Kawali Grill’s Perfect Scramble

At Seattle’s fanciest Filipino restaurant, a former hotel chef balances tradition and training.

These days, every chef talks about her food as if it were more than an expression of her unique palate. It's also a personal testimony summing up every step of her training, her thoughts on globalization and industrial agriculture, and the way the dew clustered on the ferns outside her window the morning she dreamed up the watermelon-Pernod sorbet.It's what diners now expect of chefs at upscale restaurants. At Kawali Grill, a Filipino-American restaurant in Rainier Valley, chef Gerold Castro tried a similar approach—and his customers demanded different.Born in the Philippines, Castro moved at 16 to Seattle, where he worked his way up the hierarchy of hotel kitchens. He eventually became the executive chef at the downtown Hilton, but he had always dreamed of owning his own place by the time he turned 35—and he succeeded. When he opened Kawali Grill in August 2007, the chef filled his menu with dishes that reflected both his Pinoy background and his professional experience: lumpia and lechon kawali, natch, as well as a goat-cheese-fritter salad, Korean-style shortribs, and chicken Marsala. "I wanted to attract all people, not only the Filipino community," he said in a recent interview. "It's a diverse community around here. So I have some other choices for them. And a lot of Filipino people have kids born here who are into American food."But then there were food types like me. I was excited to see what I thought was a full-service Filipino restaurant in Seattle, especially since it had taken over a building that's been cursed since I got to town. (Those Motown nights advertised by the Vietnamese restaurant preceding Kawali apparently didn't pop.) However, the diffuseness of Castro's original menu kept me away. The reports from several other critics in town on the magical properties of his fried chicken were tempting, but not enough to dispel my suspicions about restaurants that attempt to cover too much ground. In fact, it wasn't until I went to Kawali Grill for brunch to satisfy a craving for tocino (marinated pork) a few months back that I realized I'd been wrong to ignore Castro for so long.Not only were his omelets good, but his tusilog—eggs with garlic fried rice and tocino—kicked ass. The eggs were scrambled perfectly. The chunks of lacquered meat tasted better than barbecued ribs. The plate was even decorated with an orange slice. More important, I spotted a tabletop display listing kare-kare, sinigang, and pinakbet, dishes far more appealing than hamburgers and caesar salads.I wasn't the only one drawn back to Kawali Grill for traditional Filipino dishes. A few weeks ago, Castro reprinted his menu, moving the tabletop specials inside and deleting the American dishes that weren't selling. Now the menu items marked with a Filipino flag outnumber the ones that don't. You could have said the same of the customers on my first dinnertime visit: When my friends and I scored the last free table in the narrow, window-wrapped room with clouds sponge-painted on the ceiling, a dozen old people were celebrating some big occasion at a long table in the front. Two college-age guys across from me were slurping up whipped-cream-topped cups of halo halo, a milky dessert. The couple at the next table over silently crunched their way through salads as they watched Top Idol on the screen behind me. The waiters, dressed up in black and white, were moving so fast to keep up with the crust you could almost see their professional smiles Doppler-shift into grimaces.While Castro's fried calamari was light on the batter and heavy on the fried, and a vegetable and anchovy-paste stew called pinakbet was light on anchovy flavor and heavy on undercooked bitter melon, most of his food successfully bridged the gap between old-country and new, and between homey and dressed-up.Fresh lumpia—thin wheat crepes wrapped around bean sprouts, tofu cubes, and shredded vegetables—were drizzled with a sweet peanut sauce that coated their crunch without making the crepe sticky and cloying. I've spent entire meals at Filipino restaurants trying not to pierce my cheek with the bones in Southeast Asian milkfish, but in Kawali Grill's sinigang, boneless strips of the white fish lent a rivery backnote to the transparent, tomato-rouged broth they floated in. Clean and tart with tamarind, the soup was a good foil for the now-mythical pandan fried chicken we ordered with it. Castro marinated the chicken in coconut and pandan leaves so the meat picked up their round, grassy flavors, then coated the chicken evenly in panko and fried it golden, stacking up the chicken on a bright-red pool of spicy syrup. It was worth every bit of buzz I'd heard about it. For dessert, his bibingka—an eggy rice-flour cake the texture of which, at the midpoint between mochi and flan, I inexplicably love—was topped with toasted coconut and served with a creamy rum-and-vanilla sauce.The rush for tables clearly reflected a local need for a place like Castro's. Despite the fact that Filipino-Americans make up 4.1 percent of the city's population, more than any other Asian subgroup, Seattle only has seven or eight Filipino restaurants. And all of Kawali Grill's competitors are casual turo-turos. Turo-turo means "point-point," which is what you do when you're standing in front of a steam table, showing the counter person what to put on your combo plate. None of these restaurants has waiters who take your order and refill your water glass, let alone serves $10 entrees on oversized white plates, garnished with swirly plantain chips.My second dinner started off with the same sweet-voiced server, a round of imported Red Horse beers, and a plate of precisely wrapped, papery-crisp fried lumpia as thick as an asparagus spear and stuffed with finely ground pork and noodles. This time, the rest of the meal didn't follow through.Filipino cuisine integrates Malay, Chinese, Spanish, and North American flavors, a melting-pot style that comes through in dishes like the palabok fiesta I ordered—skinny rice noodles covered in sliced hard-boiled eggs, scallions, and a fine snow of grated pork rinds—and the adobo, chicken stewed in a tangy, fragrant blend of soy sauce and vinegar seasoned with bay leaves and black peppercorns. But each of these archetypal dishes lacked some critical element. In the pancit palabok, it was a heady crustacean flavor, which alloys with the pork to make for some addictively hearty noodles. In the adobo, the chef's decision to include potatoes and vegetables meant that he only stewed the adobo until the quickly cooked bits tasted fantastic, yet the chicken didn't braise for long enough to become succulent and sauce-infused.The oxtail kare-kare, which should have been beefily aromatic, tasted as bland as the pinakbet the visit before. The tender meat, cooked with long beans and eggplant in a peanut stew, came with a dish of bagoong alamang (salty fermented shrimp paste) to stir into the thick orange sauce. Bagoong can be a little much for my Midwestern palate, and usually there's enough already cooked into kare kare that I don't need to augment, but this version was so one-dimensional—that dimension being peanut butter—that I added the shrimp paste by the forkful in order to eat it.Now that Kawali Grill has evolved from a Filipino-American bistro to a straight-up Filipino restaurant, it seems as though the chef is still working out how to integrate tradition and his own training when he's cooking the classics. Americans and Filipinos both gravitate to strong flavors—we just like different ones: Both of us love sweet-tart and fatty foods, for instance, but Americans like our fried or meaty dishes to be straightforwardly so. There's a combination of rich and funky, as well as strong fishy flavors, that I taste in a lot of Filipino food but that doesn't appeal to everyone. However, when Castro tones down those aspects of a dish built around them, his food tastes flat.Clearly, Kawali Grill continues to evolve. Even as the menu keeps being tweaked, there are great meals to be had at Seattle's only sit-down, dolled-up Filipino-American bistro. Look for anything blending Asian and Western flavors or lightened up with crisp, fresh vegetables. They're not just the chef's strongest dishes—they're his most personal.jkauffman@seattleweekly.com  PRICE CHECK

Tusilog (brunch): $7.99

Fresh or fried lumpia: $4.50

Pandan fried chicken: $8.99

Milkfish sinigang: $7.99

Palabok fiesta: $7.99

Bibingka: $2.75

 
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