Finally, A Fine Dining Filipino Restaurant That Takes You Home

hapag mnl review
Elevating Filipino cuisine to fine dining status is probably such a huge feat. I wouldn’t know—I’m not a chef. We're so used to seeing our food in superfluous quantities—kamayans, fiestas, massive pots of stews, whole roasted pigs—that experiencing it as one-biters can sound implausible, probably even unappealing to some. But for a chef to capture the essence of a dish in a single bite, bringing you back to your own household, burrowing into your memories, is truly an achievement.

I didn’t meet the chefs of Hapag when I dined here several weeks back, but I was told that they were in Iloilo doing research. That comforted me, knowing that the brains behind this small restaurant hidden away in Katipunan aren’t stopping evolving anytime soon. And as small and discreet as Hapag’s edifice was, its credentials aren’t: the restaurant was included in the 2021 Essence of Asia—a roster of establishments, chosen by Asia’s 50 Best, that honor authentic culinary traditions.

hapag mnl review
Left: Uni Arroz Caldo made of Pangasinan sea urchin cream, adlai arroz caldo, tinapa, puffed rice, and bihod bottarga; right: Mango Sorbetes (a delicious palate cleanser prior to the Salu-Salo course)

The food at Hapag appears very intricate, technical, and modern, but the flavors are so simple and straightforward that something instantly clicks in your brain. You immediately recognize it. Take for instance the Hapag signature, the Snack Box—a collection of five appetizers that to me felt like an amuse bouche, a glimpse of what was to come. There was a rooster-shaped cracker that tasted like inasal; a tostada topped with longganisa that was unmistakably inspired from Ilocos empanada; and a kutsinta (rice cake) infused with kadios soy sauce. Our ever-favorite comfort food, champorado at tuyo, takes the form of a dark chocolate croquette topped with salty dried fish.

I will admit: I had some trepidations coming into Hapag because of online reviews saying that most of the dishes were excessively sweet. But it seems like they have changed the menu, and after the Snack Box, I was like, “GIVE ME THE NEXT ONE”. We tried the 10-Course Tasting Menu (PhP3,500 as of November 2021), by the way (the only option to really gage what a restaurant such as this one can give, in my opinion).

hapag mnl review
Delicious and reasonably priced cocktails at Hapag. Left: Mapapa-moras Ka (mulberry, lemon, gin, basil); right: Sampal ng Loka Loka (tamarind, gin, basil, egg white)

The next course sent me to heaven. It was a blue marlin kilawin (ceviche) with a watermelon consommé, completely concealed by a variety of leaves and herbs that I was very happy to dig into. Fresh fish, a sweetish broth, a tangy dressing—what more could I ask for? I relished this dish and didn’t want it to end.

hapag mnl review
Then came LuzViMinda, a course representing the three main national island groups. Luzon came in the form of a kilawing baka—a tartare of beef with fermented mustard seeds and pickled seaweed. My personal favorite, Visayas, was an oyster napoleones, a typically sweet snack hailing from Bacolod made of puff pastry but which, at Hapag, went full savory—with smoked eggplant, kadios miso glaze, and a luscious piece of oyster. Mindanao wasn’t too far behind; the crab salad with alavar sauce and pomelo sitting on a crispy cracker clearly showcased the region (and gave me orgasms). LuzViMinda aimed to utilize the best of each island group, and that, it precisely did.

hapag mnl review
I don’t want to describe each dish in detail so as not to spoil your personal experience, but I want to point out how most of the dishes triggered something from my memories at the dining table. The Inihaw na Sugpo sa Miso is scented with dayap (made me euphoric, to be honest), and was paired with buro. I’m probably one of the few people who absolutely love buro, and while Hapag’s wasn’t as sour as I would’ve liked, I immensely enjoyed their version with the prawn, herbs, and two kinds of jam.

hapag mnl review
The Salu-Salo, which was composed of three entrees, multigrain rice, and sides, came just when I thought we were already receiving dessert, LOL! But oh, was I ecstatic to welcome it, regardless of my about-to-explode trousers. This course is Hapag’s effort to bring back the communal Filipino dining that you know after giving you small bites around the country. I was incredibly impressed by everything—the duck estopato was marvelous and we couldn’t stop exclaiming about the sides, which were really just simple salsas, pickled mustard greens, and lato done perfectly. The course wouldn’t be complete without them, no matter how delicious the pork belly or the steamed grouper was.

hapag mnl review
Were there any let downs in the meal? For me, it was the Laing Stones—another signature dish and very much hyped, photographed, and talked about. Don't get me wrong: I love the burnt coconut element and the pickled mangoes and the theatrics of it all, but I think it would’ve been more explosive if it were spicy. I really thought that biting into that mysterious black ball would send my mouth on fire. It wasn't bad—it's just that the other dishes were waaay better.

hapag mnl review
As for the non-food aspect, I wasn’t comfortable with how utensils were simply laid out on the table with no napkins, rests, etc. I mean, I normally wouldn’t mind—I would eat that fucking oyster napoleones even if it has soil in it, you know—but today’s times call for some mindfulness about these little details, especially from a restaurant of this caliber. In addition, I found the music too loud (oh my God, a grumpy Tito?) that it was challenging to hear the server explain the dishes. Finally, I thought that the vibe lacked some warmth and excitement. I don't know if it was just me (or you know, the masks). Pandemic fatigue, perhaps?

But hey, another spoonful of the Uni Arroz Caldo would probably obliterate those points for improvement. Maybe.

hapag mnl review
The desserts at Hapag were stellar. Left: black banana ice cream with Auro chocolate nibs, Benguet coffee oil, meringue, and banana streusel; right: chocolate and Chocnut cremeaux with cacao soil and sea salt chocolate barquillos. I would be happy to be served these desserts TWICE.

So did Hapag elevate Filipino food to fine dining level? Yes, and more. It did not only reinterpret the local dishes into fancy configurations with its thoughtful menu but also made sure that with each bite, you are transported back into a happy dining table—a hapag—to a special meal that you had years, months, or days ago with your loved ones. And that is the very essence of food, right?

Katipunan Ext, 201 Katipunan Ave., Project 4, Quezon City
Wed - Sun | 5PM - 10PM (may vary due to COVID-19 restrictions)

Have you been to Hapag? How was your experience?

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