Halo is both aesthetically more pleasing and tastes less of the evaporated milk I’m not too fond off. They do a splendid rendition of it at Salathip Restaurant.

But at the end of the day, despite the wanderings around Balesin’s food world, we seek out our comfort food. The Balesin Club is the go-to-Filipino food on the island. The breakfasts, the various Tap-Silogs, Danggits, Daings and the favorite mainstay Corn Beef are served bountifully on their big veranda with a gorgeous view of Lamon Bay and the gentle mountains of distant Quezon Province. There was a sign I recall in front of an open nipa frond bar stating that was the place the late dictator Marcos planned Martial Law with his pals. I noticed the sign had been changed to something bland and cheeky, hosting a new generation of “Balesinners” to come. Hah, hah. Let’s make sure not of the coup plotters variety.

And, at the very end of the day, I must remark about the utter all-giving service performed by the Balesin staff. We’ve traveled the world and surely you know what I speak of when I can state declaratively that our people, when made to serve, give it their 110% and more. My villa is impeccably cleaned, new and plush towels hung and arranged upon returning from breakfast or cocktails.

Beautiful and handsome restaurant servers come at a moment’s notice and I see the outlines of their engaging smiles behind their face masks. They practice the most elemental of Service 101, that is, to anticipate your desires. Another fork, an extra plate, a dessert suggestion perhaps, or ANYTHING not on the menu. Your predilections are instinctively figured out and they’ll aim only to please.

The island staff had it rough last year, having been closed for six months so this is the comeback year and hopefully a continued one at that.

I am a pouting spoiled brat as I wave goodbye to my hosts and board the service bus to my plane. I don’t want to go but the shopping at their airport Bounty Store distracts me. I pick up my packed Vannamei shrimps, a bottle of their Chili Salt, (coming from their salt beds) a bottled bagoong bagnet and I considered the chic cooking apron with the leather straps but was called to my plane. I had little time to weep and decided to dwell on the wonderful week of dining the world and enjoying that unique brand of Filipino hospitality.

If we want to help get our country out of its economic rut, consider travel locally and if you can wing it with connections, make it to Balesin. It’s still a health disaster out in the world so spend your pesos here, where you don’t pay costly Euros for haughty service. Here, the food’s superb and our people are at your eager service.