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Foiesilog, Lechon de Lobster: Balai Palma’s surprises in Poblacion

Tucked away in quiet ‘Backwell’ are Chef Aaron Isip’s non-stop innovations

Lechon de Lobster—16-hour suckling pig belly confit, spiny lobster from Palawan, glutinous rice, calamansi-pepper sauce (Photo from IG aaronisip)

Foiesilog (Photo from IG aaronisip)

Chef Aaron Isip (2nd from right) with special guests French Ambassador Michele Boccoz (3rd from right), Marc Piton, counselor for Cooperation and Cultural Affairs of the French embassy; gallery curator Claire Piton; Babette Aquino-Benoit, Isip’s co-hostess for the evening. Not in photo is Mario Katigbak, the manager of French luxe brands in the country. (Photo by TheDiarist.ph)

The place is easy to miss; it is that nondescript. It’s as if its basic branding requires that it blends with the residential area right behind Rockwell, the neighborhood that has been given the organic tag “Backwell”—leave it to the Pinoys to coin terms. Balai Palma is a stone’s throw away (literally) from the corner of Rockwell Drive and Palma street in Makati. It’s in Poblacion—today’s epicenter of night life—yet tucked away in the quiet outskirt.

Once you step inside, however, there’s nothing about it that’s common. Right past the door is a sunken lounge area where people can chill in a cozy tropical setting, complete with a hammock and capiz shell window used as wall decor. Then you step onto what must be the former apartment’s living room, now with a long dining table for the diners’ special reservation. From there one gets an open view of the kitchen that reveals the chefs in the thick of preparations. This is the first sign that your dinner will be private and especially prepared for you.

Private lounge area at Balai Palma

The narrow staircase winds up to the two floors housing the bar, private dining room, and on the rooftop, an al fresco bar/lounge, obviously the hive for Poblacion diners in the know.

Private dining area at Balai Palma (Photo by TheDiarist.ph)

The apartment was Chef Aaron Isip’s home during the pandemic, which he repurposed and redecorated himself into a dining place, Balai Palma, where he can explore, experiment and share a cuisine that uses local and even indigenously sourced ingredients. While some of these dishes take off from Filipino classics, they bear this generation’s global point of view—and palate. It is as multi-cultural as the back story of its chef, yet it’s anchored on the chef’s pride of origin.

Isip had lived many years in Paris and returned home upon the death of his father. It was in that interim period that he thought of opening his own culinary place.

Isip went to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and was awarded the Gault et Millauthe chef Espour 2015 for Ile de France. He was the partner chef and de cuisine at Dix-Huit restaurant in Paris and was named Le Figaro’s best. To the Paris restaurants he was with, such as Apicius, Ze Kitchen Gallery and Pan he brought Asian-Filipino influences.
In Poblacion, this Chef de Cuisine who has earned global accolade comes full circle—he brings the French cooking technique and experience to innovating on the Filipino fare, even as he continues to explore cuisines of other cultures (e.g. Vietnamese, in his IG aaronisip).

We were invited to dinner by Babette Aquino-Benoit who used to live in Paris, a Filipino Parisian whose beautiful apartment with her late husband Paul, near the Élysée Palace, became a favorite halfway home of Filipino friends visiting Paris. “Aaron is like a son to me,” Babette told us. Babette was one of Manila’s pioneer RTW creators (Manna for Rustan’s in the ‘90s) and is easily among Manila’s intelligent dressers, her clean tailored style a true classic. Expectedly, Babette invited French ambassador Michèle Boccoz, Marc Piton, the counsellor for Cooperation and Cultural Affairs of the French embassy; Claire Piton, the producer for international cooperation projects of graffiti-street art, and dynamic gallery curator and advisor (@rosestudioartgallery). Madame Piton helped put together artists for the graffiti walls in Ayala. Joining the table was Mario Katigbak, the well-recognized general manager in the Philippines of luxury brands Hermes, Cartier, Roger Vivier.

Isip’s menu degustation for our private table was a celebration of the season’s fruits, fish and seafood. He included delicacies from one’s childhood (ours, at least) like frog legs, indigenous finds such as mushrooms from Sagada, Kurobuta suckling pig from the Esguerra farm in Batangas. It is how he uses the French cooking technique with the produce from his current environment that makes the Balai Palma cuisine distinctive—yet accessible, not esoteric. How about “foiesilog”?

Hors d oeuvres

For hors d oeuvres, we had Crispy Chicken Skin, Amaebi Spot Prawns, kamias, grilled calamansi, mangrove crab barquillos, crab roe sauce with tarragon, pickles, frog’s legs, Yuzu Meuniere (buttery tart sauce).

This was followed by Pacific Sea Bream Crudo—dalandan aguachile, smoked tinapa mascarpone; then Ube in Three Textures consisting of halaan clams, Oscietra Caviar, clam emulsion.

Ube in Three Textures

Halo Halo del Mar

Then came the seafood creations: Halo Halo del Mar—tamarind shrimp sinigang shaved ice, crab fat curry sauce, raw Irish Gallagher Oysters with green mango and bone marrow, warm relish Hokkaido scallop. Live suahe shrimp ikura, tamarind anchovy sauce, live Nylon clams, Papada Iberico from Joselito, mangosteen ceviche.

Next was Steamed Egg Custard, river prawn—prawn roe, wild Sedesdem mushroom from Sagada, dalandan, crispy quinoa, bisque emulsion.

Threadfin Bream with Crispy Scales

Then came the fish dish, Threadfin Bream with Crispy Scales—dragonfruit sauce vierge, bangus belly herb salad, eggplant puree.

French Squab Roast

A nod to the Filipino palate followed, the French Squab Roast or squab confit with adobo jus, bunuelo with garlic adobo confit, squab heart rebosado.

The Foiesilog was quite interesting: pan seared French foie gras, Koshihikari garlic rice, quail egg, Daikon onion light soubise (French sauce made mostly from onions), green papaya atchara, spring onion.

Star apple (caimito) sorbet, homemade cashew polvoron, longan compressed in olive oil

The penultimate course was roasted live spiny lobster wrapped in Kurobuta suckling pig belly confit, with calamansi pepper sauce.

For dessert—caimito sorbet, longan compressed in olive oil, polvoron, sticky sweet corn pudding, mezcal sauce, sweet corn ice cream, sweet corn oup, Valrhona Guanaja Chocolate Noir, Thai basil, Thai basil espuma.

Valrhona Chocolat Noir, Thaï basil espuma

The ultimate compliment for the chef? Some of our dinner mates went back soon after with their own guests. And Balai Palma will be expanding to a bigger place in Poblacion.—Thelma Sioson

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