FIRST, a confession. I don’t like ornamental food — those made to look good to compensate for what they lack in flavor. I prefer real food. Real grub — the kind you can dig into and enjoy without ceremony. Just like allowing the senses to take in a panoramic view or listening to comforting music.
So, I chose a place that serves down-to-earth food for my first article in the Lifestyle Section of Manila Standard Today. It was intentional — I want to take you readers on a culinary experience that not only fills the tummy but the mind and soul as well. Let me take you to Pililla and Bulawan Floating Restaurant.
It was a weekday when a friend and I decided to drive to Pililla on a whim. It was drizzling on and off but that didn’t stop me from taking photos through the windshield and window. Rizal is a picturesque province — even the carabao grazing on a field has a story to tell.
We reached Bulawan at about 1 p.m. A few huts were occupied by small groups; a seminar (the Rizal Water District, we later found out) was ongoing in the main and largest hut. We chose a cozy hut, settled in, called a waiter and ordered lunch.
It wasn’t my first visit to Bulawan. I was there over a year ago with my family and a group of friends after it was recommended by fellow bloggers Jay and Jet David. We only ordered halo-halo and drinks during that first visit since we already had lunch earlier in Tanay. The ambience — the soothing waters and cool huts — however, was such that I promised myself there would be a next visit when I would sample their seafood specialties.
Bulawan Floating Restaurant sits in 1.2 hectares of fishpond. There is no restaurant building but, rather, huts of varying sizes erected a few inches above the water and interconnected by wooden foot bridges.
The day my friend and I drove to Bulawan, we decided we would have sinigang na kanduli sa miso and crispy dalag. Our choices may sound too familiar and ordinary but, for me, the restaurant only passes the test if it is able to successfully transform ordinary and familiar dishes into gastronomic delights. After the way Jet David raved about the food in Bulawan, I wanted to put the food to the test.
The sinigang na kanduli sa miso was superlative. Even I, who have been cooking for decades and have prepared sinigang in at least a dozen different ways, was impressed. I have also eaten sinigang in more than a dozen restaurants in different parts of Luzon and, I must say that Bulawan’s sinigang na kanduli sa miso is the best by far.
It has a lot to do with the quality of the fish. While so-so restaurants will often serve miniature kanduli no bigger than eight inches in length, Bulawan served us a large kanduli chopped into four portions. The fish was plump and had been properly cleaned without any trace of the mucus-like substance that envelopes its body. There is no unpleasant smell either. It was not overcooked (the part where many cooks fail) — it was tender and succulent but did not fall apart when an entire portion was lifted from the broth.
There was just enough mustasa (mustard leaves), siling haba (finger chilis) and slices of labanos (radish) to complement the fish but not overpower it. But the most memorable part of the dish was its broth. Thickish but without leaving the impression that one was sipping a sauce, it captured the flavor of the kanduli and had just the right balance between sourness and saltiness.
What about the crispy dalag? To start with, the wriggling live dalag was shown to us for approval before it went into the frying pan. We thought at first that it was much too large at 1.1 kilograms but, what the heck, it was late and didn’t we drive all the way to Pililla for this?
The fish was split open lengthwise, seasoned and deep-fried. A crisp golden crust formed on the entire surface while the meat inside remained soft and moist. Dipped in the traditional sawsawan of freshly-squeezed kalamansi juice, toyo and crushed siling labuyo, it was an experience I will remember for a long time and want repeated for many, many more times in the near future.
To complete the meal, we sipped fresh buko juice between mouthfuls. Not sweetened buko water with shredded meat in a glass but whole husks split open near the top with the meat untouched. After the meal, we scraped the buko meat from the husks with our spoons and enjoyed the sweet tenderness. Who needed dessert? The buko meat was a light and satisfying end to a perfect seafood meal.
We relaxed for a while then paid our bill. When the waiter brought our change, I asked for some background on Bulawan. Since he wasn’t so sure when Bulawan was established, I asked if it would be possible to speak with the owner or manager.
The manager was also one of the two owners of Bulawan. Mrs. Nora Virrey arrived at our hut some minutes later. A few methodical questions elicited a story that made the place come even more alive before my eyes.
Nora, a nurse, and Joey Virrey, an x-ray technician and physical therapist, left for Saudi Arabia in the 1980s aboard the same plane. They would not meet, however, and discover that the same plane brought them to Saudi, until they found themselves working in the same hospital. They married eventually and, in 1997, built the restaurant on the 1.2-hectare property that they initially leased. A true-to-life OFW success story.
Bulawan was built to be more than a restaurant. It was meant as a fish pond in the literal sense where guests can throw lines and catch the tilapia and hito that swim freely in the water. They can choose to bring home their catch for P80.00 per kilo or have the fish cooked, served and enjoyed as a Bulawan meal.
Today, fishing activities take a back seat as the planned renovations, expected to be completed within a few months, are given priority. Hopefully, by December when the sale to the Virreys of the property on which Bulawan sits is complete, I will go back with my family. Perhaps, we can try to catch some tilapia and hito, have them cooked, lay back, savor the view and the ambience, enjoy the food and each other’s company, then go home feeling good that there are gems like Bulawan — unabashedly and proudly Filipino.