The second those mushrooms grilled over charcoal hit my nostrils, I knew Chef Chino Mempin’s cooking was the real deal.
“Every time the grower has these, I get everything from them,” Mempin says of the mushrooms they source from a farm 45 minutes away. “For our warm mushroom salad, we grill the mushrooms whole over an open fire, baste them with an aromatic butter, then top them with burnt breadcrumbs from day-old baguettes,” he says, setting down a plate of perfectly charred ‘shrooms.“We season and toast those until they’re very crunchy.”
The blackened breadcrumbs look like crumbly remnants from the bottom of a well-used outdoor grill.
“That adds a nice texture to the dish,” I say, lifting a forkful to my mouth.
“It reminds you of the woods,” Mempin says as he watches me dig in. “Uling talaga, di ba?” he adds. “Real charcoal, right?”
I couldn’t agree more. On my second night in the city, I left Restaurant Damaso extremely happy, full, and incredibly energized by the upwards motion of Filipino cuisine.
From the menu, I highly recommend Mempin's tried-and-true crowd pleasers (fried calamari with squid ink aioli, a garlicky paprika-laced shrimp gambas), locally sourced specialties (warm mushroom salad, spaghetti with imbao shellfish and lemons) and ingredient-driven dishes (pato bihod salad, sikwate ice cream, mantekilya de saging) that make Restaurant Damaso a place you can't miss.
Behind one of the city's main plazas and in an area surrounded by schools and street food vendors, Restaurant Damaso is serves what Mempin likes to call local “soul food” - native chicken and pork braised slowly for hours, or grilled fish and seafood served with lots of rice and condiments. But, he adds, “we also have a deep list of ingredients grown here that we want to work with.”
He cites Chef Rene Redzepi’s Restaurant Noma - famed for its approach to hyperlocal, seasonal cuisine in the Netherlands - as one of the biggest influences to his cooking. “I have sleepless nights thinking about what to serve here,” he says of incorporating the best of Mindanao's produce into his menu at the restaurant - and ultimately getting locals to try it. “I think, ‘What’s comfort food for Kagay-anons’?”
Having grown up and lived in Cagayan de Oro most of his life, Mempin honed his chops at the Shangri-La Hotel in Boracay and worked with contemporaries at Manila’s Gallery Vask (where some of the world's top chefs convened for a 6-hands cross-cultures dinner during Madrid Fusion Manila) before opening the restaurant with his brother Jonathan and sister Katherine in 2015.
We talk about how my discovery and approach to Filipino cuisine has been shaped by the ideas of chefs like Redzepi and Magnus Nilsson, two culinary stewards who wholeheartedly connect with their land and advocate exploring everything that can be turned into food from their natural resources; Filipino pop-up kitchens and supper clubs across the globe; the 50,000 strong Filipino Food Movement on Facebook and Instagram. I talked about how my heart was set on doing this culinary tourism research trip, and Mempin says he “shares the same heart” on doing something other people don’t easily gravitate to. In this case, it was a desire to learn about truly regional cooking in the Philippines.
Below, a line-up of dishes we sampled at Restaurant Damaso:
Local oyster mushrooms are grilled, with a garlicky cream to offset the earthiness underneath and burnt baguette “uling” (charcoal embers) overtop that really do smell like the grilled pork barbecue skewers sold right outside the door on Pabayo St.
Pato (duck). Bihod (fish roe). Salad. Three simple words don't convey enough of what's going on here! Mempin starts with a duck egg cooked sous-vide at 65° - I dreamt about the texture and richness of that yolk for days. Egg whites cooked sous-vide are a revelation for anyone who hasn't tried them before. Streaks of aioli line the bottom of the plate, roasted baby potatoes lie on top (crisp outside and pillowy within), and alugbati, foraged begonia leaves, wild cress, and purslane scatter the top of the mound.
Finally, bihod (fish roe) is given the treatment it deserves, making its entrance shaved with a microplane above everything. "When we dress whole fish, we save the roe, then cure it in salt and sugar for 7 days in a dehydrator," Mempin says of his bihod curing process.
Next up was a garlicky shrimp gambas paired with fried calamari and squid ink aioli. The plump shrimp were bathed in a garlic- and paprika-laced oil (though "you can still kiss your boyfriend after," Mempin assures me, as the local variety of garlic is much less pungent than commercial ones) that you wanted to keep dipping toasted rounds of bread in. The calamari (from squid the size of a large trout, as I saw earlier that day) were fried to perfection, with the just the right bite and a crisp, thin coating of batter. Its accompanying squid ink aioli tasted smoky, deep, and had a velvety mouthfeel.
Mempin's take on pasta (an essential item for bistro-style restaurants) features a local shellfish called imbao, tossed with spaghetti in a light lemon pan sauce. Ingredient-forward dishes, where everything else revolves around showcasing the freshness and simplicity of an ingredient at the peak of its season, are a favourite of Mempin's; here, imbao takes centre stage, simply steamed until their shells open, between 2-3 minutes. Inside each bivalve rests a plump little orb of sweet, succulent and slightly briny deliciousness. It could rival fresh oysters in my book, if I lived someplace where I could enjoy these as I pleased!
Today I started and ended my day with sikwate, the native chocolate brew that I consumed as a hot drink for breakfast, and was now eagerly anticipating as a decadent dessert. Mempin waits until we take the first scoop of ice cream and he hears a clink against the bottom of the chilled plate - a sign that we'll taste all three components of the dessert - before having us guess what the "surprise" is underneath the ice cream generously dusted with frozen coconut "snow".
"Matamis na bao?" I proffer, thinking of the sweet, sticky coconut jam.
He smiles coyly and confirms, then walks away for the final sampling.
Lastly, Mempin brings out an off-menu item called mantekilya de saging - sweet saba bananas torched like a creme brulee, creating a caramelized surface where the banana's natural sugars soak up a light-as-air coconut and suwa citrus sorbet (the zest from that citrus goes such a long way!).