(This feature was published in GMA News Online last May 7, 2014)
Tourists flock to it. Foodies rave about it. Heck, even famous American TV host Anthony Bourdain was all praises about it. Indeed, Bale Dutung has become a must-visit dining destination in Pampanga, a region popular for its own kind of cuisine.
“Bale dutung” is a Kapampangan term that translates to “house of wood,”—and true enough, lots of wooden sculptures and structures dotted the premises. It felt very inviting—just like home. The place is actually not just a restaurant; it is also the home of Claude Tayag, an artist, author and restaurateur.
“I find warmth in wood,” shared Tayag. “This is where we live. We live upstairs.”
He and his wife Mary Ann opened their home to the public back in 2000 and began accepting guests into their restaurant.
Visitors will find Tayag’s artistic creations all over the area—from the garden he designed to the interiors of the restaurant and its wooden furnishings. He said he used recycled wood in his sculpture and furniture designs. His love for art extends to the kitchen, where he gets to show his expertise in the culinary arts and passion for Filipino food.
Those who want to try Claude Tayag’s much acclaimed cooking have to reserve a table beforehand. The restaurant will serve pre-arranged lunches to those who make a reservation for at least 12 diners. But smaller groups may join once the restaurant is open. Just call beforehand.
Five-ways lechon and other culinary innovations
There are three menu options to choose from: the Anthony Bourdain menu (inspired by the dishes served for the American chef and host), the Lechon menu, and the Kapangpangan menu. Each one has 10 courses, so expect a leisurely sit-down meal that could take up to three hours.
If you simply love swine—and if your health permits—go for the Lechon menu, which offers five kinds of lechon dishes from whole roasted pork to grilled pork ribs. This is what most foodies come here for, aside from the homey ambiance of the place.
Before indulging in gustatory pork pleasures, I started with some Ensaladang Pako (fiddle head fern salad)—fresh greens, slices of tomatoes and onions, and boiled quail eggs, served with a tangy honey-mansi dressing. The pako was crisp and the dressing was delightful. It’s a delicious and nutritious starter.
My palate was further teased by the first lechon course—Balat ng Lechon at Liver Sauce. I’m not a big lechon fan, but I just had to take a nibble of the good-looking whole roasted pig’s glistening skin and liked its crunchy texture.
The next dish was the Lechon Tortilla, which is crispy roast pork flakes on a tortilla. Diners may put other fillings such as fresh onions, tomatoes, or cilantro. But make sure to put enough cilantro-basil sauce, which adds another dimension of flavor. I enjoyed the soft texture of the tortilla in contrast with the crispy shredded pork and vegetables, and because of that it became my favorite dish there.
I tried not to finish the whole tortilla so I could have space for more. I couldn’t leave the place without tasting the Lechon Sisig. According to Tayag, “My innovation there is using the pig’s head for the sisig. Mas malutong yung balat.”
The minced pig’s cheeks had a chewy consistency and the dish wasn’t as oily as I expected. Diners can choose a serving without onions and add other condiments like chili. I could imagine that this dish would pair well with some local brew.
Another must-try was the Sinigang na Lechon, a sour soup that has pork meat and vegetables like kangkong, okra and gabi. Tayag revealed, “The sinigang na lechon—people have been doing that, I don’t want to claim I started it, but it’s a different thing.”
His version uses the lechon bones for added dimension, thanks to the flavoring of its tanglad (lemongrass) stuffing. It’s best eaten with a serving of brown rice wrapped in banana leaves.
My other favorite dish was the Kare-kareng Dagat, a signature dish of Bale Dutung. I liked the medley of fresh seafood: prawns, squid, and mussels, cooked in creamy peanut sauce. The shellfish were good-sized ones, too! I found it tasty by itself, but the server gave me a side of bagoong (shrimp paste) that complemented the seafood concoction.
After the nth course, I was stuffed to the brim. But I was alerted to a dessert I shouldn’t miss—Paradiso. Picture three sweet balls of ube, yema and macapuno in a bed of sweetened carabao’s milk that almost tastes like pastillas.
I thought I wouldn’t be able to finish the bowl of cloying sweetness, but I did with the help of some Kapeng Sinaunang Panahon (a bitter blend of 50 percent arabica and 50 percent barako). It was the perfect ending to this meal of epic proportions.