Chef Gaita Fores’ love for Italian cuisine cannot be more evident than in her restaurant’s filleto di pesce.
It is a love that is brought forth by ingredients and technique, flavors and textures not by some strange marketing gimmick.
Or perhaps it is only me.
Walk into Cibo’s newest and 17th branch at the Ayala Mall Capitol Central and one can sense that it is not the architecture that makes the place stand out.
There is no Instagrammable wall for snowflakes to linger about while sipping their iced coffee with frothy cream, talking about the idea of the nothing and why the universe and the system (the system!) is unkind to them.
Besides, they cannot afford the place.
But I digress.
Cibo is what a restaurant should be.
It is a place, as Jonathan Waxman once pointed out, one goes to to be “restored to a former state” or to be renewed (French: “restaurare”).
My filleto di pesce arrived on a hot plate, literally a white ceramic plate (not a cast iron plate).
“That’s a hot plate po,” the waitstaff, possibly imported from Manila said, as he placed it in front of me, bowed at the hips and walked backwards.
I hastily popped the small toasted bread slice slathered with the spinach dip into my mouth, perhaps the eighth aperitif slice that has already whetted my appetite.
Much can be said about the spinach dip. It is one of the best sellers when Chef Gaia opened the first Cibo in Manila and now, 17 branches later, it remains a bestseller, she told me during a recent interview.
Coming face to face with the creation, however, an emulsion of gorgonzola and mozarella cheeses and spinach leaves, one cannot help but agree that Cibo patrons are right after all.
There is no hint of sweetness that a Negrosanon palate is always searching for.
Rather, what one tastes after the bread cracks inside one’s mouth is the saltiness and creaminess of the cheese and a bitter hint.
The dip having served its purpose, I cast it aside, like a man with an ephipany tossing aside an ideology.
And dove straight into the fillet.
The sauteed vegetables on top had to be cleared out of the way first and that I did, not knowing that it could have turned me into a vegan and led me to totally ignore the fried river cobbler slices.
For even without meat, the umami of the sauteed peeled tomatoes, shiitake and oyster mushrooms shone through.
Without MSG, that vetsin our palates are used to.
Such umami flavor can only be coaxed out of the fruit (the tomato that is as declared by the US Supreme Court) and the fungus when cooked low and slow in oil, apparently olive.
It was a good 15 to 20 minutes before our orders arrived, enough for this writer to amble near the industrial looking open kitchen cum bar as I made my way to the toilet.
It was crowded for lunch service, the cooks jostling for space in an organized chaotic medley of movements that (for an amateur cook like me) brings to life the description of a young Anthony Bourdain of his work as a line cook.
The dining area of Cibo extends from its main dining hall to an al fresco area outside the Ayala first floor, the area near the kitchen, to an extended dining area within the airconditioned inside of the mall.
The narrow passageway from the al fresco dining area to the main hall is lined with three to four tables.
It was the spot I would have wanted, the nearest to the kitchen, but the waitstaff said it was not available.
There are no gaudy decorations inside Cibo, those boutique style ornaments guaranteed to jack up mediocre cooking prices by at least 50 percent.
Almost everything is white except for the orange highlights in the lighting recesses of the ceiling.
I almost forgot about the fish, having eaten almost the entire rice pilaf with the sauteed toppings.
The river cobbler was cooked to my liking – a browned outside that gives way to a soft inside even without the help of a knife.
My almost meditative grubbing episode with the pesce was broken by a young friend who came over to greet us. He was at a nearby table with a dozen others celebrating the birthday of his boss.
“We first celebrated in Iloilo then he wanted to have another here because Cibo is the IN place now,” he said as we waved goodbye.
Cibo was almost full the day I and my wife had our advance wedding anniversary lunch.
It is a pricey restaurant no doubt but it is a place in once snobbish Bacolod where those who have much and those who just have enough, can enjoy their hard earned money.
One goes to Cibo for the food, food that should be enjoyed with family and friends.
Just like the Italians want it.
Cibo is a place for those who work hard, for those who every now and then would like to be reminded in Italian “la vita a bella.”