Delight In The Zany
The Filipino word toyo works two ways: not only does it stand for ‘soya sauce’, but it can also be used to refer to someone who is ‘crazy’. It’s up to each individual diner who visits Toyo Eatery to decide which interpretation they prefer, but my own view is that if this is madness, then give me excess of it.
Ever since chef Jordy Navarra and his charming wife, May, opened Toyo Eatery in a low-profile neighbourhood in Makati, Manila at the beginning of 2016, they’ve carved out an impressive fanbase both at home in the Philippines and abroad. Having won 2018’s Miele One to Watch Award, they were finally rewarded for their dedication towards shining a light on Filipino cuisine with a place on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list this year, at number 43.
Awards aside, an eight-course tasting menu (PhP2,900/RM234) proves to be one of the most memorable and thrilling gastronomic experiences I’ve ever enjoyed, not just in South East Asia. An undulating wooden communal table is decorated with driftwood and miniature Filipino houses on stilts, diners drink from paper-thin beakers, and a chef in the open kitchen jiggles a wok over a ferocious flame to the thuds of gangster rap.
Navarra’s most famous dish is named after the Tagalog nursery rhyme, Bahay Kubo, and consists of the 18 vegetables mentioned in the song, all mixed into an edible sesame soil. (Ask nicely, and Toyo Eatery’s obliging staff might sing you the full version.) Beyond that is a wealth of Filipino ingredients, condiments, and variations on traditional dishes rarely explored even on Toyo’s home turf, just waiting to be illuminated by Navarra’s accomplished culinary lens.
There are local wild sampinit raspberries, a schmaltzy chicken meatball and pickled ginger soup with compressed chayote, banana catsup painstakingly fermented over three months, a crispy tortang talong eggplant omelette, and charcoal-grilled cassava cake. Throw in their cocktail pairing menu (guided by Manila’s celebrated scene leader, David Ong, of The Curator), and you’ll find yourself sampling tapuey rice wine, distilled lambanog palm liquor, and local firewaters infused with dried pork or kalingag cinnamon.
“For us, it’s about having people come and enjoy themselves, regardless of whether they know Filipino food or not," says Navarra. “Even when we look at what we now know about the produce we have in the Philippines, compared to when we opened, it’s like night and day. It’s been a learning process up until now, where we’re constantly learning, discovering, and understanding more."