Making a Meal of the Miele Guide

The new Miele Guide, which bills itself as “Asia’s first truly independent regional restaurant guide and also its most authoritative,” delivered its first rankings of Asia’s 20 best restaurants a few weeks ago and there, in the middle at 10th place, was Antonio’s Fine Dining, tucked away near the rim of a dormant volcano in the ramshackle Philippines tourist mecca of Tagaytay.

Antonio’s, according to the Miele Guide, which is sponsored by the German Miele kitchen people, ranks above L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Tokyo, which was awarded two stars in the Michelin Guide to Japan. It ranks above Caprice, the imposing French spinoff from the George V of Paris in the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong. It is voted better than eight other restaurants that have been awarded stars, bars, crossed forks and other accolades by a plethora of foodie guides. Nobu Hong Kong, the hugely innovative restaurant run by the empire of Japanese empresario Nobu Matsuhisa, languishes another six places down from Antonio’s, in 16th place.

Asia Sentinel found the tortuous way to Tagaytay, some 60 kilometers south and 600 meters up in elevation from Manila on the lip of the Taal volcano, down a twisting one-way track to where Antonio Escalante, who has been in business for five years, runs his restaurant behind imposing gates and guards, to try to find out how Miele found what Michelin missed. At 140 seats, Antonio’s is tucked into a riot of bouganvillea, flame trees, giant ferns, mango, guava and papaya trees and other overwhelming flora and fauna. Hung with giant Spanish chandeliers and with tables crested in white napery, it is largely open to the stunning forest that surrounds it. The surroundings are gorgeous and so is the decor.

At the outset, having eaten in many of the restaurants Miele cites among its top 10, not to mention many others bestarred by Michelin, we can say Antonio’s Fine Dining is nowhere among the top 20 restaurants in Asia. Remember that Michelin awarded three stars to more restaurants in Tokyo than it did all of France. That doesn’t make Antonio’s a bad restaurant. It is streets ahead of anywhere else we have eaten in in the Philippines. The ambiance is brilliant. It is set far enough from any roads to keep noise to a minimum, other than the throbbing jungle just outside the open balconies.

But Miele does a disservice to both Antonio’s and itself with its list of 20 top establishments. Meile’s top restaurant, for instance, is Iggy’s in Singapore, placed there supposedly by 75,000 diners across 16 countries in Asia. Third, after L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Hong Kong (two stars from Michelin) is Les Amis of Singapore. Fourth is Gunther’s Singapore, two ranks ahead of Robuchon a Galera. Seventh is Garibaldi in Singapore. There seems to be no sign whatever of any of the restaurants across Asia that are part of the empire of Alain Ducasse, the world’s most-bestarred chef by Michelin.

Are we starting to see a pattern here? We are heartened see Robuchon a Galera, the tiny Macau creation of master chef Joel Robuchon, named the chef of the 20th century by one guide, on the list. We rank it the top restaurant we have visited in Asia – not in sixth place behind three Singapore restaurants. It appears that nobody from Miele went to Pierre at the top of the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong, the creation of Pierre Gagnaire, the three-star Paris chef who is now ranked among the most brilliant and innovative in Paris today.

Perhaps a lot of those 75,000 diners who voted live in Singapore, a city which to our knowledge has not been included among the world’s dining meccas, although we will allow that a open-air pasar malam, and Singapore throngs with them, is a wonderful dining experience. There are just three Chinese restaurants on Miele’s list – Yung Kee at eighth, Fook Lam Moon, the goose restaurant in Hong Kong at 17th, and Hutong, the nouvelle Chinese in Hong Kong, leading to the inescapable conclusion that 1.3 billion people are either not discriminating in their gustatory habits, or that maybe nobody asked them. Nor are there any ethnic Thai restaurants on the list. {mospagebreak}

We spoke with Escalante, the personable 42-year-old Filipino who got his training at a hotel in Adelaide, and who has been slowly building an empire – now up to three restaurants – in the Philippines. And the fact that he is able to operate a fine-dining establishment in Tagaytay at all is a tribute to his tenacity and attention to quality.

But, he says, for instance, it takes him two months just to get cardamom seeds. He has to ship beef bones from Australia for his outstanding roasted bone marrow appetizer topped with parsley salad. It isn't just beef bones. It is virtually impossible to buy high-quality beef anywhere near Tagaytay. Nor is there mesclun or any of a wide variety of products that have to make their tortuous way from across the world, to a country where temperature and humidity control are problematic at best, to get onto Antonio's menu. In Hong Kong, for instance, perhaps as much as 50,000 tonnes of food is flown in each year, kept in temperature-controlled conditions not only in the warehouses but in the airplanes that fly it in. And Tagaytay is a long trip from Manila if the traffic is bad, and if the refrigerated truck is unreliable.

Antonio maintains an admirable wine list including German Rieslings* French Chardonnays and Burgundies and Italian gigios. Wine in the Philippines, as most of us can attest, is a chancy proposition.

The menu isn’t complicated, nor does it need to be. It ranges from rib-eye steaks to grilled prawns and other standards although the crispy deboned lamb ribs with hoisin sauce are a mild essay at fusion. Antonio is just a few kilometers from the reaches of the South China Sea and the seafood is fresh and tasty. The escargots, one assumes, did not crawl in fresh, but the oysters, mussels and so on are nice. But take a memo, Antonio. Do not serve your tempura oysters or scallops with mango orange sauce with lumpfish caviar, or take the lumpfish caviar off the menu. That is not haute cuisine.

The prices are steep for the Philippines – lunch for two with wine was more than US$50 – but cheap for just about anywhere else, and positively a song for a top 20 restaurant – or even a top 300 one.

Antonio’s Breakfast is popular enough to be worth the trip although it illustrates how far Tony Boy, as his customers call him, has to go. The waiter couldn’t figure out that the eggs with corned beef, for instance, came with toast although the menu lists wheat toast. And to a request for eggs over easy, he delivered shirred eggs. Contrast that to, say, the power breakfast at l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, for instance, where the petit dejeuner arrives with a croissant folded and buttered 27 times, accompanying one of the most visually striking plates we have ever seen in a breathtakingly stunning red-and-black restaurant.

But if you’re in the Phlippines and feeling ambitious enough for the white-knuckle drive in Filipino traffic, Antonio’s Fine Dining is a meritorious goal up the tortuous track from Manila to Tagaytay, although it would be wise to go for the weekend, leave in the middle of the night, and go back after midnight to escape the murderous travel.

But we strongly recommend that you throw away the Miele Guide and just go for the experience of a nice meal in a stunning setting.

*We we thank the reader for pointing our typograpical error and we apologize.