Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Taste of Crete near Volcano Island

Late last month, Ricky, my brother-in-law, came calling with this idea to go on a day-trip to Tagaytay. It might've have been the cool mountain and lakeside air that provided enough motivation to get me off my weekend butt; or I might also have been harbouring a long-shot wish to relive my not-so-many sailing days on Taal Lake at the local yacht club . Whichever it was, I had expectations that with 11 other adults and kids, it was going to be at least a food trip. One is always right about these things when it comes to Ann's side of the family. And so off we went, bringing along our 2 little daughters and their yaya (nanny) .

Tagaytay never fails to bring out everyone's love for good food. In recent years, I've heard about, read about and even tried a few of the new and hip but somewhat pricey restaurants opening for business there. For just a little over an hour's drive from Metro Manila, there is obviously a market for hungry folks who retreat to Tagaytay for a relaxing weekend.

We left Quezon City at about 9 o'clock that Sunday morning, did a couple of stops in San Juan to rendezvous with the rest of our small convoy, before we began our leisurely drive to Tagaytay via the Sta. Rosa exit. We were obviously in no hurry to get there, but we only stopped when we needed to. Stopping only twice - once for a bathroom break at one of the fancy service stations along the expressway, and another at a forgettable(according to Ann) goat cheese place called Mr. Moo, we arrived at the city of Tagaytay at a little after 11am. Our party had built up an appetite, and it looked like it was going to rain. We had to stop. It was time for lunch.

I drove behind Ricky's red van as it pulled up outside this somewhat familiar restaurant located just right before the Tagaytay City junction. I say somewhat familiar because we, following a recommendation by a foodie from the Manila Bulletin, had dined in the Greek Taverna almost two years ago. But I was also seeing the place in whole new light that day. On that day, I was seeing the place as an example of how and how much foreign culture can further open up this tiny corner of the world that is the Philippines. I could also see how a Hotel and Restaurant Management graduate from Crete pursuing his passion for food can do quite well here.

It didn't take too long before we settled into the place to get ready to order. Coming out after the staff was owner Manos Sapountzakis, who's been living in Tagaytay with his Filipina wife, their 13-year old son and 10-year old daughter for about five and a half years now. Manos had enthusiastically recommended us to order the specials which included the grilled lamb shoulder, plus we remembered enough of his place to order the moussaka among other goodies.

Talk about personalized service! Manos politely asked about who owned the red van and silver sedan parked outside his establishment, and offered to park our vehicles for us, this time properly. Ricky and I had commented that like most local businessmen, this guy has learned to be hands-on and probably so used to customers parking improperly that he knew the exact parking configuration that maximized the available space. And so we let Manos do his thing. After over an hour's drive from Manila, why not avail of the free "valet" service? What would've taken us ten minutes to do took him less than five. We had a lot of time left to have a short chat with him outside, and of course, take pictures. Manos, probably used to the publicity his place has been getting from foodie writers, was more than happy to oblige.

After our meal, Manos proudly shared with my in-laws that they use no preservatives and no MSG in the preparation of their dishes. Most restaurants in Tagaytay source their ingredients from the local vegetable, fruit and meat farms so that didn't really come as a surprise; but it nevertheless left a pleasant thought about the advantages of operating a restaurant in this relatively laid-back city.

By then, other groups of customers had already started trooping into the Tavern. Most conspicuous among them was a group of Greek men who were probably friends of Manos. I assumed they were because Manos had actually sat down with them to have a long chat in a language I could only guess to be Greek. These blokes probably visit often too, by the look of things. This would probably explain these many bottles of Greek spirits in two years. Probably.

Finally, our group set off for the rest of our Tagaytay Sunday, saying goodbye to Manos and his staff and thanking them for the wonderful lunch. As I drove off, my wife Anna and I had our usual verbal review of the meal and a rundown of which items left a memorable impression on our palates. She particularly liked the Elliniki Salata, or Greek salad, which Manos had recommended. I was actually wondering aloud earlier about where he bought the olives he used in that salad. Apparently, I missed hearing him say that he brought back the olives and the olive oil he uses from Crete, where his family still makes them.

Manos opened Manos Greek Taverna over two years ago with the help of his Filipina wife, who had previously lived in Greece for over 18 years. I hesitated to probe for more details and settled for whatever information Manos had been willing to share. But he proudly shared what he had told his wife about an opportunity to do business here, and that he thought they could bring a piece of his old hometown to cut out a small niche for themselves.

I'd say they succeeded in doing just that.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Why Shooting Your Own Foot is Criminal

Last Friday's explosion at the Glorietta 2 mall, right in the heart of the Makati CBD, should've sowed panic and fear among local residents like any self-respecting act of terrorism would typically do. But it didn't.

I was having lunch in the office pantry with some of my staff around 1:45PM when I got an SMS message asking if me and my crew were okay. The HR representative assigned to my team had begun implementing disaster procedures that would initially account for the whereabouts and safety of all employees. Truth is, we didn't know there was an explosion until I got that message. We heard the sound of sirens from way up the 39th floor where we worked several minutes earlier; but I shrugged it off as another one of those VIP(or not-so-VIP) convoys snaking their way through the snarling Metro Manila traffic.

Minutes, hours, and days later reports have come in with stories about the explosion. A blast crater had been found at ground zero, 9 people dead and over 100 injured. The most recent one I read about was that it was caused by a military-grade bomb. Given the extent of the damage, I thought that made sense. But I also thought all logic ended there.

There were reports of a shadowy group of Christian-Islamic activists taking responsibility for the blast. They were supposedly demanding the release of some obscure personality allegedly detained illegally by the government. Whether or not that's true, any person with ties strong enough to prompt a group of activists to detonate a bomb and cause that amount of damage, actually deserves to be detained. The only sad thought about it is if in reality that person doesn't really have any ties with those activists. He or she would then be a victim of false claims.

Another report quoted a neophyte senator accusing the current administration of staging this attack as some kind of precursor to martial law. Let me say now that one of the first few things anyone has to grapple with while staying in this country is this martial law stigma carried by many of its residents. I don't mean to dismiss the horrors of the past, nor am I downplaying the possible abuses that are still occurring. But each time I hear someone talk about martial law in this country, I can only think of people who insist on being victims of their own fears, or of people insisting on using these fears to victimize others.

That Friday night, I consumed about 5 bottles of San Miguel Light at a birthday party thrown by one of my staff. Maybe it was more than 5, I lost count. Several thousand other people around Metro Manila drank the same beer on that same night. Maybe we were all trying to use alcohol to numb ourselves to what has happened- 9 people died in that mall. Or perhaps, we simply went about our own business with the thought that more than 9 died that day, albeit in less CNN-worthy circumstances. I had been at the office since 5AM that day for one meeting, and I ended my day at 11pm coming from another. Maybe people just drank San Mig Light because it was a Friday night.

A friend of mine who now lives in Victoria, Canada pinged me through Yahoo Messenger just a couple of hours after the explosion. He first asked me about what had happened, and later, he ended by sharing information with me about a college buddy who's just decided to apply for immigration to Canada. Somewhere during the short conversation, I said something about the nasty habit of this nation to shoot itself in the foot. I remember saying the same thing to my boss in an e-mail assuring him everyone on the team is unharmed. Of course, I left out the part where some of them were getting themselves intoxicated as I wrote that message.

The attack, as it really was an attack, was indubitably criminal. And yet, in all its brutality it achieved nothing. If it all, it only served to highlight our penchant to allow our collective self-absorption to bring harm to ourselves. There is nothing to fear in the Philippines that is not feared anywhere else. We just enjoy tooting our own horns on some days, and shooting our own feet on others.