Getting lost can be fun. I think the appeal comes from realizing hidden wonders while searching for something welcoming or familiar. For instance, as I fumbled through Marikina one night, I had the fortune of discovering what lay inside the Isabelo Garden Restaurant.
Even with my map, it was easy to go past the restaurant at night with just a silver gate as a landmark and no sign to announce that one has finally arrived at Isabelo. Nevertheless, after a few tentative honks of the cab's horn, the gate opened to reveal the garden.
Entering the compound, I had a few moments to take in the garden’s landscaping and dramatic lighting before Ms. Portia Baluyut, who co-owns Isabelo Garden Restaurant with her mother, warmly greeted me.
While Ms. Portia showed me around the different dining areas around the garden, I mentioned how I almost missed the place, and she said finding Isabelo was part of the experience. I couldn’t disagree, too, as something about being guided by a map intrigued my inner Indiana Jones.
The areas we saw included her mother's old studio (Ms. Stephanie Dee-Baluyut is an artist whose paintings and curios decorate Isabelo) and a table where you can enjoy your meal under the stars and colorful garden lights.
After the tour, Ms. Portia invited me to join her in the kitchen so I wouldn’t have to sit alone. Here I watched how she cooked my meal and listened to how Isabelo was born. As I watched her toast the bread for the dish that launched Isabelo, the Spinach Artichoke Dip, I learned that Ms. Portia cooks by instinct. She didn’t have any formal culinary training and had been in advertising for a few years until she realized that wanted to cook for people. Once her spinach and artichoke dip (which was originally just a part-time business) started getting so many requests from friends and family, Portia and her mother found the confidence to create Isabelo Garden Restaurant.
Once the first dish was served, it was easy to tell how the Spinach and Artichoke Dip could spur the birth of an entire restaurant. It was a delight to behold and taste! The serving came with a few pieces of perfectly toasted focaccia bread (that is, browned and not charred, crisped and yet still chewy). Still hot from the oven, the dip was all at once warming, creamy, tangy and most importantly, cheesy. The zest gave it a clean flavor which made me think that it would be the sort of dish you could dress up for on a dinner out (such as this one). On the other hand, it was comforting enough to have at home during a cold night.
Now Isabelo’s rectangular, grilled pizzas had thin crusts, which were crunchy and chewy in the right places. The Rustica was an all-vegetable pizza. Topped with roasted zucchini, mushrooms, aubergines and red bell peppers, the carnivore in me was initially taken aback by the lack of meat on the dish, but a few bites of the made me realize that roasted vegetables can be delectable pizza toppings. But if you really cannot do without meat, you could choose your own toppings when you order the The Pizza Mia.
Keeping with the fresh flavors (a trademark of Ms. Portia’s) of the dip, the next few dishes, and even the dessert, a Watermelon Sorbet all had that similar clean-tasting quality.
Photo Credit: Sunshine Selga-Funa
The first thing I noticed about the Buffalo Chicken Wings was that they were a nice shade of red, unlike the devilish tint I’ve encountered in some wings I’ve had. True to its appearance, the dish wasn’t numbingly hot but mildly piquant, and eating the wings with the Bleu Cheese Coleslaw balanced the spice of the chicken.
The Grilled Salmon Steak was nicely cooked, its pink flesh beautifully marked by the grill. My visual appreciation for the dish was only surpassed by the pleasure I had after I took my first (and second, and third, and..) bites. I love salmon and, however she did it, I think Ms. Baluyut did the fish justice.
The final dish before dessert was the Portobello Pasta, which had a peppy, acidic flavor owing to the white wine-based sauce. Now it might not be everyone’s “plate of pasta” as most Pinoys prefer a certain sweetness to pasta sauces, I think if you try it you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised.
Dessert was the palate-cleansing Watermelon Sorbet. It was a cool and mildly sweet way to cap off the night after a hearty meal. Recently, the Isabelo sorbets were some of the prizes you could win in a game of bato-bato-pick against Ms. Portia.
Yes, you read that right bato-bato-pick against Ms. Portia.
You see, aside from cooking all the food herself, Ms. Portia also takes the time to interact with her diners and show them a good time. She’s also been known to be a kakunchaba to her guests’ romantic surprises. –Even going as far as to purchase and hide flowers for a smitten visitor who was going to give them to his sweetheart! In fact I even saw their guestbook where I saw many messages from grateful diners thanking Ms. Portia and Ms. Stephanie for the wonderful times they had. They all seemed to be feeling the same way I did, having enjoyed my stay in Isabelo.
Looking across the garden before I left for the night, I could easily imagine why many would choose to stage important occasions in Isabelo Garden Restaurant. Everything about the Isabelo Garden experience from getting there, seeing the place, eating the good food and even meeting the owner -- is a discovery that should be shared with people who are dear to you.
-Valerie Grace Calma