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Hapag Invites You To Ayá For Drinks And More

What to expect from Chefs Thirdy and Nav's new lounge concept

A lot has been written about Hapag and the ridiculously talented and hardworking people behind it. Mostly glowing with praise at the unique and bold offers chefs Thirdy Dolatre and Kevin Navoa create with their team. It’s no wonder they’ve received several local and international recognitions in just five years. 

And all those years, they’ve made Katipunan their home. But as part of their five-year-plan, they’ll be moving to a bigger location in Makati City in the latter part of this year. And to give excited foodies a taste of their new space and new creations, they’ve returned to The Balmori Suites’ lobby for a longer — and boozier — pop-up called Ayá

Erin Ganuelas, the team’s sommelier, shares that Ayá is an introduction to what will be Hapag’s new lounge concept. It will occupy the loft at the seventh floor of The Balmori Suites by October 2023.

“I think it's more of like a soft launch for now,” shared Chef Nav about Ayá. “This one is just something you know and I would like to eat while drinking. Really super basic, nothing too complicated. It’s very enjoyable. We just really wanted to introduce the new chapter of the restaurant we'll be building.”

Ayá at The Balmori Suites | Ching Dee

Though Ayá will be a permanent addition to Hapag MNL’s chapter, the mains won’t stay for good. So if you don’t want to miss on these creations, make sure to visit the pop-up before August 13th. To boost the bar’s repertoire, they brought world-renowned mixologist Arkadiusz Rybak as a consultant to create one-of-a-kind cocktails inspired by local flavors.

“We had our beverage consultant create classic cocktails with Filipino ingredients also. That's why there's a play on classic cocktails, like kamias or guyabano,” explained Erin, who joined Hapag MNL just over a year ago after she finished her studies in Australia and went back home to the Philippines.

“And thankfully, Chef Nav and Chef Thirdy also really enjoy wines now,” Erin said in jest, earning laughter from the two chefs. “We used to drink whiskey,” Chef Thirdy clarifies.

Thirdy Dolatre, Erin Ganuelas, Kevin Navoa | Ching Dee

Chefs Nav and Thirdy shared that Ayá comes from the Filipino word meaning ‘to invite’, which is also their way of inviting each other for a drink. “Mag-aya ka na!” Chef Nav recalled. 

And speaking of drinking, the food at Hapag is nothing short of fantastic and amazing with drinks. Think, “pulutan” (bar chow) but on a whole other level. The flavors are diverse yet cohesive, the textures are wildly different yet harmonious, the tableware is gorgeous (all handmade by Zambales-based potter Mia Casal), and the elements of every dish go from common (rice) to unique (Mexican limes) to outlandish (deep-fried kimchi mustard greens). 

The crispy Gamet Kropek or house-made rice crackers made of gamet, a type of seaweed from Ilocos, was light and has a subtle briny flavor that goes well with the tanginess of the fermented red pepper aioli.

Gamet Kropek | Ching Dee

Reminiscent of Kapampangan sisig is Ilocandia’s Warek-Warek. At Ayá, they grilled and chopped maskara (pig’s face) and mixed with house-made pickles. It’s served on top of crunchy lumpia wrapper, which was also made in-house, with dainty dollops of dinakdakan aioli for acidity and additional umami. 

The Guyabano Bellini, one of the five signature cocktails at Ayá, goes perfectly with the Warek-Warek. The sweetness of the guyabano purée and the fruity notes of prosecco complements the acidity of the crunchy dish.

Warek-Warek | Ching Dee

Ayá’s Adobo Liver Mousse is deeply flavored yet incredibly lighter, perhaps because of the sweet-and-sour red onion marmalade (which was of course made in-house) and the crunch of the toasted cashews. But what made this dish this writer’s instant favorite is the topnotch kamote (sweet potato) brioche, which was moist and soft and wonderfully sweet, which balances the depth of the liver pâté. The chefs shared that the bread is (sadly) exclusively made for Ayá by Panaderya Toyo alumnus and Brie & Rye Bakery’s Richie Manapat

The bold flavors of the Adobo Liver Mousse pairs well with the tartness and potency of the Kamias Margarita made with Mezcal.

Adobo Liver Mousse | Ching Dee

The Okoy and Pearls (shrimp and shredded vegetable fritters) is best enjoyed the moment it hits the table for maximum crunch. Dunk it in the creamy dip made from sukang pinakurat and chives and topped with Ikura (as the pearls).

Another favorite from the starter selection is the Pares Toast, a hefty pan de Kalinga toast topped with savory-sweet beef and tendon pares, garlic aioli, pickled red onions for a little bit of acid and heat, and lasuna chimichurri made from young shallots (lasuna) popular in Ilocos. It’s a big decadent bite, but well worth unhinging your jaws to get a single bite that contains all the elements of the dish, therefore getting the fullness of its flavor.

The sweet and tangy Dalandan Gimlet is best paired with the Pares Toast. It contains house-made dalandan cordial (infused sugar syrup), gin, and a little bit of black pepper for an interesting kick, which echoes the black pepper in the Pares. Ayá’s house-made non-alcoholic Sarsaparilla (yes, root beer) also works well with the anise-forward flavors of pares.

Pares Toast | Ching Dee

If you’re looking for some sort of palate cleanser, order Ayá’s Sinuglaw. The dish combines two ancient Filipino cooking techniques borne from the Visayan region: sinugba (grilling) and kinilaw (to cook something in acid, much like ceviche). They use the catch of the day and turn it into ceviche and toss it with some smoked pork belly, roasted pineapples for sweetness, and house-made pickles for an added layer of sourness. The mixture is covered with fresh pancit-pancitan, which lends a slight bitterness to the dish. The coconut tuba leche de tigre sauce is poured and decorated with droplets of colorful house-made herbed oils, turning this classic Pinoy fare into a piece of modern art.

The alcohol-free Mango Ginger Kombucha, for its sweetness and subtle spice, works well with the SInuglaw.

Singulaw | Ching Dee

When the menu reads Kilawing Baka, it might give you some pause, but it’s basically Ayá’s version of beef tartare. They hand-cut raw beef tenderloin and mix it with fermented mustard aioli, then top it with itlog na maalat (salted egg) gel and imbaliktad sauce, and served with root vegetable chips (taro, sweet potato, potato). The beef is flavorful and soft without being overly mushy, though a bit too heavy for the chips (or perhaps I just put too much on mine). 

The floral-fruity freshness (thanks to sampaguita essence) of the Guava Spritz — Ayá’s Pinoy-inspired version of the Aperol Spritz — pairs well with the rawness of the Kilawing Baka.

Kilawing Baka | Ching Dee

Who makes their own buro and bagoong (fermented rice and shrimp, respectively)? Well, Hapag does. At Ayá, they make Sugpo at Buro thermidor-style, but instead of plain ol’ butter, they use their smoked buro-bagoong butter on top of two tiger prawns. On the side, some Mexican limes from Kai Farms, which gives the dish not just the acidity it needs to brighten it but also an herb-like finish similar to kaffir.

The subtle smokey notes of bourbon in the Banana Pandan Old Fashioned amplifies the smokiness of the buro-bagoong butter in Sugpo at Buro, while the sweetness of the Olea Saccharum (which you rarely see now in bar menus across Metro Manila) rounds up the flavors, beautifully tying the dish with the cocktail.

Sugpo at Buro | Ching Dee

From the selection of Panimula (starters), the only thing we weren’t able to try were the Cheese & Charcuterie Plate, which features locally made cheeses, cold cuts, and locally foraged honey. But I’ll certainly come back for it.

There are only four main dishes (‘Pangalawa’) in Ayá’s curated menu, which we all must try before the pop-up ends on August 13th. We got to try two mains on the day of our visit.

The Mushroom Dinakdakan Silog is an ovo-vegetarian version of the beloved Pinoy silog. Aside from the umami-rich mushroom dinakdakan (made from their partner farm, Mouldy Blooms), they also added crispy mushroom chicharom and deep-fried parsley on a bed of garlic-atsuete rice, and at the center of it all is a perfect 65º egg (that’s almost pornographic in the way it jiggles). The dish is finished with more dinakdakan sauce.

Mushroom Dinakdakan Silog | Ching Dee

Kiampung will always have a special place in every Chinoy’s heart and Ayá just gave it the Hapag treatment. The Binondo Steak Fried Rice is kiampung fried rice with house-cured lap cheong (Chinese sausage) topped with thick slices of smoked beef short rib steak and a crispy fried egg with a jammy center. For added crunch and flavor, a sprinkle of toasted peanuts completes the dish.

Binondo Steak Fried Rice | Ching Dee

The two other mains are Katipunan Express (grilled pork belly, spicy coconut-sweet potato purée, spicy tocino glaze, garlic-atsuete rice) and Beef Short Rib Kare-Kare (smoked beef short ribs, cashew kare-kare sauce, homemade bagoong alamang fried rice).

According to the two chefs, Chef Nav tends to gravitate towards the more sour aspects of food (especially with his penchant for fermentation), while Chef Thirdy is more on the sweet side of things. To end your Ayá experience on a sweet note, order any of the three no-fail desserts (’Panapos’).

The base of Ayá’s Strawberry Taho is house-made tofu mousse laced with Auro white chocolate, which is creamy, sweet, and dense, which also makes it nothing like any taho you’ve ever had before. The tiny sago is simmered in mulled wine arnibal (brown sugar syrup) and topped with generous pieces of pickled Baguio strawberries.

Strawberry Taho | Ching Dee

Chocnut is simple yet anything but. It’s simple in a way that it’s chocolate- and peanut butter-flavored ice cream with toasted nuts; yet it’s made more complex with the addition of cocoa nibs, salted berries, and their house-made chocolate barquillos. It looks like modern art and tastes like nostalgia.

Chocnut | Ching Dee

The heartiest of the three dessert options is the Banana Bread Pudding. They grilled their house-made banana bread and somehow managed to keep it moist and tender. It’s topped with a scoop of Cashew-Miso ice cream and finished with a drizzle of Patis-Caramel fudge. Yes, you read that right, Patis as in fish sauce. It’s like salted caramel with a deeper flavor that you can’t quite put your finger on (unless now of course you know it’s fish sauce).

Banana Bread Pudding | Ching Dee

Dining at Ayá gives you a taste of the Hapag MNL experience without having to commit to a full degustacion meal that could take hours. It’s a gourmet meal at your own pace and that’s one of the best things about it.

Chef Thirdy and Chef Nav at Ayá | Ching Dee
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Ayá by Hapag MNL is ongoing until August 13, 2023 at the lobby of The Balmori Suites, Plaza Drive, Rockwell Center (beside Power Plant Mall Plaza Drive entrance). For reservations and inquiries, call 0919 430 6144. For updates, follow @aya.manila on Instagram. 

Lead photos: Ayá ManilaChing Dee