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The tasting room is back

MANILA, Philippines — Ever since it first opened in 2015, City of Dreams Manila’s The Tasting Room was our favorite go-to place for European cuisine that was exciting and modern. Forget those stuffy fine dining rooms with their starched tablecloths and staid dishes; this was food that definitely had its origins in haute cuisine but also had a rebellious streak, mixing in modern techniques, global flavors and local ingredients. (Remember those foie gras lollipops served as amuse-bouches?)

The newly reopened Tasting Room is no less surprising, or modern. First, its location has changed. Its former spot in Crown Towers is now a VIP gaming area, and Crown Towers was rebranded Nüwa just last month (Nüwa is a heroine in Chinese mythology), after James Packer ended his partnership with Melco Resorts & Entertainment billionaire Lawrence Ho.

What was once the Crystal Lounge is the new Tasting Room — a soaring, gilded space with high ceilings and sea urchin-like droplights. It’s smaller, seating up to 56, and includes a bar and semi-private dining room.

The new chef de cuisine, Frederic Thevenet, is fresh from the InterContinental Da Nang Sun Peninsula Resort in Vietnam, where he worked at La Maison 1888, “considered the dining room in Vietnam,” says Charisse Chuidian, City of Dreams Manila’s vice president for public relations. Not surprising, considering La Maison’s executive chef is three-Michelin-star legend Pierre Gagnaire.

Thevenet, who was born in what he calls “Michelin city,” Clermont-Ferrand, started cooking at 15 and has an impeccable pedigree, working over the past 30 years in the Michelin-starred restaurants of chefs Guy Savoy, Guy Martin, Claude Troisgros, Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Ducasse, though he says Ducasse was his most influential mentor.

In Vietnam he met La Maison 1888’s manager, Stephen Moroney, and together they came to Manila, with Moroney now working as The Tasting Room’s restaurant manager. (Moroney, in fact, picked the wines paired with tonight’s six-course menu and introduced the herbal tea trolley that rolls around at the end of the meal, but we’re getting ahead of our story.)

The Tasting Room chef de cuisine Frederic Thevenet(left), The Tasting Room restaurant manager Stephen Moroney(right)

“We are still on soft opening with a degustation menu — four courses or six courses — until we are ready with the à la carte sometime in March,” notes Romina Gervacio, COD Manila’s director of PR.

We ask how chef Thevenet differs from his predecessor, William Mahi, and Chuidian had an intriguing answer: “Frederic’s menu has side dishes with each dish. Every dish that accompanies it is like a dish in itself. The way that he combines flavors to blend with the main dish is his forte.”

This we had to try.

Thevenet’s unique approach was evident in the very first course, a sea bass carpaccio with red and black radish, artichoke cream, cucumber jelly and celeriac. On the side were small bowls of veal tongue with vinaigrette and pickles and banana blossoms with remoulade.

How to proceed? The chef recommended starting with the sea bass carpaccio, then tasting a little bit of the side dishes for crunch and acidity.

This was novel: not only was there a complete flavor profile on the plate, there were also two complementary flavor profiles to contend with. We kept turning to the veal tongue salad for its comforting savoriness, while the tart banana blossoms played the part of condiment, reminding Therese of burong mangga (pickled green mangoes).

Maybe chef Thevenet has been studying how the natives like to eat.

Accompanying this fish course was a Pascal Jolivet Pouilly-Fumé Sauvignon Blanc 2015 — a very young wine from a young vineyard that specializes in sauvignon. It had a lot of acidity, freshness and crispness, with hints of passion fruit and grapefruit.

New location: What used to be the Crystal Lounge in Crown Towers is now The Tasting Room in the rebrandedNüwa at City of Dreams Manila.

Another dish that came with a side was lobster with ginger, Espelette pepper and bisque. While chef Thevenet imports 30 percent of his ingredients — mainly from France — this dish features Palawan lobster and bisque made from Davao mangoes and guavas.

This time, the chef suggested starting with the side of lobster rillettes — a paté made from lobster legs and yogurt — before digging into the main dish. This approach was kind of like foreplay: something to be savored but often rushed through in order to get to the main event.

And in this case, the main event was spectacular. The lobster tail was plump and perfectly cooked, with cilantro and the vodka-tinged bisque working in harmony to deliver a transcendent experience.

Adding to the symphony was a 2015 Gewurztraminer from Alsace (formerly a German territory). It hit us as sweet, almost dessert-like, with fruity apricot and peach notes, but had just the right balance of acidity to cut through the sweetness.

But chef Thevenet was just getting started. If seafood lovers should order the lobster, meat lovers must order the Cape Grim grass-fed beef tenderloin from Australia with onions and potatoes. Perfect to the bite, and seasoned with nothing but salt and pepper, this steak was so flavorful and close-your-eyes good we ended up ignoring almost everything else on the plate, from the red beet sauce to the potato gnocchi (though we did enjoy the mound of spinach).

If you think about it, what better escort would Australian beef have than Australian wine, and indeed, Moroney chose Petaluma, a cabernet from Coonawarra in south Australia. “It’s a century-old vineyard, though still New World,” said our sommelier Brian. “They recruited winemakers from France. It has high acidity, full-bodied, dark fruits such as plums, raspberries, blackberries, but also mint and hints of eucalyptus.”

Dessert was traditionally French: Chocolate Success, for which Thevenet used Michel Cluizel chocolate, drizzling warm chocolate sauce over airy layers of chocolate meringue and chocolate parfait.

But wait: on the side to balance all that rich, chocolaty goodness was a bowl of lychee veloute that was so refreshing it cleansed our palates, and was so major we’d say it deserves its own slot on the dessert menu.

We asked chef Thevenet why he feels the need to provide side dishes. Is it to address the Asian predilection for serving many small dishes? Is it to accommodate a wealth of ideas?

“This was from a few different chefs I worked with in France,” he says. “If you want to make the whole big dishes, you are never satisfied. But if you do smaller dishes, put things around, you really love the bite that you are eating so you would like more. Because if you are eating and it’s always on the same level, you can be the best chef in the world but it will be boring.”

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For inquiries and reservations at The Tasting Room, call 800-8080, email guestreservations@cod-manila.com, or visit www.cityofdreamsmanila.com/thetastingroom.

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