In Manila Hotel, Filipino street food is given the five-star treatment

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Aside from being a living monument to the nation’s history, the Manila Hotel promises to be a home for Filipino street food reimagined for the young and cosmopolitan eater, through the newly opened Sun Deck. In photo: deep fried Laguna cheese rolls (with mayo-herb and tomato sauce) and empanadang Ilokano (with Ilokano vinegar dip and curry sauce). Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Manila is a city that is slowly becoming itself.

All around the capital, there are pockets of activity, recalling days of a glorious past when Escolta, Malate, Ermita, and Intramuros throbbed as magnetic hubs of life and culture. And in the Manila Hotel — the Philippines’ oldest and most storied, with 105 years of history within its walls — there is likewise a quiet revitalization, starting with the effort to make its visitors remember.

The Manila Hotel was built primarily because of the influx of Americans coming to the Philippines, in the transition between the United States having won the Spanish-American war to its planned occupation of the Philippines as its 52nd state. While the latter did not materialize, the hotel nevertheless welcomed the traffic of American guests “from Howard Taft all the way down,” says Therese Necio, the hotel’s vice president for marketing. “Technically, this was the seat of government at that time.”

Along the walls of the hotel’s Heritage Museum — opened just over a year ago — are snapshots of what transpired from 1912, its inaugural year, up to the present. Far from being archaic or just being a repository of found artifacts and nostalgic photos, the museum is equipped with QR code technology, enabling access to interactive information about an old chair Gen. Douglas MacArthur sat on, for example, by the mere act of scanning the barcode in one’s mobile phone and by downloading the free Manila Hotel app.

manila hotel1.jpg Inside the Manila Hotel's Heritage Museum. The chair is supposed to be from the suite where Gen. Douglas MacArthur stayed. The Manila Hotel served as the home of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1935 to 1941, when he was military advisor of the Philippine Commonwealth. Photo by JL JAVIER

manila hotel3.jpg The living room inside the MacArthur suite, refurbished for modern use. Photo by JL JAVIER

There are about 71 QR codes (and counting) around the museum, making the experience more convenient and relevant to its young targeted audience, thus “bridging the gap between technology and history with the millennials,” says Necio.

Outside the museum, the hotel itself is a living monument to the warmth and vivacity of Philippine politics, art, and culture. Familiar to regular visitors in the lobby is a majestic Fernando Amorsolo painting, as well as imposing brass and capiz chandeliers that inspire not only a renewed interest on local history but also secrets still unknown and rumors that persist.

There is a story going around, for one, that Imelda Marcos, who is a regular patron of the hotel, buried a time capsule somewhere beneath the lobby. Its exact location is still a mystery, says Necio.

While there is history in almost every corner of the Manila Hotel, its location makes it a prime spot for the convergence of efforts to rehabilitate the nation’s capital. “It has a natural harbor, so it provides a perfect backdrop for everything,” says Necio. “It’s also geographically connected to a very robust commercial district of Binondo, the historical past of Intramuros, and the rest of Manila. So it’s all here.” The hotel works closely with the city government in pushing forward the agenda of promoting everything local — whether it be design, architecture, craftsmanship, resources, or cuisine.

manila hotel2.jpg The entrance to the hotel's Champagne Room, a few steps away from the lobby. Photo by JL JAVIER

Way past the lobby and into the hotel’s pool and recreational area, in fact, is a space that’s opening itself up to be a watering hole featuring Filipino street food and the famous Manila sunset. The Sun Deck offers a menu created by Swiss executive chef Conrad Walter, who has been a Manila resident for 21 years and chef in the hotel for 16.

While the bar menu tags itself as “sexified" and “Frenchified” street food, its taste is undoubtedly Filipino, drawing from local ingredients and techniques as well as our longstanding love affair with sawsawan, or sauces — all taking into consideration the hotel’s five-star status where illustrious locals, foreigners, dignitaries, and heads of State dine and stay.

manila-hotel-option3.jpg Ukoy (with vinegar soy dip and sweet and sour sauce) and deep fried halo-halo (with coco jam, vanilla, and tablea dip). Photos by JL JAVIER

The deep fried halo-halo, for one, takes the cold refreshment and turns it into a crunchy lumpia-wrapped confection with all the toppings inside, akin to the turon. Dips come three ways: chocolate chili or tablea, vanilla, or coco jam, all of which work well with the novelty of tasting your halo-halo without all the ice. The cheese for the deep fried Laguna cheese rolls is sourced from a carabao farm in Pangasinan owned by former senator Leticia Ramos-Shahani, and comes with two sauces, a mayo-herb sauce and tomato.

Interestingly enough, the menu also features ukoy (vegetable and shrimp fritters), crisp to the bite but tender on the inside. The ukoy can be dipped in traditional vinegar and soy or in sweet and sour sauce. Inspired by a recent trip to Ilocos and a restaurant he visited there, Walter also included, at the last minute, an empanadang Ilokano, best eaten while still hot and encased in its soft shell, with the juices pouring out to your mouth once you take a bite. The empanada comes with an Ilokano vinegar dip as well as a curry sauce, which, albeit a surprise, is just as good a dip as the vinegar.

manila-hotel-option-1.jpg (Left) The al fresco bar area at the Sun Deck. (Right) The Manila Hotel daiquiri, made with the hotel's own brand of premium lambanog. Photos by JL JAVIER

The menu was carefully chosen to provide a beginner’s introduction to Filipino street food, presented with the flair and scrutiny of a hotel. Balut, for example, was excluded. “It’s a little bit adventurous for the non-Filipino … in my opinion, it doesn’t belong in a five-star hotel,” says Walter. “You have to be careful what you put in a menu. If you are in a restaurant, it’s different.”

The menu is quite comprehensive, seemingly addressing the moments of one’s childhood spent buying fishballs and ice skrambol from the streets. There are, in fact, homemade fish balls and a specialty ice scramble in the bar menu, as well as things like inihaw na baboy, kwek-kwek, taho, sago and gulaman. The plan is to have carts along the Sun Deck where these bites will be prepared, so as to enhance the Filipino street food experience, all the while watching the sea and the sky al fresco in a place that is steeped in so much memory and history.

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The Sun Deck is open 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Manila Hotel. The food will be served buffet style for approximately ₱395 per person. Drinks are served separately. For more information, visit the Manila Hotel’s website.