When most Filipinos think of Jolo, Sulu, they often imagine a town wracked by violence and bloodshed. For restaurateur Jose Miguel Moreno however, Jolo was once a beautiful, peaceful place where people of different religious backgrounds lived harmoniously.
His memories of Jolo include feasts where painstakingly prepared comfort foods are shared among friends. As a tribute to his old hometown, he, along with his business partner Nelson Canlas, opened Palm Grill on Tomas Morato Avenue — and it’s now one of the few restaurants in Metro Manila that serves Southern Mindanao dishes.
Coconuts Manila was invited to visit the two-year-old dining spot during a recent weekend and it was a pretty special experience, since we got to try a cuisine that’s hard to find elsewhere in Manila, except in Quiapo’s Muslim quarter.
At first glance, Palm Grill appears to be a hipster cafe, with faux vines and flowers and warm orange-colored light bulbs hanging over its dining area. Yellow steel chairs are paired with tables made of solid hardwood. Bright spots of color appear on these tables thanks to placemats made out of vibrantly colored woven textiles. The cozy dining area can comfortably seat 110 people according to Moreno, thanks to a loft that is used as an event space for birthdays and baptisms.
However, the dishes in the menu prove that Palm Grill is not like the typical hipster cafe. Moreno tells us that many dishes they serve were seasoned using the pamapa, a mixture of spices made by Mindanao’s Tausug tribe, which is prepared in their commissary in Zamboanga. The pamapa‘s seasoning power is clear in the Tausug appetizer tiyula itum (PHP370/US$7.14), a dark beef broth that looks like a cross between bulalo (beef bone marrow soup) and dinuguan (pig blood stew).
Its taste, however, is not comparable to the other two Filipino dishes. Because of the pamapa, notes of sweet coconut combined with the zesty bite of ginger filled our senses. The taste is even made more interesting with a little dash of mint, which, when combined with the chili makes the soup taste like no other local dish. The ribs and baked bone marrow — which were torched before being served — were juicy and soft.
Another dish that relies on the pamapa is pyanggang manok, which Palm Grill calls by the more commercial name Green Chicken (PHP270 for solo/US$5.21). The chicken was cooked by braising it in the pamapa and freshly-squeezed coconut milk. Moreno served it to us along with the fragrant, green-colored pamapa, which we drizzled on top of the chicken.
The chicken was tender and cooked just right and we could taste the slight sweetness from the coconut milk. What made the dish irresistible was the pamapa that we used as a sauce, with its combination of minty flavor, zesty ginger, and sweet coconut.
Equally impressive was locon a la Zamboanga (PHP550/US$10/62), a shrimp dish from Zamboanga that has a nice aroma and bright yellow hue from turmeric. The dish brings a perfect balance of saltiness, sweetness, and spiciness and the shrimp has a nice, chewy texture to it.
All of these dishes went very well with the Turmeric Rice (PHP80 per cup/US$1.54), which comes topped with bits of sweet, crunchy, burnt coconut flakes.
For dessert, we tried the Knickerbocker (PHP590/US$11.39), a dessert that is often described as Zamboanga’s version of the halo halo (shaved ice dessert). While the typical halo halo uses shaved ice, the Knickerbocker is a symphony of cream, ice cream, strawberry syrup, nata de coco, and fresh fruits.
Palm Grill’s version uses artisanal vanilla ice cream, and it blends perfectly with ripe watermelon, banana, and mangoes. The fruits, he told us, were chosen carefully to ensure that none of them is too ripe. What we ended up having was a dessert that was sweet, but not too sweet. It was just right.
Perhaps another feature that makes Palm Grill notable is that Moreno — who said he is not a trained chef — cooks most of its dishes. A former marketing consultant, he inherited his cooking skills from his mother, a woman described to us as one with discerning tastes, and capable of assessing if a dish was overcooked from just a single taste. The restaurant seems to be having some difficulty in searching for its next chef, but judging by the taste of the dishes, it appears that Moreno is doing pretty well heading the kitchen so far.
Apart from the taste of their food, the restaurant also serves as a respite for Muslim Filipinos looking for non-pork food in Manila. In the capital, it’s often difficult to find a restaurant that doesn’t have a pork dish on the menu. Moreno told Coconuts that while the restaurant is not halal-certified, they never cook pork, not even in the meals for the staff.
According to Moreno, another reason why he and Canlas opened Palm Grill was because they want to promote Southern Mindanao’s cuisine and convince Filipinos that these dishes deserve to be as famous as adobo, lechon, and other quintessentially Pinoy dishes. We feel that they’re on the right track.
At present, Moreno is proud that the restaurant has become a sanctuary for Mindanawons who left their homes due to the unending civil conflict. Palm Grill has become the place where they can eat the same dishes that they grew up with.
“They come here because they missed what they used to eat back home,” he said. “There was this woman who was eating here who ended up crying because the food reminded her of home.”
“This restaurant is for the people who can’t go back to Jolo,” he said.
Palm Grill is at 179 Tomas Morato Ave. cor Scout Castor St. Quezon City
Open from Mondays to Sundays, 11am — 11pm
Phone: (02) 373 1668