Open for lunch Tuesday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner daily 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. AE, V. Reservations accepted. Prices: At lunch, main dishes average $6. At dinner, appetizers $3 to $4, main dishes $7.50 to $10.50. Desserts $2.50 to 4.
As if it weren't dramatic enough for Washington's first
Filipino restaurant to be opening, this one combines in ternational politics and a story of youthful success. On
the political front, the restaurant is rumored to have
been a project of Ymelda Marcos and meant to be ready for her Washington visit (it didn't make it). As for the success, a guiding force behind it was a thesis proposal. It seems that Reynaldo Alejandro, studying at New York's Restaurant School, was writing a proposal on how to open a Filipino restaurant, when some investors heard about it and asked him to put his thesis to work; thus Washington became his laboratory. In any case, the upshot is a restaurant of charm that serves some of the most exotic food to show up in Washington since the Ethiopians introduced injera.
During the Auberge Philippine's first months, its waiters have had the leisure to provide gastrohistory lectures to first- timers. The food is a conglomeration of Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and Malaysian, they explain, and urge you to try pickled green papaya or to pronounce kilawing tokwa at baboy (bean curd and pork marinated in soy sauce, vinegar and garlic). They have the enthusiasm of top-notch tour guides as they urge you to try pancit, the noodle dishes that seem to be the national food, or the daily special of stuffed shrimp that is so good that it has become the daily special every day.
While much of the food is unusual to American tastes, most of it is mild and delicate enough so that diners who are only moderately adventurous will not be unduly shocked. Some of it is not particularly interesting, but with about 15 main dishes available, there is plenty to please.
Some of the best dishes and best values are among the five appetizers. Empanaditas may sound Spanish, but the glutinous texture of their dough is reminiscent of Chinese fried dumplings. The filling is meaty, sweet and tart, with unfamiliar bits of vegetable that seem much like Chinese tree ear fungus. They are a very nice start, the dough crisp and light, the three small turnovers prettily decorated with parsley and carrot flowers. If you like fried squid, you should be delighted with the version here, for the Japanese influence shows in the tempura-like light and lacy batter, the squid is tender and the portion is enormous. The accompanying sauce tastes like plain old tartar sauce, so apparently even America has had its gastronomic influence. There are also crisp flattened vegetables fritters, a m,elange of carrots, green beans and the like, but they have needed more seasoning than they had when we tried them. That nearly unpronounceable bean curd dish is a tangy stew, a large soup plate full for $3, and is distantly related to the masitas de puerco found in Latin American restaurants: more Spanish influence. Then there is my favorite, tocino: thin slices of marinated and pan-fried pork rubbed with a paste of spices that are quite sweet and aromatic, a heightened version of Chinese five-spice seasoning.
Soups range from a gummy pancit molo--noodle soup with a full-flavored broth and bits of pork but unappealingly mushy--to sinigang, which is like Thai soups in that it is quite tart (from tamarind juice) and slightly hot. The sinigang varies from day to day and from meat to seafood, but the day it tried it I found a wonderful reddish broth with bits of onion and crunchy thin green beans, incendiary long green peppers and two extraordinarily fine fresh shrimp cooked with their heads on and very sweetly delicious.
The most popular main dish is stuffed shrimp. These shrimp don't taste of the quality of those in the soup, but here they are only a base for a very good aromatic ground-meat stuffing that is molded around the shrimp into a great oval and is then deep-fried. The sauce is a lightly sweetened and a lightly cornstarched relative of a Chinese sauce, and the shrimp come with that green papaya pickled with shredded cabbage, a kind of mild-sweet sauerkraut. Like most dishes, this also is accompanied by gray and sticky rice, reeking of garlic, certainly a dish for which one acquires a taste. My favorite main dish is chicken with a stuffing similar to the shrimp's. The leg is boned except for the end, which serves as a handle. Inside, the leg is densely packed with chicken leg meat, ground pork and ham and, in the center, hard-cooked egg. Well-browned and crisp skin covers the whole--a richly seasoned and interesting contrast of crispness with meaty p.at,e. It is also easy to grow fond of the noodle dishes. Pancit guisado is very thin rice noodles, pan-fried with pork, chicken, shrimp, vegetable, plenty of garlic and sweet-salty spices (again like the Chinese five-spices but with plenty of black pepper). Pancit luglug consists of noodles that are more like spaghetti, and the seasoning tastes Thai or Vietnamese because of its fermented fish sauce. The menu further ranges from vegetable-stuffed lumpia--relatives of egg rolls--to steak marinated with soy sauce and lemon. Milk fish is tangy and nicely seasoned, but this strong and dry fish imported from the Philippines won't please those who like fish sweetly delicate. There are stews such as adobo-- chicken and pork with vinegar and soy sauce, not one of the menu's highlights--and lamb stew in a dark red and rather hot thick sauce that is fairly good, or would be if the lamb were less chewy. On goes the menu, to oxtail and tripe stew, eggplant and bitter melon casserole and several other beef dishes. Desserts tend to be very sweet, from a dense custard to vanilla ice cream topped with gelatinous soft coconut and a fruit-bean-yam concoction romantically called halo-halo. A tropical mood can be reinforced with fruit juices, from coconut to mango; there is dark Filipino beer, or you can choose a Western accompaniment from a small list of wines, most reasonably priced. Finally, there are coffees brewed in Melior pots or a Filipino coffee that is strong-flavored but weak-bodied.
That's just the bare bones, though. What fleshes out the Auberge Philippine is that it is very attractively decorated, with grasscloth walls and bamboo arches and chairs and the hanging lamps and napkin rings of translucent white shell-like material. Bright and colorful and tropical are these two rooms, with service so eager that the waiter not only asks whether everything is all right, but returns a few minutes later to inquire, "Is everything still all right?" Often there is piano music; if you want to talk quietly, make sure you are far enough from the music to do so.
You could have a full and intriguing dinner for $15 at Auberge Philippine, with beer and tip; or you could splurge to around $25. In either case, it is worthwhile as the new cuisine in town and as a very nice rendition of that cuisine.