Friday, April 12, 2013

Chef Laudico Guevarra's, San Juan

In March, I spent a couple of evenings at a recently-opened restaurant in San Juan: Chef Laudico Guevarra's. Perhaps named after the street on which it is located, the newest of Chef Laudico's dining outlets has brought a stately old home (and one-time spa) back to life.

While this home has been kept in excellent condition, but a few touches of what was likely once a beautiful mansion remain. This chandelier, for instance, along with the ornate wooden divider right behind it, greet guests as they enter. The rest of the home is now very simple, filled only with tables and chairs for the diners. Save for some old black & white photographs that have been printed on transparent film and attached to the home's windows (scary at night, when they begin to shut their lights!), the walls are void of decor.

On both my visits, the restaurant, which was still in the soft opening phase, was packed with patrons. They were, of course, not there to admire interiors of an old mansion, but rather to indulge in a sizable buffet featuring mostly local fare with a twist. An area to the side of the house, which was once likely a sunroom or lanai, is now home to Guevarra's long buffet.

For starters, there is an appetizer station that features a few items that I've seen in other Laudico restaurants, along with pizza, various fritters, some bread with ham and cheese (there is a toaster available) and soup. The lumpia shooters were quite familiar to me, as I'd had them at Bistro Filipino - these are much better served freshly cooked than they were after sitting in a buffet, as they tend to grease up and lose their crunch. I particularly enjoyed the baked oysters, which were essentially cooked Rockefeller-style, with a creamy sauce enrobing the oyster flesh.

Next to the appetizer station sits a long parade of chafing dishes that hold rice, noodles and a variety of meat and vegetable dishes. On one of my visits, they were serving bagoong rice, and on the other, they had annatto rice. They serve both the local pancit, as well as a Filipinized puttanesca that is made with tuyo. The vegetable dishes I tried included ginataang sitaw at kalabasa and bagnet pakbet. On the far end of the buffet are the meats - I very much enjoyed a pork dish that had a sweet soy-based sauce (I don't recall what it's called, but it reminded me of the toyoba we make at home), while my brother and friends swore by the Angus kare-kare. In general, the dishes were tasty and creatively executed, but I found most of them very oily.

Between the chafing dishes and the grill station sat the salads. Here, they offer both Western-style leafy greens, as well as vegetables that make up our local ensalada. Quite interesting is a bagoong vinaigrette, which adds a unique Pinoy twist to a simple salad. I also enjoyed how they offered different types of bagoong for the ensalada, including my favorite bagoong Balayan.

Most what I personally consumed came from the grill and carving station, as I had convinced myself that this was the "healthiest" part of the buffet. They offer a variety of grilled meat and seafood - chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, squid and gindara. For carving are Angus beef belly, pork belly roll, lechon and roast chicken. I thought the seafood was very well grilled, so I had my fill of squid and shrimp - both perfect with some ensalada and rice. I also tried the beef belly, which I found too rich, and the roast chicken, which I felt was a bit dry and bland.

As I do each time I dine at a buffet, I left some room for dessert. Guevarra's selection includes chocolate fondues with fruit and biscuits for dipping, miniature pastries such as tarts, yema balls (this reminded me of a donut hole with filling) and suman panna cotta, although they only had this signature Laudico dessert on one of my two visits. As announced on a nondescript sign on the wall, which I missed on my first visit, there are also frozen desserts served to order - frozen brazo and halo halo shooters. My favorite part of the dessert station, however, was the soft serve ice cream machine, which churns out a home-made, carabao-milk-based frozen treat. The vanilla tasted like pastillas de leche. The second flavor seems to vary, as it was chocolate on my first visit and ube on my second.

Of course, given the mass inflow of customers and the fact that they were still on soft opening when I visited, the service was still a bit frantic. The buffet lacked labels and serving utensils, they ran out of glasses and silverware for the tables (when I requested for a glass and some teaspoons, the waiters advised me that they were still being washing). Particularly entertaining was this label, which I think is supposed to read "Hamonado."

Birthing pains aside, it's quite easy to understand why Guevarra's was packed on the two evenings I visited. The place is a no-brainer if you have to foot the bill for a large party - the weekday lunch buffet is P399, the weekday dinner buffet P499 and weekend buffet P599. For the amount and variety of food, it is quite a steal.

I found Guevarra's to still be a little rough on the edges when I visited, but with a some more polish this place has the potential to be a gem. A meal in an old mansion can and should be an elegant experience. If they are able to elevate the service, make the atmosphere a bit more relaxed and keep the quality and flavor of their food consistent, this is a place that I think many - including myself - would come back to again and again.

Chef Laudico - Guevarra's
387 P. Guevarra St. cor. Argonne St.,
Addition Hills, San Juan
Tel: +632 705 1874 /  705 1811

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