Text and photos by YVETTE TAN
When someone mentions "Chinese restaurant" we automatically think dim sum, noodles, and congee. What a lot of us forget is that there is yet another kind of Chinese restaurant—the fine dining kind that serves the Chinese lauriat—frequented by Chinese families during special occasions, one that showcases just how beautiful, elaborate, and delicious a Chinese feast can be.
The Filipino-Chinese community has certain go-to lauriat restaurants, ones with great ambiance and consistently delicious traditional dishes. It's not easy to penetrate the ranks of fine dining restaurants that Filipino-Chinese families have been going to for generations, especially in famously finicky Binondo, but not only has one newcomer done so, but it continuously asserts itself as one of the best, only just a year after opening its second branch.
With roots in the Chinese community of Banawe, King Chef Seafood Restaurant celebrated the first anniversary of its Lucky Chinatown Mall branch. King Chef's second branch fits right into the high-end Binondo mall. The restaurant's contemporary Chinese interiors, with its clean lines mixed with elaborate Chinese accents, give one the sense of being inside a hotel restaurant while still retaining a laid-back air. It's the kind of restaurant that attracts both the casual and fine dining crowd, allowing both to seamlessly mix.
The Filipino-Chinese community may have a lot of rules about who you associate with, but they all disappear in front of good food.
King Chef Seafood Restaurant stemmed from owner Marites Apiado-Ang's love for cooking and Cantonese food. The former retailer fell in love with Cantonese cuisine during her frequent sourcing trips to the Chinese province, later using it as an inspiration when she opened Cantonese Soup Kitchen, a Banawe restaurant that specialized in herbal soups.
She says that King Chef came about when she and husband Michael Chan-Ang found a new restaurant space and decided that their new concept would incorporate everythig they couldn't do with Cantonese Soup Kitchen. They named their new restauant King Chef after their customers, who they considered "kings," after the old saying, "The customer is king."
"We have a heart for service," Marites says. "We really want to give our customers the best restaurant experience... That's why we named it King Chef. Number one talaga yung customer sa amin."
Marites is so proud of King Chef's service that she ranks it the number one reason customers keep coming back, above the food. And from personal experience, I can tell you that a lot of the waitstaff do go beyond what is expected of them. If you happen to be in the Binondo branch, make sure you get Osbert as a waiter. He'll take good care of you. Remember to tip him well.
And though it is true that a lot of Chinese fine dining restaurants tend to serve the same classic favorites such as the Assorted Chinese Cold Cuts that a lauriat cannot do without, a peek at the menu will reveal an array of dishes with a distinctly modern, yet wholly authentic flair.
The Dumplings in Seafood Spinach Soup, for example, combines two staples of Chinese comfort food, the plump juiciness of the dumplings adding a different texture to the creamy soup.
And then there is the Deep-Fried Suahe with Salted Egg. Shrimp plays a big part in the Flipino-Chinese lauriat, and is mostly served either steamed or crisp-fried. King Chef's version comes with a lovely, savory salted egg coating, the shrimp's skin fried so crisp you can dispense with the peeling and just pop the whole thing in your mouth.
Folks looking for the familiar will appreciate the Stir-Fried Kung Pao Chicken, the Fried Spare Ribs with Eight Spices, and the Birthday Noodles, the first two casual dining family favorites, the last one a must in every Chinese celebration, as it symbolizes long life.
Two impressive dishes that you can't find anywhere else are the Stuffed Eggplant in Japanese Sauce and the Fried King Fish in Mango Sauce.
The first time I came across the Stuffed Eggplant in Japanese Sauce was in a Chinese cookbook with English translations that dated back to the 70s. For a while, it was a favorite dish at home, so you can imagine my delight to find it in a fine dining restaurant, looking and tasting better than any of its homemade incarnations.
The dish looks like sauce-smothered fried fish at first glance, but when picked apart, is easily revealed to be eggplant. It has none of the taste and texture associated with the vegetable, instead tasting like a sauced-up meat dish. If you're going to try one new thing on the menu, make it this one.
The Fried King Fish in Mango Sauce is composed of two butterflied lapu-lapu deep-fried and topped with a sweet and spicy mango sauce.
No proper lauriat is complete without crab, and King Chef's Typhoon Shelter Crabs hit the spot in that department, crispy and beautifully spiced.
Even dessert is a thing to be gazed upon at King Chef. Their Mango Balls may look like a traditional pastry on the outside, but contains fresh mango cubes and cream within. Their Almond Fish Gelatin is a thing of beauty, the almond jelly molded into fish that swim inside a plate. A small bowl with dried ice sits in the middle to give the dish a fog effect. The jelly is served with evaporated milk, the restaurant's version of Chinese pudding.
King Chef isn't just a fine dining restaurant, by the way. It also serves dim sum during snack hours, the most popular of which is their pork siomai. They sometimes have a 50-percent-off promo on their dim sum, depending on the time of day.
King Chef's Binondo branch also has a lot of promos this June in celebration of their anniversary month. Their 365 Dishes of Love promo lets diners pick a prize for every P300 food purchase, while every P500 purchase entitles a guest to a coupon that they can exchange for free desserts starting August 16.
King Chef has won the hearts of the residents of Banawe and Binondo, two of Manila's largest Chinese communities, with its trifecta of delicious food, excellent service, and welcoming ambiance. It goes to show that it is possible for a newcomer to make a name for itself, even in a field dominated by a few restaurants regarded as institutions by time and taste. Dine at King Chef and you'll understand why, even at less than three years old, it is well on the way to becoming an institution. — BM, GMA News