Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It started with a few drinks at an underage party in 2005, when then-teenagers Thirdy Dolatre, John Kevin Navoa, and Kevin Villarica realized they were meant to be friends. What started as curiosity about girls and other high school shenanigans later gave way to a mutual love of food, taking each of them on their own pursuit of culinary exploration. But time spent in other kitchens led these proverbial brothers to eventually take each of their skill sets into what is now known as Hapag Private Dining.
The perfect backdrop
It was first a private dining service, where each of the chefs would cook their parts of the menu at their own homes and then assemble the rest on site. “We had no idea where it would go, but we knew we had to try,” says Dolatre. As business grew, they looked into building a commissary. One look at the space, however, made them realize its potential for an elevated dining experience focusing on Filipino cuisine.
Tucked behind a bula-lugaw joint along Katipunan extension, Hapag is housed in a structure that boasts of clean lines and very intentional minimalism. There is a beautiful wooden ridged wall seating running through the length of the restaurant, lending just the right amount of softness to the industrial chic atmosphere. The kitchen is open and hides no secrets from its diners. There is a bareness to the place that functions in a way that negative space has in food photography: it’s the perfect neutral and serene backdrop for Hapag’s vibrant cuisine.
Toto, it ain’t Lola’s kitchen anymore
The menu is divided into three sections: Panimula or starters, Pangalawa or mains, and Panapos or dessert. Don’t let the tasting sizes of the starters fool you either; the portions of the mains are sizable. They follow the classic viand format, served with some form of rice, making any self-respecting Tita proud. “Everyone has spent ₱5,000 on a tasting menu in a fancy restaurant, and while it tastes good, you know you’re going to pass by McDonald’s before you go home,” says Villarica. Nodding in agreement, Navoa adds, “That’s not what we’re trying to do. No one sits down for a Filipino meal and leaves hungry.”
Despite the familiarity of the mains, with dishes like binagoongan and bistek Tagalog, one quickly understands that each of these has been subject to interpretation. The execution is fresh and surprising, but without ever erring into pretense. Their take on kare-kare has its oxtail flaked (as one might do with adobo) and sautéed in bagoong, then served deconstructed rather than like a stew, its vegetables fried and with the inclusion of a smoked eggplant puree. The latest menu addition is a dry-aged duck with juicy meat and crispy skin, served with a sampinit reduction whose acidity and sweetness knocks back the glorious duck fat, rounded out by an adlai salad for a refreshing finish — a sophisticated take on Filipino cuisine’s constant dance between savory and sweet.
Pure, unbridled play
While those dishes are worth their weight in praise, to see where Hapag well and truly shines, one must look to every dish under Panimula. Classic mains come with their own bars to clear, with a responsibility to respect the roots first before breaking the rules. Conceptualizing fully Filipino starters where previous benchmarks don’t exist? Well, that just sets the scene for pure, unbridled play. The Hapag starters hook onto specific beloved elements, like bonete bread hailing from Batangas or your neighborhood pares, then strap it in for a ride on the team’s collective culinary imagination.
The Laing Stones, undoubtedly the most visually arresting of the starters, comes in a clay pot that could very well be a table centerpiece, riddled with flowers and greens. All the foliage is edible, meant to be picked up with what look like blackened stones underneath, which are actually balls of laing in crispy squid ink batter. Their version of a sinuglaw is remarkably refined and smooth; gentle slivers of fish and meat stacked together with onion shavings and greens, dressed with the sharpness characteristic of a kinilaw while maintaining a harmonious flavor balance. Their Ginataang Alimasag looks almost plain and unassuming, but trust, this is a dish that will leave you licking the bowl clean. It starts with a gorgeous and creamy coconut squash custard interspersed with juicy chunks of crab meat, drizzled with a prawn head sauce that gives it marvelous depth, and topped with crumbled chicharon sprinkled for texture and decadence.
This may confuse the inundated as a crossover into fusion, but what Hapag is actually doing is expanding the confines of what others see Filipino food to be. “A lot of things make it Filipino. First is staying true to the Filipino timpla, and getting the flavor right. But we also put a lot of emphasis on local produce, what are the standout ingredients of what grows locally,” says Dolatre. Navoa adds, “Making food Filipino also means supporting local farmers and suppliers before looking anywhere else. As much as possible, we don’t want to use any ingredients that aren’t local.”
Hapag, a home
What makes dining at Hapag singular isn’t just how delicious the food is or the overarching air of creativity that permeates the space. It is the thoughtfulness that goes into every detail that touches the experience, the depth of its roots despite a progressive approach, the tenderness that exists amid such technical precision, and the team’s ability to distill that libog so key in Filipino cuisine and translate it into dishes that feel simultaneously excitingly different and comfortingly familiar. This is a place created by people who love food and love making food for other people to love, ensuring a sensory afterglow once the dishes are stacked. It may not be your momma’s lutong-bahay, but even at its most refined, it still most definitely feels like home.
For reservations, visit their Facebook page.