The problem (and joy) of reviewing all-you-can-eat restaurants -- such as the thoroughly excellent Isla Manila, the subject of this week's review -- is the sheer number of dishes requiring assessment. At Isla Manila, the first restaurant in the universe to introduce "Flip Sum," 13 different entrees regularly make the rounds on dim sum carts. Wise eaters will try them all.
But having spent so many column inches on the various preparations and logic behind the restaurant's innovative serving style, I ran out of room for dessert. That's a shame, since I was deeply smitten by the sweet corn pudding.
Although Isla Manila emphasizes choice, the restaurant doesn't offer dessert options: Patrons are served whatever chef Carlos Castrence has readied for the evening, whether it's cassava cake or my new favorite, maja blanca.
Like everything served at Isla Manila, maja blanca is staunchly homestyle. I mean no insult to Filipino cuisine to say many of its dishes are highly accessible; When my third-grade teacher organized before-school enrichment classes, the cooking division was devoted to Filipino sweets.
Since I doubt Mrs. Stamos knew much about coconut milk and sticky rice, I suspect the curriculum had something to do with a willing Filipino-born parent who had time to volunteer. But teaching Filipino cooking to kids makes culinary sense, because the cuisine doesn't emphasize precise proportions and refined knife skills. To make maja blanca, you boil coconut milk with sugar, condensed milk and corn, then garnish the pudding with coconut flakes. For anyone who grew up loving canned creamed corn, the results are damn near dreamy.
As soon as I tasted maja blanca, I knew it was my professional duty to dislike it. It's too sweet, too gelatinous and too few steps removed from a convenience store's dry goods aisle. But no good comes from rejecting food because it's not sufficiently fancy; in the American South, a popular fast food chain is one of the last great defenders of the region's biscuit tradition. If snobbery keeps an eater from ordering a country ham biscuit at Bojangles', he's missed out on learning something about the region's longstanding relationship to flour and its enduring collective palate -- not to mention one of the nation's great handheld breakfasts.
Castrence admits Filipino food is sometimes a hard sell, since he's up against the misconception that Filipino food isn't very good. Fortunately, he's come up with 13 ways (plus a phenomenal dessert) to prove the skeptics wrong.
For more on the fun at Isla Manila, my full review is here. And here's Joshua Huston's accompanying slideshow of adobos, pork blood stew and barbecue pork.