Drive along Kalayaan Avenue, home to Filipino-Chinese TV chef Bruce Lim, and you might think you've come to the wrong address: lined with pawnshops, sari-sari (convenience) stores and stalls hawking spit-roasted chickens, the neighborhood is decidedly lacking in the atmosphere you might expect to signal Manila's hottest dining ticket. Nonetheless, it is there in a nondescript building with a steep bamboo-lined staircase leading up to Chef's Table, instantly recognizable to fans as the rooftop kitchen cum dining room used in Lim's shows. Your visit isn't being filmed, but in this intimate dinner theater, which seats just 20, you get to be a special guest star for the evening.
Though he is an Asian Food Channel fixture (and its only Filipino chef), San Francisco-born Lim, 31 (pictured), is remarkably down-to-earth, his casual demeanor belying his French culinary training at London's Le Cordon Bleu. As you would expect from a TV personality, he's a supremely engaging host. But what people really come for is the food.
The menu changes according to your preferences (which you can discuss when you make your booking) and whatever Lim likes the look of in his local palengke, or market, that day. "My main goal is to showcase the beauty of Pinoy food," he says. "To keep it real and exciting." He draws inspiration from his Ilocano and Hokkien roots to concoct playful yet sophisticated dishes that tease the palate without alienating it: succulent scallop kilawin (seviche) in chilled carrot-and-ginger soup; zesty crabmeat, pomelo and rocket salad with caramelized shallots and Ilocos vinegar ("Why does everybody always use balsamic?" he asks); glass-noodle pancit with tender short ribs, garnished with grapes, black sesame and coriander. His outstanding twist on adobo, one of the Philippines' most popular dishes, involves serving pork belly on a bed of deeply aromatic Singaporean chicken rice.
Diners are left guessing as to what they're eating until they've tasted it, and Lim keeps the experience highly social, fielding questions, proffering cooking tips and encouraging guests to experiment in their own kitchens. "Cooking is your own personality," he says. "Try it, enjoy it, make it at home, make it for your friends. It's all gravy." Of course, it helps when you're a Cordon Bleu-trained TV chef. For reservations, call or text-message (62) 918 887 1277.