Let’s face it: With the worsening traffic, getting to Tagaytay isn’t as quick and easy as it used to be. So unless it’s on the way to your beach house or country club, there better be a good reason to visit or pass through. Since the early 2000s, the number one reason—for serious diners, at least—was to eat at chef Tony boy Escalante’s legendary Antonio’s. Then he gave us a few more with Breakfast and the Lanai Lounge cocktail bar. After a quiet, slow start, another good reason to visit the hilltop city is finally taking hold—Escalante’s latest venture, Balay Dako.
Meaning “big house” in Negrense, the hacienda-like structure is hard to miss, especially when you know you’re supposed to look for a large, pistachio-green colored house on the city’s main road. Inside, two prominent photographs of the chef’s forebears and a towering tropical plant greet visitors in the understated yet elegant foyer. Two sets of stairs lead to separate dining areas. Going up leads to Terrazas, where breakfast is usually served. Later in the day, it’s a favorite spot for cocktails as the dying sun fades into the night. Also on the upper floors are the function rooms bearing the names of the chef’s children. The lower staircase leads to Comedor, the restaurant’s main dining area, where lunch and dinner are served.
If Antonio’s made its name as an intimate, romantic restaurant perfect for couples on dates, Balay Dako opened its doors expecting bigger groups to come in. Operations manager Patricia Benedicto says, “It’s really a perfect restaurant where families can dine, from kids to their lolos and lolas.” With a kilometric menu selection, finding something for everyone won’t be a problem either, though, in typical Filipino dining style, the portions at Balay Dako are meant to be shared. To help filter your choices, the Comedor menu is broken down into several sections, with the bulk of the entrees further classified according to origin: lutong Espanyol-Pinoy (callos, pastel de lengua, various frittatas, and more), lutong Tsinoy (patatim, camaron con baboy), and Paboritong Balay, or house favorites (various lechon-based dishes, adobo, batchoy).
In the kitchen, executive chef Ricky Sison, Escalante’s longtime right-hand man, takes charge. While it is just over a few years old, the kitchen, according to Benedicto, has already been renovated to cope with the larger than expected number of orders on any given day. If things take a little longer than usual, take comfort in the fact that everything served is made from scratch, with no shortcuts.
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“The dishes are familiar, but we make it better. We do it our way,” explains Benedicto. The crispy pata demonstrates this best; here, the pork shank is brined for two days in a solution that includes peppercorns, bay leaves, garlic, lemon grass. “We boil it until it is tender and then it fried under high pressure to make sure we don’t overcook it but the outside stays crispy.” This amazing chunk of pork is served with pinakbet fried rice and a dipping sauce of ginger, onions, soy sauce, and sugar. As many have suggested, you can also have it with some housemade blackened onions, the result of a happy kitchen accident: caramelized onions left on the burner too long. “We had no idea at the time, but apparently it is also used a lot in Moroccan cuisine,” says Benedicto of the condiment, which imparts a sweet, slightly bitter but not at all overpowering flavor to many dishes.
More bold twists are also seen in another staple, pancitpalabok. “Our pancit is made with tinapanggalunggong, then we top it off with chicharonna may laman, some shrimps, hardboiled eggs, and some cabbage.” Unlike the more common varieties, thick noodles are used in Balay Dako’s version of this favorite. A recent addition to the dessert menu was inspired by Escalante’s trip to Thailand. In this decadent version of halo-halo, macapuno sorbet is topped with sumansagata at pinipig. Then you have six choices for additional toppings: fresh langka, corn, toasted peanuts, water chestnuts, kaong, and sticky rice dumplings.
While many items on the menu are surprisingly cheap, the best value for money can be had at the weekend breakfast buffet, served on the upper deck that takes on the appearance of an old church with its high ceilings, bare concrete finish, and lots of wrought iron fixtures. At just 500 pesos per person, the spread includes essential Filipino breakfast classics. Maybe start with an assortment of native bread and kesongputi, or some Chinese ham with ensaymada and hot chocolate. Moving on to heavier fare, you have a choice of longganisa, dangit, tuyo, tapa, bacon, and homemade corned beef, all served with garlic fried rice. What about a bowl of steaming hot champorado topped with dilis or maybe a glass of taho? The traditional sweet endings include majablanca, cassava cake, kutsinta, and so much more.
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The cool wind-swept outer deck is a fine place to laze around for a bit in case of overindulgence. A few cocktails concocted by bar consultants Kathryn Eckstein-Cornista and Enzo Lim make it hard to leave, but when that eventuality comes, don’t forget to drop by the gift shop for some bottled gourmet treats, robusta and exelsa coffee beans, organic vegetables grown by Escalante’s wife Agnes, and hand-embroidered Negrense crafts made by his sister Marcia.