It is no secret that I’ve not been the biggest fan of Filipino food in the past. But unlike the likes of Chinese and Japanese cuisine, Filipino food in Auckland has remained relatively obscure outside of the home kitchens of the many Filipino migrants that call Auckland home; the offerings that are available have left me wanting.
So when I got the call to come try a new restaurant flipping Filipino food, I jumped at the chance. Until I found out it is located in Panmure. I had my hesitations, for a moment. But I had to prove to myself that more than 104 million people couldn’t be wrong, that Filipino cuisine is in fact, delicious. And now I have chef Leo Fernandez of Melting Pot to thank for changing my mind.
Those of you who enjoy a spot of cooking reality television may recognise Melting Pot’s head chef Leo Fernandez as one of the finalists from Masterchef NZ. Leo is a warm and cheery fellow, who has since handed in his life as a North Canterbury pig farmer for the hot, fast-paced world of the professional kitchen. The road to Melting Pot however, has been a challenging one. Leo previously headed up the kitchen at the now defunct Azon on Parnell Road. Parnell in recent years has been somewhat of a hospitality dead zone, and was a challenging location for this newly fledged Masterchef to thrive in. The brief for Azon was too stifling for Leo, and having eaten there myself, for Filipino food in general. With Melting Pot, Leo hopes that he’ll finally be able to introduce Kiwis to everything that is great about his home cuisine, the way he wants to.
The Philippines is an archipelago comprising of more than 7000 islands, with regional variations as disparate as they come. The inspiration for Leo’s menu comes from the Philippines’ far-flung corners, merging together in what can only be described as ‘Asian Fusion’. The line between authentic Filipino cuisine and fusion is certainly blurred for the uninitiated at Melting Pot, but it really doesn’t matter. Quintessentially Filipino dishes make a candid appearance on the menu: pork dinakdakan, mushroom tokwa’t, adobo. But each dish is also unique, in its textures and flavour profile; we had the privilege to sample widely off their menu, and found no two dishes were a like, and almost everything was delicious.
Melting Pot is painted golden yellow inside, giving off a warm, beachy vibe, with the main bar and counter area modelled after a typical Filipino dairy, affectionately named ‘Claring’s Sari-sari Store’. The shelves behind the counter are lined with Filipino groceries including Ding Dongs, soft drinks and sweets. The entire place, in fact, is welcoming and vibrant; it’s all very Filipino.
Cecile, our effusive maître d’, passionately talked us through the menu, discussing what they hoped to achieve with each dish. Family is an important part of Filipino culture: as such the menu here has been designed to share. The inventive presentation of the smaller dishes, and the variety of fresh herbs that accompanied them, took me by surprise. Leo has taken his humble cuisine and turned it into something grander. The soft shell crab was superbly crisp without being greasy, and without that soft texture chefs find hard to shake. It was served on a bed of creamy, pumpkin and coconut buntaa sauce that was warm and lightly spicy. Leo is clearly well versed in pork, and the pork and mushroom siomai were a delicious and surprising hit: flavoursome pork dim sum, lacking the oily mouth feel one so often finds at most yum char restaurants, cocooned in toothsome dim sum pastry and dressed in a combination of umami-rich bean paste, soy sauce and chilli oil. The entire dish is perfectly countered by the subtle sweetness and tang of a salad of finely shredded pear and spring onion. This theme of thoughfully balanced cooking continued with the mushroom tokwa’t. Despite being a vegan friendly dish, it was the unexpected favourite of the table. Firm, fried tofu skewers reminescent of agedashi tofu, topped with crispy mushrooms and a tangy dressing of salsa criolla that popped with fresh mint and coriander. It was marvellous.
The larger dishes at Melting Pot are all about barbecue. There was a three way tie between the crispy, sizzling pork dinakdakan, Filipino style pork barbecue with pickled paw paw, and chicken inasal. Finely chopped pork parts (I did not ask which pork parts were featured, and Leo did not tell), came sizzling on a hot cast-iron plate, and was beautifully tender and unctuous with a deep savoury flavour. The barbecued pork was charred and caramelised in all the right places, lending a sweetness to the meat that was foiled by an excellent pickled salad of paw paw. The chicken inasal was perfectly cooked and moist. It was well paired with a wonderfully smoky aubergine puree that the table fought over, and the warm, earthy scent of the annatto oil.
Over dinner I watched as a row of blackened earthenware pots lining the front of ‘Claring’s Sari-sari store’ gradually disappeared into the kitchen, arriving some time later at nearby tables. The pots themselves are the rounded-bottom kind that nests on top of a small basket in order to keep up right and reminds me of a coconut, only with a lid. Leo painstakingly brought these back from the Philipinnes in his suitcase after a prior freighting disaster. He reminisced about how his grandma used to cook with these growing up, and of the time she chased him with the bat he’d used to smash her pots with as a rogish youth. Melting Pot uses these to serve the mother of all stews: tiyula itum, a dish often served at Muslim weddings in the Phillipines and on other special occassions. It is an almost black beef broth, darkened by charred ground coconut and filled with fall-apart tender slow-cooked beef. It is served with a beef bone full of roasted marrow rising out of its depths. This dish is accompanied by a refreshing papad chimichurri, whose sharpness stops this soup from being too cloying. This dish is best eaten over rice, and despite the hot summer weather we’ve been having, felt comforting to eat.
For dessert, we were treated to a sweet ending of biko balls: panko crumbed glutinous rice balls similar to Japanese mochi, filled with jackfruit puree and yema (a Filipino custard that more resembles caramelised condensed milk), topped with more jackfruit puree and yema ice cream. The verdict: f*cking delicious. The crispy warmth of the fried panko crumbs; the almost creamy texture and mellow sweetness of the jackfruit; the chewiness of the mochi casing and the decadent caramel flavour of the yema. My apologies for the excessive use of clauses, but this dish has it all.
Melting Pot is not necessarily the place to get authentic Filipino food, but you will certainly get great food, and I urge you to book a table and give it a go. I’ve already signed up my Filipino friends to come back with me for round two.
32 Jellicoe Road
Ph 022 403 3611