Cover Photo: Dennis Schmidt / Unsplash

This all-day dining establishment at the heart of BGC demonstrates its take on Spanish comfort food

From the beginning of this pandemic, people have turned to food to provide solace at a time when nothing else seems to be certain. With food, we know what to expect. We are comforted by flavours that remind us of safer times, and when we have consumed enough, we are predictably satiated and relieved.

Chefs—those notoriously volatile creatures—seem to be on the same wavelength. “I'm tired of making new food,” says Spanish chef Amado Garcia Fernandez. He speaks of modern gastronomy, and perhaps fusion cuisine, the kind that you will find in Michelin-starred restaurants in his home country where some of his famous compatriots popularized food refashioned into all kinds of liquids, gels, and foams. Chef Amado wants none of that, and in his new BGC restaurant, you can be sure that there is not a single foam in sight.

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Such is the promise of Manduca Taberna, a newly-opened Spanish eatery run by two friends who want to introduce Filipinos to casual dining, Madrileño-style. Chef Amado and Ricardo Lopez met when working in a hotel in Madrid until Ricardo moved to Manila to work for a local distributor and restaurant. Amado soon followed and found work in a couple of Spanish concepts in the city, until he decided to cook food he knows well and loves.

Manduca is a Spanish colloquial term for food or chow, and it perfectly captures the vibe of this modern tavern. Open all day, breakfast fare is your typical silogs that cater to the surrounding offices. But, from brunch until closing, it is the Spanish regional comfort food that Chef Amado and Ricardo thoughtfully curated that they feel embody a Madrileño menu. “Like any big city, Madrid is a melting pot,” Ricardo explains. “Spanish food is not just all Catalan where Madrid is, and not just all Basque where San Sebastian is. There are so many other dishes that truly represent the cuisine of the many different regions of Spain.”

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In Asturias, where Chef Amado hails from, the unique terrain of this northern medieval principality is reflected in the food the place is famous for. Temperate weather calls for hearty stews such as fabada. Apples that are indigenous to the area end up in fragrant tartines. The substantially meaty cachopo might remind one of Alpine schnitzels, but these veal fillets are layered with manchego and jamon before getting dredged in fine seasoned bread crumbs and fried. Served with fries, it is comfort food at its most decadent.

Their selection of tapas is just as laid back and open-minded as one would expect of a big city taberna. Chef Amado has been in the country long enough to know that Filipinos will look for salpicao, and his nuestro salpicao tastes like it was something he whipped up during a drinking session with some of his local buddies. Those saucy steak cubes belong with a cup of hot rice, and even though it is not paired on the menu, the kitchen is ready for those who might come looking. Ricardo shares that their version of the traditional Basque pintxo gildas donostarras is the surprise crowd favourite, and that regulars order the skewers of anchovies, green peppers, olives, and quail eggs for delivery. A must-try, though, is the brioche de calamares that is smothered with kimchi mayo and adorned with crispy red onions. According to a friend, it is the only version that comes even close to the one she had in Madrid.

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While I usually eschew desserts for cocktails, Chef Amado’s postres demand attention. He makes his mama proud with the tarta fina de manzana—a caramelized apple tart that marries tartness of fresh fruit with buttery pastry. His carpaccio of pineapple demonstrates how a mastery of cooking techniques can conjure flavours from the simplest ingredients, making them the perfect decadent ending to a rich meal. Then again, it's just fruit, meaning there is more than enough room to indulge some more.

In true taberna fashion, the cocktails are tasty and affordable. The bottles are priced just a step above retail, making plans for a boozy brunch or after-dinner festivities something of a regularity. In fact, that is what Manduca wants to be—a regular thing. “We want to see our guests every day,” Ricardo says. “We don’t want you to come to Manduca only for a birthday or a special occasion. In fact, whenever you think about food, we hope that you will think of us.” Not a tall order, especially when the food makes you feel good and the lovely surroundings make you want to stay.

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