Dining with food, people and memories

It was not a peculiar scene, neither was it unique to leave strong impressions. Eight ceramic bowls, glazed in jade green, formed a reversed “L” around a deep-welled plate with the same color. Each bowl contained a familiar ingredient—dried shrimp, desiccated coconut, green chili, onions, basil leaves, ginger, green mangoes and peanut sauce. The plate’s content, however, was strikingly new, almost mocking the ordinariness of the scene.
“It’s called alagao,” ceramicist Lanelle Abueva-Fernando, wife of the late Chef Bey Fernando and owner of the Crescent Moon Café in Antipolo, said, referring to the oblate leaves on the plate. The leaves were wrappers of their café’s in-house appetizer called alagao lumpia—a Filipino rendition of the Thai salad, Mieng Kum, or leaf-wrapped savories. The only difference was the use of a stiffer, shinier leaf in Thailand.
Variations in quantity or absence of certain ingredients produced distinct flavor and texture, making each alagao lumpia unique. “You can play around with the ingredients,” Lanelle said. An excess of ginger and chili made the lumpia spicy, while their absence made it sweet and minty. The alagao lumpia is now a mainstay at their café, but it took creativity and risk before it became their signature cuisine.
Bey Fernando’s notebook
Bey Fernando, the chef behind the alagao lumpia and the founder of the Crescent Moon Cafe, used to be a lawyer. He gave up law practice because of kidney problem, which led to a life-changing transplant. In a 2006 interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Bey said after the operation, the notebook he received from his mother, Gilda Cordero Fernando, sparked his interest in culinary arts. Instead of writing his thoughts, he surprised himself for he jotted down his own recipes and altered existing ones.
Bey’s notebook-turned-cookbook contained mixtures of his past and present experiences with food. When he was young, Noche Buenas were studded with his grandmother’s pancit molo, galantina and empanaditas stuffed with crab and eggs. Breakfasts, still at his father’s side of the family, were rich tables of dinuguan, puto and suman. Lunches, on the other hand, were at his mother’s table with buffets of lechon, lengua and lamb poked with garlic.
These memories influenced the way he served food at the Crescent Moon Café. Aided by his assistant cook and personal dialysis attendant, Rose delos Santos, Bey prepared random cuisines for his customers based on none but the freshest ingredients of the day.
Simple but with a home-style twist
More than nine years after that night of perfect crescent moon on January 12, 1997, their café’s opening date, Bey Fernando passed away. With Bey no longer around to lead the cooking, Rose found herself guided only by recipes and her own experiences.
“I used to cook in a carinderia in Cebu,” Rose’s voice clashed with the roaring engine of the tricycle taking her to Antipolo’s market. She continued Bey’s tradition of surprise menu, deciding what to serve only after knowing the best vegetables, fish and meat offered in the market. “The cuisines I cook can be found in any cookbook,” Rose humbly said in Filipino. “The only difference is the home-style preparation with the freshest ingredients available.”
Rose had prepared the alagao lumpia earlier, taking young alagao leaves from the four alagao trees found in the Crescent Moon compound. Today, however, she prepared two other appetizers—broccoli soup and the tandem of fish cracker and ground pork in coconut milk (gata).
Crescent Moon’s lone waiter, Ricky, served the broccoli soup on Lanelle’s very own stoneware bowls. The soup was a contrast to the rich flavor and color of the alagao lumpia because a single sweet, creamy taste in yellowish broth dominated it. Bits of broccoli added texture to the appetizer which was best sipped after eating the lumpia to drown the oily texture of the peanut sauce.
The ground pork in coconut milk was scooped from a bowl of blue, white, brown and yellow straight to one’s taste buds using the salty fish cracker. A large glazed terracotta bowl held the crackers, deep-fried to golden brown. Cracker and pork teased the tongue with a succession and fusion of sweet and salty, crispy and grainy, familiar and unfamiliar.
The potter with a chef’s kitchen
Crescent Moon’s appetizer took about 20 minutes to eat in a garden atmosphere with the sound of running water from the giant koi pond outside. Waiting for the main course was never a burden because of Lanelle’s collection of ceramics displayed inside the restaurant.
When Bey decided to open a café, Lanelle jokingly said he could do so easily because she could supply him with all the bowls, plates and saucers he would ever need for the restaurant. Trained in Japan and Sun Valley, Idaho, Lanelle “cooked” her own recipe of clay and volcanic ash in the giant kilns of her studio inside the compound. Bey, on the other hand, worked in the kitchen with ovens, pans and spices, brandishing his unique recipe of Asian food fused with the Filipino’s sense of taste. The couple’s products met only 0n the dinning table—Lanelle’s colorful ceramics displaying Bey’s delicious cuisines. Even after Bey passed away, the tradition of good food on quality ceramics lived on in the café.
“Cooking a lot of food and then apportioning it, putting it in a freezer, when someone arrives, reheating it in a microwave—we never do that. It’s really from scratch,” Lanelle assured her customers. True enough, when the main course of sautéed wing beans, pan-fried talakitok with butter and fried noodles in chicken curry sauce was served, none but the look, aroma and texture of freshness could be seen, smelled and felt.
Rose dotted the buffet table with her home-style version of Asian cuisines. The wing beans, crisp and fresh, resembled tiny box kites of green and yellow swimming in dark brown broth that smelled strongly of oyster sauce. Not surprisingly, the dish’s dominant taste was that of oyster sauce as well, though a mixture of tomatoes and other “secret spices” gave it its distinct Crescent Moon taste.
Her pan-fried talakitok, attractively cooked to a rich brown, was bursting with the aroma and flavor of butter. The fish meat was tender and had absorbed the flavor well, leaving the taste buds tingling with delight. Crescent Moon’s fried noodles in chicken curry sauce is also an in-house recipe. The crispy noodles were glazed with just enough sauce to prevent them from sagging. Strips of chicken breast studded the cuisine, and the taste of ginger stood out.
Ricky entered the restaurant with the last of the course meal— a dessert of sweet mango and suman. Rose’s suman was distinct from the Ilocos and Leyte version because of the inclusion of coconut milk in the recipe. The sticky rice (kakanin) was boiled, slowly mixing sugar, salt and coconut milk until the concoction reached the perfect texture. It was then wrapped in banana leaves and placed beside a slice of mango on another of Lanelle’s stoneware plates. The sweet dessert capped the dining experience at Crescent Moon.
“Before we even ever thought of having a restaurant, the two kids, Mahalia and Tin-tin, would play in their room, and they would pretend to cook all the time,” Lanelle recalled the younger days of her daughters. “One day, we asked, ‘What’s the name of your restaurant?’ Mahalia looked around and saw a hanger on the wall, and it was a crescent moon, so, she said, ‘It’s the Crescent Moon Restaurant.’”
Thus, the restaurant, housed in a 5,000 square meter lot, proud of its fresh Asian cuisines, was named Crescent Moon Café. Surprisingly, crescent moon’s Italian translation, Mezzaluna (also means half moon), is a kitchenware for chopping herbs and slicing pizza. A coincidence perhaps, but the convergence of food, people and memories made the experience worthwhile.
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