Culinary alchemy

IT was course after course of seemingly bizarre yet delightfully delectable combinations. Each intentionally artful, not a single part of the nine-course degustation dinner was spared from experimentation. The amuse-bouche came in four appetizer spoons lined up on a plate. The yogurt sphere and gotu kola; pickled goat’s cheese and compressed watermelon with sangig (local basil); shrimp, spinach with crème fraiche and pickled cucumber; and tinapa (smoked anduhaw) pate with cranberry caviar spheres, lime zest, and dill, although visually stunning, were all begging to be savored.

“They’re meant to be eaten from left to right because of the gradation of flavor intensity,” the chef reminded us.

Pushing the envelope of Cebuano cuisine is writer, fashion designer and chef Ronald Villavelez with his project Sialo, a restaurant that offers not just a multi-course meal, but a multi-sensory experience through molecular gastronomy. Emphasizing locally grown produce, Sialo yokes classical and modernist methods to produce limitless culinary possibilities and elevate Cebuano cooking.

“I started doing degustation dinners at my atelier June of last year. Before that I had to have my single-station kitchen constructed in a corner of my atelier. My friend and client suggested the idea of holding dinners in my atelier as I still have ample receiving space as my dining area. It actually can accommodate up to 20 persons at one time,” said Chef Ronald. Since then, Sialo has garnered a strong buzz among local foodies wanting to explore beyond the city’s existing foodscape.

“We use new kitchen technology that makes precision cooking possible, such as the sous vide machine, dehydrator, or tools like the caviar maker, syringe, vacuum sealers (to compress vegetables and fruits), siphon whippers, hot siphon infusion, and even liquid nitrogen,” he explained.

Further proof of Chef Ronald’s tasty stunts are the mango-coconut foam soup with sesame oil, beef broth, and garam masala; beetroot three ways (marinated in orange juice, beetroot confit and beetroot crudite) with goat’s cheese and smoked beetroot juice; ubod fettucine with popcorn powder and zucchini; deconstructed kinilaw (vodka-cured tangigue, coconut-calamansi jelly, guso and pickled shallots), which he considers as one of his signature dishes. “I wanted a new way of presenting the classic Cebuano kinilaw, while staying faithful to its flavors. By processing the fish separately from its acidic liquid component, I retain the texture and flavor of the fish.”

The pre-main course was takyong (bush snails) with arugula coulis and arugula-infused emulsion. Sourced from Borbon, the takyong is boiled in coconut milk and then sautéed with shallots, garlic and parsley. The arugula is done two ways—the greens are made into a coulis, while the stalks are blended into an emulsion.

This was followed by the main dish, cured pork belly with carrots, saffron potatoes, apple puree and rice crackling. The pork belly was cured and then cooked sous vide overnight. The result was a gloriously tender cut of meat that was then seared and finished off in the oven for color.

The desserts are just as deliriously complex. First was the masareal gelato with cucumber three way, cucumber jelly and mint oil. Chef Ronald revealed that this dish is inspired by his childhood habit of eating cucumber with peanut butter, and that it took him three attempts to arrive at that recipe.

Ending our meal on an even sweeter note was the superbly inventive budbud with mango puree, lemon puree, cocoa crumble, coconut-ginger mousse, and coconut-white chocolate foam. Everyone in the room polished the dessert off in no time, despite previous claims of being “too full.”

As the chef directly interacts with guests, we found out that night that “Sialo” is actually the pre-colonial name of the present-day towns of Carcar down to Santander. Coincidentally, it also comes from the Greek work “sialon” which in anatomy is a prefix that pertains to the salivary glands.

Dinners at Sialo are by appointment only. Reservation has to be done a week ahead of one’s preferred schedule.

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