Every time I tell people of my Bale Dutung experience, they almost always ask “How can you eat lechon 5 ways? Isn’t there just one way of eating it?” Apparently, there’s more than one way to consume a lechon.
Chef Claude Tayag and his Bale Dutung (Old Wooden House) possess a lot of similar things: History, tradition, Filipino pride and creativity. The house was built by the chef himself, starting in 1989, by taking old wooden materials from Some were churches, others were just old homes and another, which I find most interesting of all, was the bowling alley floor. The house is already a grand feast for visual and kinesthetic people. Chef’s artwork littler the entire vicinity of the house – from sculptures and structures, to paintings and even chairs and seats. The chandeliers were made out of bamboo, with pieces that were curved, just like what you would use as a carabao yoke. I spent half of the time just touching and observing the old pieces that they had, reminiscing the childhood I had back in Pangasinan where my grandfather used to have these huge green glass vats filled with what have you. (In Bale Dutung, they’re used for fermenting vinegar)
Our lunch starts with a roll call from Chef Claude’s beautiful wife, Mary Anne. I’m blown away from the fact that she’s memorized all our names and wants to know a little something about us (like whose kid is which, what food do you like, what do you do, etc) and has kept that little nugget of personal trivia because she truly wants to know something about us and not just for small talk. She talks about the house’s history and a little bit of Filipino history as well (for David’s sake) and introduces the menu. I like how she explains it all with such elan. It was like watching a very passionate story teller tell the story of your life – you feel a personal connection to it.
Our welcome drinks were already impressive – freshly squeezed dalandan juice with muscovado ice cubes. Mary Anne suggests that you let the ice melt a bit so that the muscovado mixes in with the juice, making it sweeter over time. It was a particularly hot day so I practically snorted the juice and was quite sad when there were no more. However, they did serve endless carafes of ginger iced tea infused with lemon grass. My parched (and sore throat gave a little hula dance. I made a mental note to try to make that at home.)
Appetizers came round but we were told that they weren’t part of the 11 course meal. You have to be prepared for the fact that this lunch was an experience – an experience that would last for four (yes folks, you read it right. FOUR) hours. Chef Claude and Mary Anne levels that expectation with everyone. They’ve also personally trained the staff to check on the non verbal cues the diners would have to see if they needed the food to come out faster or to just give them a break from all the eating. A fact that I personally appreciate and highly recommend to all the other restaurateurs. We started with crackers and some dip – Pesto, taba ng talangka (crab fat) and balo-balo (fermented rice). Mary Anne encouraged us to try the dip one at a time and then combine them for a different flavor. I love the mix of the balo balo and the crab fat. Mary Anne asked me if I was a coffee drinker and said that it’s usually chosen by one. Tea drinkers prefer the pesto, probably because of the strong taste given by the crab fat and the fermented rice. A cold rice noodle salad was served next (with thin slices of mushroom and coriander) to clean our palate.
The first course was served and it was the ensaladang pako or fiddle head fern salad. Mary Anne gave us a short story about how this humble plant was never served to guests before and that it was practically a servant’s meal. But now, this lowly plant is being sold at $22 a pound in most New York upscale restaurants! I think it’s time to plant some in the backyard! Next up was the fried lumpiang ubod (fried spring rolls with palm heart filling) with Claude’9 oriental sauce. I had two helpings of those!
Next up was the inasal na manok (barbeque chicken) with Claude’9 Talangka Rice. Mary Anne encouraged us to eat with our hands and gnaw on the bones as that was where the flavor was. I didn’t have to be told twice! It was a refreshing thought to be able to eat as I want to even if it was a (quasi) formal 11 course meal. Appetizers were then cued to end when the talangka sushi and the fried hito and balo-balo wrapped in mustasa leaves were served.
Finally, the lechon meal started. the first way to eat it is probably my favorite way – munch on the crispy skin on its own or dip it with chef Claude’s original liver sauce. After the crunch crunch sounds were coming to a fade, Miss Mary Anne explained the second course. she said that no matter how great a lechoner you were, you can never have a crispy belly. So, what they did was to shred the belly and re-fry it, wrapping it in a tortilla and putting fresh basil, tomatoes, sweet onions and Claude’9 Oriental sauce. Scratch my previous statement – I think this is my favorite way of eating lechon.
Next way of eating lechon was the grilled pork ribs rubbed with sea salt. The dish was complimented with ensaladang talong. The dish was really good but Mary Anne said that they’re still having trouble finding a pig with more ribs. I don’t think the genetic scientists have found a way to do that just yet. By the time the fourth way of eating lechon came (lechon sinigang) we just had to take a break. Walking around the place, we were told that it had 4 kitchens. One was a dirty kitchen, another was industrial (where Chef Claude cooks for family gatherings), another was just for light cooking and yet another was Chef Claude’s personal kitchen. I think it’s just appropriate that a chef has this much kitchens – just like how a fashionista would have more closets than rooms.
The last way of eating lechon was more of a mix between Asian flavors and Western style. They took the pork thigh or pata and roasted it with Asado sauce but served it with steamed beans, carrots and potatoes.
Just as I was about to say “uncle” from eating, we were served with our dessert – Paradiso (Ube, kamote and macapuno in congealed carabao milk). Coffee was served right after but not just any kind of coffee. It was coffee the way coffee was served in the olden times – boiled ground kapeng barako, strained through a cheese cloth, sweetened with muscovado sugar and carabao milk. This coffee kicks Starbuck’s ass from here to Washington.
A lot of people on the internet is giving the chef a lot of flak because of the price they put on the experience (It’s about 1,800 per person, with a minimum of 10 people. Plus, they only accept one big group every month). Take into consideration that you are paying for the experience and not just the meal. Your meal is cooked by a world renowned chef, your hostess treats you like a VIP, you’re dining in the chef’s home, told fantastic stories and you’re filled up with exquisite food that makes you feel absolutely awesome. I’d say it’s worth every centavo. Plus, we were given a tour of the upstairs private living area.
It was almost a shame to have to leave Bale Dutung. Satiated and grinning, my family packed ourselves up in the van and profusely thanked Chef Claude and Mary Anne for the experience. As I looked back to Mary Anne’s waving figure, I already started planning when I’d be over again.
Bale Dutung is located at Angeles City, Pampanga. Call for advanced reservation at 045-888-5163 or 0917-535-51 63