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.