We were blown away by our recent Isabelo Garden restaurant experience. It was indeed a secret restaurant -- you really have to journey to the heart of Marikina to find it. The food tastes good and you can tell that everything was cooked with love by the lovely Ms. Portia. The rustic Italian ambiance is set in an ancestral house (with old trees), which is artistically decorated by Portia's mom.
Isabelo is a combination of the concept behind Sonya's Garden, the kitschiness of Cafe Juanita, and the home-cooked goodness of Conti's. It is also a family showcase: the garden is created by the Mother, the Daughter is the queen of the kitchen, and the overall inspiration comes from the Grandmother. The walls are adorned with photos, paintings, pots and pans, mugs with faces, animal figurines, empty wine bottles and empty bottles of perfume (with contributions from some guests).
Which Table to Reserve?
There is a small, romantic table for 2 near the kitchen and a small garden table good for 4 (see above). This is where all the people pass by since it is near the entrance. It would be nice to add a curtain of bottles or vines to give it more privacy.
The long table (good for 10) is the perfect spot for a medium-sized group. It is situated al-fresco style with drapes designed with leaves, a backdrop of pots and pans, and a curtain of bottles.
The boys at this table were celebrating a special birthday, so they brought their own Mango Torte cake (no corkage) and some bottles of wine (P300 corkage fee/bottle).
There is also a studio, where you can find three tables: one with a backdrop of heirloom photos, pots, pans and bottles; one with a background of funny clown facial expressions; and one with a background of floral paintings.
Some of the items were destroyed during Ondoy -- the flood actually reached the ceiling. What you see are the remaining items, cleaned and refurbished. True to its name, Isabelo, which means "My God is Bountiful", this garden restaurant was able to rebound and rebuild after Ondoy. A beautiful recovery story.
The appetizer spread was quite nice. I just wish the appetizers were served slowly, one after another (degustation-style), instead of putting them on the table all at once. The concept behind it is that it's an Italian way of serving, where the dish portions are big and meant to be shared all at the same time.
Mixed Fish Fry (P540 +10%sc)
This is, perhaps, the only dish I did not like overall. The shrimps and squid were too small and a bit tough already. A lot of people order this because of the yummy fried lemons and the subtle marinara sauce. We were guessing why the fried lemons, especially the balat, were so yummy -- maybe they were preserved first before they were fried?
The oysters were fresh, but I was expecting more cheese and butter on each one. As for the stuffed Portabello (which was highly recommended by Elena), I liked the creamy and sweet flavor pairing. It's the sort of dish that you can't resist even though you know it is a bit fattening.
Isabelo Main Feast
Portia's specialties are the long, slow-cooked, pugon-style dishes that you shouldn't miss. :) We ordered most of them except for the Osso Buco. A reservation of at least 2 days in advance is required so that she can get the needed ingredients in the morning, and cook them just in time for your dinner.
She can cook the pasta, pizza, and prepare the desserts anytime, so you can order them on-the-spot.
The orange sauce of the chicken was indeed yummy -- not citrusy but sweet. The dark parts of the chicken absorbed the flavor of the sauce. However, the breast part remained white and bland. The roasted vegetables were very tender and a great complement for the chicken.
The Roasted Pork was a feast for the eyes and one of the highlights of the meal. I liked the lean meat parts, which had that distinct pugon taste and went well with the mango sauce and the vinegar sauce. Some parts of the skin were crispy but some were tough, though, since the pugon cooking was not very consistent throughout the meat.
Portia should try cooking lechon de leche pugon-style; I'm quite sure it would be a hit, especially for big celebrations and festive seasons.
My personal favorite was the Beef Bourguignon. It erased all my memories of the beef bourguignon disaster when we dined at Chef Popit's. The wine-tomato-based sauce was a bit sweet, but it was definitely something to savor to the last drop. The beef was so tender; it seemed like it was disintegrating into the sauce already, but it still retained its texture. We had to make sure to choose this for our take-out. :)
The Italian Paella is a bit like risotto -- rice mashed in a creamy sauce with toppings. However, it does not have the tutong (burnt edges) that we love in a Spanish Paella. My friend Maong was craving for this after our dinner in Isabelo. On hindsight, I think it was actually a bit heavy and did not go well with the beef bourguignon.
I prefer Portia's pizza grilled instead of pugon-style. The dough is proudly homemade. It has a thin crust that is crispy from the grilling but still chewy on the inside. I liked the quality of the four cheeses used in the pizza, particularly the dominant flavor of the blue cheese.
The boys seem to know the blogging drill already... After eating dinner, Aidan asked me to go around and do a pictorial session with them. (See Isabelo Garden Restaurant Flickr Set)
The sorbets are highly recommended. A light ending with a dash of lemon to cap off the night.
The desserts are surprisingly good, but this was a bit heavy already for us to finish it.
The best part of the meal @ Isabelo is meeting the pretty, stylish and passionate cook, Ms. Portia. She reminds me of Tita in the Spanish foodie movie, Like Water for Chocolate. (Yes, she is still available... :) )
Overall, Isabelo Garden is one of the Awesome Restaurants in Manila with its unique, homey garden ambiance, food cooked with love, and a compelling restaurant story that provides a wonderful backdrop for your memorable family or barkada celebration. We spent around P1,300 per adult for all the food we ordered that night. Sulit!
The only thing is that the restroom seemed to be an afterthought, with only one tiny cubicle, which you'll dread going to. But I did hear the house was sort of abandoned after Ondoy (because the location is very close to the Marikina river), and the plan is to convert it to a grand bathroom. :) That's a great idea, but it might be better to transform a good part of the ancestral house as an air-conditioned area for the summer season.
ISABELO GARDEN RESTAURANT
A rustic Italian private garden restaurant by Portia Baluyut in Marikina.
Address: #11 Isabelo Mendoza St. San Roque, Marikina City
Telephone: +632 510-6914
Mobile: +63 917 814-6824
Website: www.IsabeloGarden.com | Isabelo Facebook Page
Facebook: Isabelo Garden Restaurant
Operating Hours: Open from 6pm onwards / Monday - Sunday Dinner by RESERVATION ONLY. Strictly NO WALK-INS.
Note: Cash Only
Driving Directions: You need to get lost to discover the place. :) Once your dinner reservation is confirmed, Portia will send you the map (but we still got lost since we're not familiar with Marikina.)
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Isabelo Garden Restaurant by Jin Loves to Eat :)
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