Monday, February 7, 2011

Maharlika: more than just duck embryo and pig snout for brunch

(Balut eggs were a special this weekend at Maharlika)

Maharlika (351 E. 12th St. in Resto Leon)
Open Saturday & Sunday 11AM-3PM for reservations

Next door to Resto Leon, the pizzaiolo at Motorino prepares the dough for one of the most highly acclaimed neapolitan pizzas in New York City.  In the window beyond, a brother and sister nosh on a skillet of cheeseburger macaroni and cheese while their parents enjoy the masala pasta from S'Mac.  On a weekend morning at Maharlika (the pop-up restaurant open for weekend brunch inside Resto Leon), however, unless you have roots in Filipino heritage and cuisine, the only items on the menu you are likely to recognize are french toast and spam.  But if you happen to be passing by--or landed a highly recommended reservation at this ephemeral gourmet phenomenon--skip the pizza and mac 'n cheese for some of the most unique, sophisticated, and inventive brunch dishes and drinks anywhere in the city.

"Our flavors are as bright and bold as our personalities," owner Nicole Ponseca explains of Filipino cuisine.  "Rather than tone down those flavors, we have tried to find ingredients to beautifully compliment them."  And if you don't understand something on the menu, anyone on staff is capable and happy to explain.  Ponseca herself will even pull up a chair to show you how to approach eating a balut egg if this is your first time, as it was mine.  It's the sort of sincere hospitality you rarely find, and a wonderful energy and eagerness to share that somehow makes already delicious food taste even better.

When Ponseca, who is the General Manager at Juliette in Williamsburg, was asked to assist in restructuring East Village sister Resto Leon, she jumped at the opportunity to utilize the restaurant's closed doors during weekend brunch.  Along with Enzo Lim (mixologist from Minetta Tavern) and chef Miguel Trinidad, Ponseca decided to open Maharlika (tentatively scheduled to be open weekends through April), the pop-up approach allowing the team to hone recipes and collect diner feedback without taking out exorbitant loans for their own unique space--although if all goes well, a full-scale Maharlika restaurant is the ultimate goal.

While you peruse the menu, a few treats arrive at the table that begin to acclimate your palate to the colorful dishes awaiting.  The first is a mug of garlic cracker nuts, peanuts coated in a wheat flour dough that is deep-fried, and dusted in a sweet garlicky seasoning.  Quite an addictive little snack, sugary garlic crunch gives way to salty peanut, and pretty soon, the entire mug is empty.

The Bloody Mary is mixed with patis, a Philippine fish sauce that adds a whole new dimension of ocean and brine, almost like a killer bloody caesar.  Sliced fresh ginger root garnishes the Pacquiao Punch, named after the Filipino boxer and politician, similar to a jazzed up mai tai, with rum, citrus, pineapple, and a floater of absinthe.

The drink that knocked my socks off, however, was this sweet little Gin-based medley, blended with citrus and strawberry jam, named in honor of the Baguio nuns, who are famous for their... strawberry jams.  Like slightly tart and tangy liquid strawberry preserves on the rocks, this little mix could get me into a lot of trouble on a Sunday afternoon.

As our second complimentary snack arrives at the table, a plate of surprisingly light and crispy chicharon-style fried chicken skins, Nicole Ponseca fills a tiny ramekin with a house condiment of coconut and sugar cane vinegar infused with chilies and garlic.

After a brief tutorial, my dear friend, Pete, and I took a crack at our balut eggs, a traditional Philippine street food ($5).  A fertilized duck egg with a nearly developed embryo inside, they are ideally consumed in the Philippines at the age of 17 days old, when the young chick is not yet fully developed.  Prepared similar to a hard-boiled egg, the piping hot balut is first cracked to remove a small circle at one end.  After a pinch of salt and sweet and spicy vinegar are added, the broth surrounding the embryo is sipped. Surprisingly delicious, it tasted almost like a smoky chicken stock.

Ponseca told us that even she picks out the yolk bits and then discards the remaining embryo.  While I took her recommendation, savoring a velvety smooth and hearty egg yolk, Pete consumed both the embryo of his and my eggs, exclaiming that it was delicious and tender.

Because I was admittedly a little nervous and jittery, the image quality is lacking, but above was the remaining embryo in my egg after I picked out most of the yolk and egg white before Pete devoured the remainder.

After a balut egg, I figured we could try almost anything.  Our first entree was another popular Filipino dish called sizzling sisig (see'-sig).  Boiled, and then grilled to extreme tenderness, pig snout, ear, and belly are sauteed with onions, garlic, and lemon, served in a sizzling skillet topped with a raw egg which proceeds to slightly cook as it sits on the hot pork scramble ($13).

Accompanied by a bowl of sticky garlic rice, we were instructed to add a few dashes of Maggi seasoning (like a cross between soy sauce and worcestershire) before mixing up the egg with the sizzling pork.  To my delight, this unctuous dish was remarkably delicious, the creamy egg balancing the salty and garlicky bits of pork.  A playground of textures and flavors, it tasted almost like a medley of bacons with scrambled egg.  It disappeared from the table within seconds.

Though they serve a version of eggs benedict with thinly sliced pieces of SPAM, we decided to try the Eggs Imelda (in homage to the infamous politician notorious for her 2700 pairs of shoes, among other things).  Homestyle pandesal (a rather dense and hearty "salt bread") is crowned with a sweet twist on florentine called laing (taro root leaves, coconut milk, shrimp paste, and chilies), a poached egg, calamansi lime hollandaise, and jumbo grilled prawns.  On the side are kamote fries (a white sweet potato best enjoyed with a bottle of banana ketchup).  Between the sweet potato, sweet greens, and rather sweet and succulent prawns, the dish risks hitting a sugary overload for what is usually a somewhat savory breakfast.  The key element that achieves balance in this extremely sophisticated brunch dish, however, is the tart and luxuriously creamy hollandaise, resulting in an astounding benedict unlike any I have ever enjoyed ($15).

Our favorite dish was the tocilog-tocino ($11), 7-up cured pork shoulder served with rice blanketed with a sunny-side up quail egg.  The citrus soft drink not only seasoned and tenderized the pork, but gave it a deliciously crispy and caramel coating that I could enjoy for several consecutive meals.

Truly a meal to remember for a lifetime, we finished with the perfect sweet ending, mango-stuffed Balthazaar's brioche french toast with fresh berries and caramelized macapuno (young coconut), an excellent rendition that would be quite difficult to beat.

After exchanging hugs with Nicole Ponseca, shaking hands with the staff, and saying goodbye to the new friends we made at nearby tables while discussing everything we were learning, we stepped onto the sidewalk satisfied in both stomach and spirit.  Pete immediately grinned at me before stealing the words right out of my mouth.  "We have to come back next week!"

Seating is limited, so be sure to book a reservation by emailing or texting Ponseca at (917) 710-5457.

Maharlika (at Resto Leon) on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

the food sounds like jazzed up filipino food but still identifiably pinoy.the spicy vinegar is called sinamak in the visayan island of panay and is infused with vinegar and blue ginger or galanggal or langkawas in the local visayan dialect called ilonggo. the briche is called ensaimada and is very good slit and stuffed with jelly (i use home made guava jelly) and toasted. omg, that made me hungry!!!

Mr. Retovado said...

yum yum... a very delicious take on classic filipino fare...

what? no green mango shake??

appetizers should have been "green mangoes & salted shrimp past" yum yum

Anonymous said...

it's nice to come across someone who enjoyed filipino dishes!
that appetizer is called Nagaraya here in the Philippines. they come prepackaged and in different flavors. they are everywhere! much like potato chips to americans, filipinos love their nagarayas.

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