Naming a restaurant after the 15th letter of the Spanish and Filipino alphabets is a clever proposal. Ñ, after all, is nothing but the letter N with a tilde, a grapheme that indicates a modification in pronunciation. In the case of the Ñ, and particularly in Spanish,it calls for a palatization where the sound is produced by placing the tongue on the palate of the mouth.
Clever because it is the tongue and the palate that enjoys this gastronomic proposition the most, after all.
Chef Chele Gonzalez’s name is punched into the gold metal right under the restaurant’s name as you enter Enye’s doors, making him an inextricable and indelible part of this new venture.
The man from Torrelavega in Northern Spain is the same one behind Gallery Vask, ranked number 35 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 2017 (rising four notches from their 39th place in 2016), and the only one from the Philippines in both years.
Previously, Chef Chele worked at Spain’s legendary El Bulli—the only one to hold the title of World’s Best Restaurant five times in a row as compiled in the S. Pellegrino list, and Denmark’s Noma, which beat El Bulli to break the streak.
His resume is frighteningly intimidating, so I refuse to interview him, afraid that an honest assessment of his food might be flavored by his laurels.
Not a good taste to begin with.
So I sit with most in anticipation as the dishes fly out of his open kitchen: Kitayama Wagyu carpaccio, raised in Bukidnon, was a time machine.
I pinched pennies in college to travel from Los Baños and enjoy my raw beef, pounded to perfection, with only a drizzling of olive oil and lemon in Carpaccio, the Italian restaurant in Yakal Street in Makati. Chef Chele’s version added a new dimension to it with an “ice cream” of Parmesan cheese, whipped and served like a glob of the sweet dessert on top of the beef, topped with crunchy pine nuts.
The second courses were a tribute to the new and old: his Txangurro (Basque for crab) offered the staple in the Cebuano diet as a mousse… an airy and light reimagination, where he diligently returns the creamy meat into the shell.
And then Chef Chele tiptoes on sacred ground, incorporating the iconic Cebuano inasal na baboy (lechon or spit-roast pork) in a soft, open taco with another Cebuano icon…mango…as a salsa with a jalapeño and frijoles (bean) mousse, with a dollop of sour cream.
The one I tried only had the lechon meat, which left me wondering how it would have tasted with the crunch of the lechon’s number one draw, its crackling skin.
The stewed lobster paella sat well with my personal tastes (I like my food salty, and this one leaned towards that spectrum), balanced rather well when the beautifully-plated tenderloin was offered to us.
The Solomillo a la Española came as promised with grilled Manchego (from the La Mancha region), a Rioja (a Spanish wine producing region) wine jus, mushroom mashed potatoes, with leaves of nasturtium (thank you Karlo Lim for identifying them!).
Of the three dessert options (Catalan pumpkin crème brulee and a milk-dipped brioche with anise ice cream), I found another tribute dish in Enye’s tight menu truly memorable.
Chef Chele’s Texturas de Calamansi needs no translation.
The humble lemoncito (it’s Cebuano nom de kitchen) came in four incarnations, each with a different texture: a fluffy cake, a light mousse, a creamy ice cream and finally a breakable, bite-able biscuit, all infused with the Philippine lemon.
As happy as I am that I got to try his dishes before I became starstruck with his considerable culinary stripes, Chef Chele grounds me fully when he sends a message to me over Instagram.
“I like this photo from you. I would like to ask permission to use it on my Instagram,” says @chelegalleryvask.
Por supuesto, it would be my honor. And just like that, my own palatization into Chef Chele Gonzalez’s brand of comfort food esta ahora completo. My poor conjugation notwithstanding.