Balangay restaurant review: Ambitious Filipino cuisine in a pop-up

Erwin Villarias’ great-grandfather was one of seven men who boarded a narrow wooden boat at Cagayancillo, a small island in the Sulu Sea, and set sail in search of . . . what exactly? The historical record is unclear. More arable land? Lush forests to provide the wood needed to build balangay boats, the main means of transport for the islanders? Maybe just a better life?

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Whatever the motivation, Villarias’ ancestor and the rest of the crew stumbled upon a pristine shore, Palawan’s northeast coast, a long, thin strip of land that seems to want to shun the rest of the archipelago. from the Philippines. The region had everything men wanted: low land, perfect for growing rice, coconuts and other crops; abundant marine life for fishing; and virgin forests for timber. Men eventually settled on the earth and called it home. In 1951, their fledgling community would be officially recognized as the municipality of Roxas, the birthplace of Villarias.

On his phone, Villarias, 36, has a photo of the resolution that established a permanent marker dedicated to pioneers who “showed selfless dedication, perseverance and diligence” to make Roxas what it is today. today. He sent me a copy. The first of the “seven braves” mentioned in the document is his great-grandfather: Benito Cardejon.

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When he started his own adventure, a pop-up restaurant inside Bullfrog Bagels on H Street NE in Washington, Villarias named it Balangay, for the type of boat his great-grandfather used to sail the seas. choppy between Cagayancillo and Roxas. The chief had never met Cardejon, but the eldest was, according to an official source, a boat builder by trade. Cardejon is said to have used available resources – perhaps the hardwood of a doongon or a barayong tree, which craftsmen cut under moonlit skies – to build seaworthy ships that could carry goods. between the islands. Or even open new worlds.

The symbolic, if not literal, connections between Cardejon and his great-grandson are not hard to see: as a chef, Villarias also works with his hands. He uses available resources – ingredients from his kitchen – to create dishes that bring the flavors, memories and history of the Philippines directly to American diners. These are also dishes that, according to my tastings, will make it take places. It might just be a coincidence that Villarias’ nickname is “Wing,” as if he was destined to take flight.

Balangay is still a work in progress, as every pop-up is, but even in its stumbling youth, you can see where Villarias’ restaurant could one day end up on the continuum of Filipino cuisine in the district, located somewhere departs closer to the chef-trained finesse of Bad Saint than to the artful comfort of the Game. There is ambition in the chef’s kitchen, the kind of fearless ambition the poet Robert Browning once advocated, in which your reach always remains beyond your reach. You can say that Villarias trained in some disciplined kitchens. These include Maketto under Erik Bruner-Yang and the now closed Bibiana, once part of Ashok Bajaj’s constellation of restaurants.

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Villarias’ Bistek Tagalog is a good place to start. It takes the island standard, essentially a Filipino version of steak and onions, and stretches it almost beyond recognition. His slice of fork-tender short ribs comes with caramelized pearl onions, pickled red peppers and a soy and coconut reduction, the latter a sauce that leans on sweet and milky flavors extracted from these dried drupes so prevalent in his hometown. The dish is eaten like a Filipino take on beef Bourguignon.

The inasal chicken is something special too, although it’s more saucy than the ones you might be familiar with: you know, a marinated bird whose canary-yellow skin has been seared with the grates of a hot grill. Villarias’ sauce – a chunky blend of coconut milk, garlic, lemongrass and more – turns this grilled chicken from the Philippines into a smothered chicken. Fried chicken wings, practically caramelized with adobo sauce and topped with garlic and fried onions, are dressed pub fare, camera-ready for the ball.

Villarias takes an informed approach to menu development. Almost half of the dishes are what the chef calls “vegan friendly” and what I call delicious by any name. The plate simply called “green beans” is ridiculously undersold: it’s an umami-rich combination of vegetables, some fried, some glazed, and one ready to explode on contact. Puso ng saging, a name that translates to “banana heart,” is a plate of sautéed banana blossoms, roasted king mushrooms, soy-glazed tofu and more, all wrapped in a coconut milk reduction. fragrant, both colorful and sinister. The dish turns out to be a surprisingly “fleshy” preparation, a little sweet and a little salty.

One evening over the 4th of July weekend, a friend and I sat at a two-top by the front windows at Bullfrog, apparently the first customers of the night for Balangay. It was nearly 8 p.m. on Saturday. The bartender and a waiter were singing along with TI and Lady Gaga over the PA system, cheerful in their work. The kitchen, on the other hand, lacked rhythm. My kinilaw, a salmon and mango ceviche, turned into a fruit salad when it arrived without the fish. My friend’s inasal tofu was missing at least a few toppings, including its roasted cashews, robbing the dish of its crunchy counterbalance.

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I should point out that Villarias had taken the holiday weekend off, which indicates how important his presence is to Balangay’s success – and, perhaps, how he still needs to evolve in the area of ​​training and development. the management of the management of a kitchen. Still, Villarias may not have much time to tighten up his systems, at least as a pop-up at Bullfrog Bagels.

Jeremiah Cohen, the founder of Bullfrog, tells me that while he loves hosting Balangay and sees no reason to end the pop-up, the future of this relationship is out of his hands. The building’s owner, Cohen says, plans to renovate it soon. Construction could start in six months. Or nine months. Or even later. The timetable is not yet clear.

What is clear, however, is that Villarias has some smart ideas and the chops to make them happen. He shouldn’t find himself adrift now that he has charted a course for Balangay, a course that promises a lot of good things.

1341 H St. NE, inside Bullfrog Bagels; balangaydc.com.

Hours: 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday.

Nearest metro: Union Station, with approximately 1 mile ride to the pop-up.

Prices: $8 to $26 for all menu items.

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