On our first day, just a couple of hours after our plane landed, we went to Embarcadero Mall to get the lay of the land. The security guard at the entrance recommended Gilian's Sea Wharf Chef, the only restaurant that was open for lunch at 11am.
I had known for months before this trip that the first thing I would eat would have to be Bicol Express, the signature dish of the Bicol Region.
|The real thing. Bicol Express is sliced green chilies simmered in coconut milk and shrimp paste. The pork bits are just for flavor and are not the main ingredient. PHP150
And how could I pass up genuine Pinangat?
|Pinangat is the leaves of the taro plant layered and tied in a bundle, placed in a pot and cooked in, you guessed it, coconut milk, shrimp paste and of course, chilies. PHP75
Our server suggested the Spareribs which were finger-lickin' good and tender without being cloying or overly fatty. This was nice enough, but I didn't come all the way to Legazpi to eat barbeque.
|The sprinkling of sesame seeds over the Spareribs was a nice touch. PHP210
Verdict: Gilian's at Embarcadero Mall was a great intro to Bicol food. Thanks, Mr. Security Guard. Our total bill for two people, with rice and drinks, was PHP510 (US$12). Dirt cheap, we thought, until we saw the other restaurants around the city and realised that Gilian's was actually high-end. To be fair, though, the servings sizes were quite big and our orders could have been shared among three or four diners. Service was excellent and they had a fantastic view of Mayon Volcano from their al fresco dining area.
The Bicol Express was a wonderful marriage of bright and mellow flavors-- chili and coconut blended together but still distinct. (I want to congratulate the genius who thought of this combination.) I can no longer eat Bicol Express outside the Bicol Region after this meal. Yez, Gilian's has spoiled me forever. Also, since then, I have developed a habit of popping sliced chilies like candy.
But it was the Pinangat that was the star of the show. It had an amazing mouth-feel that was similar to eating a super moist chiffon cake, neither too dense nor too fluffy. It was alternately spicy, creamy, sweet and savory, and there was a hint of meatiness. Now that I've tasted the real stuff, I curse all the calories that I wasted on all the fakes around the country. Most Legazpi restaurants actually "import" Pinangat from Camalig, a small town not too far to the west of the capital. Bicolanos accept as gospel truth that the best Pinangat is prepared in mom-and-pop outfits there. Tip: The Pinangat at the Legazpi Airport, same quantity and quality, is only PHP45, and you can take home frozen bundles if you like.
Gilian's Sea Wharf Chef can be found at Embarcadero de Legazpi Mall, Port Area, Legazpi City. Just ask the security guard.
For dinner on our second night in Legazpi City, we took a tricycle to Smalltalk Café, a fusion place tucked away on a quiet street. OK, a lot of "experts" say that fusion is dead or should be killed, but I think that it's kinda fun.
Naturally, I had to order Bicol Express and Pinangat again, but this time the fusion versions, to juxtapose with the previous day's lunch.
|Bicol Express Pasta. All the regular components of Bicol Express with some chopped tomatoes, garlic and olive oil. PHP105
|Bicolana Pizza. A normal melty cheese-topped thin crust dotted with pinangat, pineapple chunks and button mushrooms. PHP225
Someone was feeling not too adventurous that evening and ordered fried fish. (The same person who ordered the Spareribs at Gilian's.)
|Crispy Tilapia dredged in a special breading and fried, served with steamed rice and soy sauce for dipping. PHP120
Verdict: After a long hard day touring Albay province from 5am to 7pm, walking into Smalltalk put a smile on my face. The ambiance was very genteel but informal. The restaurant building is actually a restored old house, with shiny wooden floors, high ceilings, and pre-war photos and heirlooms scattered about. It's a marvelous place for a date, and history buffs will surely get a kick from the framed pictures depicting the city and its people in colonial times, always with Mayon Volcano in the background.
The food was satisfying, although not outstanding. I was expecting something weirder, I guess, but the fusion dishes left a little something to be desired. The Bicol Express Pasta, for example, tasted just like Bicol Express served with a carbohydrate other than rice. In this case, it was just your run-of-the-mill spaghetti. Nice, but not naughty enough.
Pinangat on a pizza sounded more exciting, but the Bicolana Pizza turned out to be a common-tasting Pinoy pizza with tiny piles of shredded Pinangat on its surface. (By "Pinoy pizza", I mean a pie with lots of melted cheese and a sweetish tomato sauce.) I felt that this dish could have been pushed further-- maybe with fresh arugula or sprouts and bagoong alamang (shrimp paste) instead of the juvenile and play-safe pineapple and mushrooms.
Still, I'm glad we went to Smalltalk. If you're looking for something different but not too wacky, it's a good choice. The food's hearty and not expensive.
Smalltalk Café is located at 051 Doña Aurora Street, Legazpi City. Phone number +63.52.4801393 or 4378708.