(Bloomberg) -- To open a restaurant anywhere represents a risk, and that goes double in New York’s hypercompetitive market. Double that again when a restaurant serves up a cuisine unfamiliar to said market; and again still, when the tasting menu is priced at $135 per person. But the entrepreneurs behind Naks, the new Filipino fine-dining eatery in New York City’s East Village that open Dec. 5, are on a remarkable winning streak that began with the casual Adda, raised the bar with the boundary pushing Dhamaka and performed a three-peat with Semma, where the menu celebrates the not-seen-enough food of Tamil Nadu. But those restaurants all serve Indian menus. The food of the Philippines is new territory for them.
And at Naks, many of chef Eric Valdez’s dishes require ingredients few restaurants dare to use, much less display on their bill of fare. These include beef blood, bull’s penis and testicles, and most remarkable of all, bovine bile.
Yes, you read that right. Bile, from the gall bladder of cattle, is used in the cuisines of Southeast Asia, where the flavor profile sometimes calls for notes of bitterness. (It is also used in Chinese traditional medicine.) When I asked Valdez to show me some, he brought out a small dish of murky green liquid that smelled slightly pungent, but not enough to make me think of the literal translation of its Naks menu reference, “ki aun” aka soft stool — the literal translation of “ki aun,” the Laotian term for the ingredient.
Valdez, native of Makati and alum of the American Hospitality Academy’s culinary school, recognizes that these ingredients might keep some wary diners away—but insists it has to be this way. “My mother uses these ingredients,” he says, simply. “She would be mad at me if I used anything else.”
That’s why Naks’s sisig, the staple of Filipino street food beloved by the late Anthony Bourdain, will feature pig’s brains as well as minced ears, snout and jowls. “You order sisig at a fine-dining establishment in Manila, and chances are they’re using mayonnaise instead of brains,” says Roni Mazumdar, CEO of the company that is backing Valdez. “Eric would rather not cook it than use substitutes.”
This is consistent with the philosophy Mazumdar and his partner-in-cuisine Chintan Pandya espouse at the other restaurants under their banner of Unapologetic Foods. Valdez was one of their early hires and became stalwart at Dhamaka. Mazumdar recalls that he was scouting locations earlier this year for their upcoming Indian restaurant, a kebab joint, and also planning to move Adda from Long Island City into Manhattan, when “Chintan called to say, ‘Eric’s ready.’” The other projects were pushed back, and Naks was conceived.
The name is derived from an expression, in the Filipino dialect of Tagalog, of surprise and wonderment — think of it as slang for “awesome.” It’s an accurate description of my own feelings after a recent preview tasting. Valdez’s creations were as surprising as they were wonderful. These included the best roast pork belly I’ve had in years (made with garlic and lemongrass, just the right balance of crispy exterior and soft interior), a brilliant grouper dish with mayo and pickled vegetables that’s nicely tart on the tongue and a surprisingly tasty salad of bitter gourd, another ingredient that you don’t often see on US menus.
Unlike most New Yorkers, I’ve had quite a lot of exposure to Filipino cuisine, from visits to Manila in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when I lived in Southeast Asia. But I had never associated it with fine dining. There are now several places in the Philippines that meet that description, along with Kasama in Chicago and Archipelago in Seattle. (Washington, DC’s Bad Saint is, alas, no more.)
There are some pretty decent Filipino restaurants in NYC, but none that would dream of charging $135 for a prix fixe dinner, and having two seatings a night. (Naks also has an a la carte menu, rendering it safe for bile-free diners, that will be walk in only.) You might say the perception of Filipino cuisine in NYC now is where Indian cuisine was, say, a generation ago. (Before, some would argue, the Big Apple’s Indian food became better than London’s.) In taking it upscale, Valdez is trying for the transition that Indian chefs like Vikas Khanna of the modern Indian spot Junoon, and Vijay Kumar, chef-partner at Semma have pulled off.
And he’s trying to do it without pulling any gastronomic punches, a charge that is sometimes leveled at the only Filipino eatery to have won a Michelin star. Chicago’s Kasama wins kudos for flair and creativity, and has the look and feel of a fine-dining establishment. But the menu there is thin on organs, and there’s no mention of testicles or bile. Nor are diners encouraged, as they are at Naks, to eat kamayan-style, by hand, with many dishes served on banana leaves. (Valdez’s soup course, you’ll be relieved to know, comes with a spoon.)
The Naks opening a la carte menu will have some notable dishes I didn’t get to taste. The most conversation-sparking will be Soup No. 5 made with the aforementioned penis and testicles, as well as sibot spice. The ihaw ihaw, or grilled section, lists options like barbecued pork jowl with banana ketchup and soy sauce, and igat, or eel, flavored with lemon soda and young ginger. The solo dessert is taisan, a steamed, vanilla-infused cake with Filipino cheese.
Fittingly, the Naks space is homey rather than haute, with a bar area that includes a few tables for a la carte diners and a separate, inner sanctum that’s the only place to sample the tasting menu, which comes with the option of an $80 beverage pairing that includes cocktails, wine and beer. The latter is equipped with two wash-basins. “If we’re asking people to eat with their hands, we should allow them to occasionally rinse those hands between courses,” Valdez explains. Better that, I suppose, than to have every course followed by a finger bowl. There’s a wine and cocktails list, as well as a drinks pairing option. The bottles come mainly from Spain, Japan and the US: countries that have occupied the Philippines at some point in its history.
What Valdez is going for at Naks is the audacity of authenticity. If that means lots and lots of organs, that is music to my ears and will whet the appetites of fellow members of the Organ Meats Society, a group of New Yorkers that revels in all things offal.
But might dishes with beef bile challenge more squeamish diners? Valdez, Mazumdar and Pandya are counting on New Yorkers to take some risks of their own.
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