I’ve never been able to bring myself to say this out loud, but Chef Jordy Navarra had it all wrong at the start. Or, rather, not all the right people properly had Jordy Navarra at his start. During our first encounter years ago, he had spoken so sincerely of sea and farmlands, childhood packed lunches, cheap afternoon snacks, and the potential of local food. Curious then that a man who spoke so highly of Philippine culinary explorations had found a platform for his work in Black Sheep. Its shell was a space walled mostly by floor-to-ceiling windows, outfitted by plush interiors and carpeted floorings, and a club-style backlit bar—all within the penthouse space of a building that towered over the city. But at its spine, and at the ebb and flow of its pulse, was Navarra and his kitchen team: devotees to rethinking and reformulating Filipino fare.
Just a couple of months ago, the Sheep went to graze in other pastures, and Navarra opted to search for greener ones.
First, a pregnant pause in the months that followed his departure from the place he had become associated with. Followed by a buzz of news that flitted across the web with much speed and curiosity: Toyo Eatery.
Stationed at the center spot of an artist’s alleyway, Toyo’s inner frame has a handsome ruggedness to it. There are bursts of wood, shell, and woven fixtures—even giant wooden cutlery on the wall—but the eyes that dine here will involuntarily travel to the restaurant’s provocatively open kitchen. A sterling stage with denim apron-clad characters weaving through it, each dish here is a choreographed dance by Navarra and his cast. The continued pursuit of propelling Filipino food away from just your mom’s home cooking yielded instead a finer take on otherwise casual dining. Think standard pork barbecue fired up on the grill at the nearest street corner, only this time that barbecue has shavings of pork leg, belly, and shoulder sewn together through a stick.
Toyo (The Alley at Karrivin Plaza, 2316 Chino Roces Avenue, Makati) manages to wax poetic with the simplest of inspirations, like a nursery rhyme on provincial local produce through the aptly named dish, Garden Vegetables: the components of this are every veggie listed in the song “Bahay Kubo,” plated like a potted plant. It is multi-textural and surprising, as some flavors rise up faster than others—sometimes the sweetness of puréed kalabasa comes up for air, only to be pushed away by the smokiness of roasted eggplant and peanuts. The milkfish–garlic rice combo that Navarra’s childhood references always turn to, on the other hand, have produced a dish of grilled bangus loin and belly, slow cooked and grilled, to make a remarkably meaty bite. Add to that a bowl of the house silog: a mess of sticky rice, flecks of cracklings, dried roe, and garlic, and a single raw egg trembling at the center.
Oysters with cucumber and basi salad, Grilled belly and loin of bangus
There is no dress code in Toyo. Their menu explicitly says so. Why dress up when the point is to feel some semblance of Philippine hospitality which, more than anything else, can be experienced at the dinner table?
Jordy Navarra may have removed himself from the penthouse heavens, but he and the motley crew that followed (and even got matching tattoos with) him are sowing the seeds on ground level—right where everything begins, and right where they’re getting that proper start.
This article was originally published in the May 2016 issue of Rogue.