Old Manila is a misnomer. This iconic restaurant of the Peninsula Manila does not really remind us outright of old Manila.

What it has are artistic takes on details of the once genteel city. Photographs by Francisco “Paco” Guerrero and the artistry of Kenneth Cobonpue, Pepito Albert and Ito Kish are put together for a modern, sophisticated vibe.

You will not imagine the sound of calesas on cobbled streets here, nor the roar of jeepneys as they speed into the asphalt jungle of Manila.  Instead, you will feel so relaxed, so ready for fine dining with crisp white linen on your lap as you savor the most majestic meals possible in Manila.

This has always been the case for this 46-year-old restaurant where heads of state have dined, where Michelin-starred chefs from Spain and Australia have done memorable 4- and 6-hands collab dinners.

I remember dining with and interviewing celebrities at Old Manila’s Magsaysay Room, which is the favorite of Nedy Tantoco when hosting guests in the field of art, culture and luxe retail.

“I like Old Manila because of the excellent food, the service and the ambience,” Nedy would say.

In my mind, I can still hear the basso laughter of visiting pianist Cecile Licad. And feel the rustle of fabric as Rustan’s designer Tadashi Shoji showed his creations. Or appreciate details in the watch creations by the late Philippe Charriol.

Lovely memories like this — filled with epicurean meals — make Old Manila an enduring favorite of mine. They took a three-year break during the pandemic.

But last week, Old Manila reopened its doors quietly. And it did with something very, very new: a charming Italian chef, Domenico Nicolino, only 38 but already pedigreed, having trained under Michelin-star chefs in Copenhagen and having created menus for Emporio Cafe in Munich.

Luckily, we were invited on reopening day by The Pen’s Mariano Garchitorena and we got a first taste of Nicolino’s Contemporary Bistronomy cuisine. He does classical cuisine but in his bold, unexpected way. Early in life, Nicolino learned the importance of farm-to-table dining.

“My father is a teacher who loves cooking. My family grows their own vegetables and still makes their own olive oil from 150-year-old trees.”

For Old Manila, Nicolino gets fresh vegetables from Batangas and Tagaytay. He has his eyes only for “top-quality seafood, which are ethical and sustainably sourced and responsibly farmed.  Beef comes from alpine pastures, complemented by wagyu from Japan.”

Describing himself as “a globetrotter with a passion for food,” Nicolino has been working with top hotels and restaurants in countries like France, Malta, Australia, the US, Norway, Thailand, Estonia, Denmark, France, Azerbaijan, Germany, Abu Dhabi, and the UK.

He took up biochemistry but his love for skiing made him discover the joy of cooking. “Most resorts close down in summer,” he says, thus making him experiment in the kitchen.

“Surprise us,” Garch told Nicolino during our opening-day lunch. This while I opted for two items on the menu — Beetroot Salad with endive, goat cheese and candied pecan; and Atlantic Black Cod with burned leeks, black mussels, saffron and lemongrass sauce — Nicolino pulled pleasant surprises such as oyster with caviar, and other mouthwatering delights.

Nicolino’s menu is described thus: Beef Tartare (hand-chopped Angus beef, oyster mayonnaise, shallots, capers, Kristal caviar); Foie Gras Parfait (pear, Muscat gel, almond nougatine); Gnocchi a la Parisienne (wild mushrooms, truffles, leeks, Parmesan foam); Aged Comte Cheese Risotto (Chanterelle, Albufera emulsion); Pumpkin Veloute (diced pumpkin, squash seed oil); and Pan-seared Turbot (razor clams, sake dadhi beurre blanc).

Peninsula Manila’s general manager Masahisa Oba says: “We are proud of the inspired menu he has created.”

To which Nicolino clarifies: “This is a growing menu, one that’s still in its infancy. Once I and my team get settled in, our guests will be surprised at the new, exciting offerings every week.”

After the involuntary fasting from excellent food the past three years, Old Manila’s fans should be ready for surprises from this exciting new chef. In this longest-lasting true fine-dining restaurant in Manila.

* * *

Follow the author on Instagram and Facebook @milletmartinezmananquil. Email her at [email protected] and [email protected]

2023-01-25T16:40:44Z dg43tfdfdgfd