Saturday, May 28, 2005

Pandan Island, Dinner In Paradise

I was last at the shower and as I emerged from the cottage, we all heard Mameng shouting “dinneeeeer” on top of her voice. So we heeded that most welcome call and trooped from wherever we were to the bar area. We all thought dinner was to be had at that place since a portion of it looked like a restaurant or snack bar. Wrong assumption!

From the bar area, we were led by a waitress through the surrounding garden to another building about ten or twenty meters away. And this was a finer structure! A rectangular building with thatched roof probably eight or ten or even twelve meters tall. Floor is concrete and slightly elevated from ground level. Three sides are open with just wooden balusters while the fourth side is enclosed – housing the kitchen and washroom areas. A big dining place for such small resort. I mustered this place could comfortably seat 50 diners. Perhaps even 70 or more!

When we arrived at the dining area, we immediately recognized our table. I thought our table must have been that rectangular “good-for-six” table with a red table cloth, four sets of fine dinnerware and two candle-lit little jars! Indeed it was – since we were the only guests in this place ha ha ha!

A minute or two after we have settled into our table, dinner started arriving as if this was a fine banquet for a royalty! First came the fruits. And we did not touch a thing! Not yet at least, since we were anticipating the sumptuous fare! Next came the rice, veggies and grilled fish – the one we bought from the Sablayan market earlier in the day, remember?! Out came the prawns – ok shrimps as Mameng kept saying they were still very small by Sablayan standards. With that, we all started to binge! But when the crabs were brought in, I literally grabbed its serving tray to my side of the table! My goodness, the way it was cooked was like no other I have tasted in many a fine restaurant on earth! At this point, everyone decided to drop their utensils and we all ate kamayan style. This was fine fresh food prepared for the royalty!

As dinner progressed, the topic on cholesterol emerged as usual, but I did not give it any serious thoughts! All I had in my mind was to savour the tastes of what was on the table.

I couldn’t guess how the chef grilled the big fish such that its meat was evenly cooked but the skin was not too burned plus there was an interesting “herby” aroma around it. All the waiter could share was “there is a technique”! Well, am not good at kitchen things but I guess (as I have read somewhere) that technique must have been the kind of wood used for charcoal. I just think so! Howsoever it was done, it was great!

My companions told me the mark of freshness was if the fish meat had that sticky feel to it when held with the fingers. And yes, our fish did feel so – which I thought was because of the fish fat. I must be correct on that, right?! Golly, I was licking my fingers! And they said fish fat is good for the heart. But good or bad, I was devouring it like I haven’t eaten such a fish in ages. Come to think of it, have I, really?!

The prawns (ok the shrimps) were cooked the very way I like it. It was fried (or sautéed?) and tasted a combination of salty and sweet just like the way I have my shrimps cooked at Dampa in Parañaque, Macapagal or Libis. I know the cooking involves butter which gives it the salty “buttery” taste and aroma. But I don’t know what makes it sweet. Sugar? Sheila says it’s not butter, its margarine. I say, I don’t care and I still love it! Barry says, it’s not Sugar its Honey. I say, I don’t care and I can die for it!

I did learn from one of the waitresses that the test of freshness was if the shrimp’s meat was firm and does not break when pressed flat with a fork. Further, she also confided that when chewed, the meat should never have a powdery or mushy consistency like baked potatoes. It should be chewy and “fibery”! And that was just how our prawns (ok, shrimps) was! Also learned that I should not immediately set the shrimp head away. That once separated from the shrimp’s body, I was supposed to suck on it from the neck side. And I did so for every prawn head (ok, shrimp head) that I came across with! And yes, it tasted good! Finally, and I had no way of verifying this: “once you suck on the shrimp’s head, it should have a very bad stinking trashy taste if not fresh”! Oh well, either I have been fortunate enough to have not come across an “unfresh” shrimp all my life or I don’t actually know what a “bad stinking trashy taste” is!

Then the crabs! Oh my, THE CRABS! We all liked it so much we had to summon the resort’s hunk of a chef (Joel? or is it Roel?) to our table just for him to answer our questions! We knew them crabs were fresh since we brought them along from Sablayan and they were all still alive, but the way they were cooked was superb. Mr. Cook was with us for about 20 minutes during dinner but here is the most that we got from him (in English no less): “that is a trade secret”! He was fun to talk with and had a lot of stories about food – even about the island, but no, the ambitious cook in Sheila and Barry never fully learned how the crabs were prepared ha ha ha!

Whole crabs, not chopped nor broken into pieces, were served in a deep tray as if they were swimming in the most delectable of sauces I have ever tasted. We all recognized the base of the sauce was “gata” (coconut milk). And Mr. Cook said yes it was. We guessed the yellow to gold colour of the sauce was because of butter which gave the dish its fine aroma and salty taste. Mr. Cook said yes it was. Sheila said: no, it was not butter, it was margarine. Mr. Cook also said “yes it was” with a mischievous smile! Ahhh confusing! But there were hints of some herbs like lemon grass and other veggies on the sauce. And all the cook could divulge was “yes, there is”!

Anyway, I was the one who liked this part most (since crabs are my favourite anyway) and I actually devoured four whole crabs! It was particularly delicious dipping the crab meat in its sauce. Then I realized dipping the shrimp meat also in the same sauce was utterly delightful! Ahh, I must have finished about 4 or 5 cups of rice! I did catch myself already spooning the sauce directly as if I had soup in front of me! And as dinner was winding down, everyone caught me about to sip the sauce from the dish itself! And they stopped me saying it was pure cholesterol! I did ask a waitress later if we could take the sauce with us tomorrow when we leave but the reply was “it was not a good idea”. With coconut milk as the base, the sauce would probably become stale during our trip.

Then the fruits! There was a watermelon that I really thought was too big for just four of us, but when I looked again, there was nothing left! I did the mangoes and bananas even if I was already drinking my SanMigLight!

Whatta dinner! Wawawhew!!!

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