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Talisay The Garden Cafe Is The Best Version Of Chef Tatung Sarthou

This is where Tatung spins his culinary magic pared down to the essentials to let in more flavor without the clutter

At his newly-opened restaurant, Talisay The Garden Cafe, Chef Tatung Sarthou’s menu is a storybook of home-cooked flavors that he interprets on his own terms. “I like my dishes to be fairly straightforward,” he says. Kaldereta has to taste like kaldereta, and lengua like lengua — not like something else. His Adobong Bisaya remains true to its simple roots, seasoned only with salt and vinegar and cooked till dry. His creativity comes into play in the way the adobo skin is cooked to a crisp, and he serves it with sauce in a separate dish, with a light spread of liver pate and pickled eggplant on the plate. 

Crispy Pork Belly Adobo | Paulo Valenzuela

Chef Tatung cooks from a well of childhood memories. He grew up in Talisay, a small city in Cebu, at a time when the community was wholly centered on cooking as sustenance and as a means of building relationships with family and neighbors. His spent hours with his mother and grandmother learning how to cook the dishes that he loved to eat. “That’s how I came to appreciate food and its many flavors,” he says.

In Talisay, his restaurant, Tatung recreates his favorite Balbacua, a rich Cebuano stew made delightfully thick by the melting collagen from ox skin, trotters and tendons. One steaming spoonful is enough to instantly transport you to a time when families patiently slow-cooked their meals to produce dishes that are unequaled in taste. The Molo soup is another recipient of Tatung’s simple and straightforward hand. Its clear broth echoes the richness of slowly simmered stock with molo-wrapped meatballs dunked in at the last stage.

Balbacua | Paulo Valenzuela

Talisay is a family collaboration between Tatung, his mom Juliana, and his brother and sister-in-law, Jomi and Haricel. Jomi was only ten when their mom took him to Germany where he practically grew up. Jomi’s fondest memories of the Philippines was the food he had eaten as a child, and he wanted Talisay’s diners to have the same experience

“This is why we designed our menu for communal eating, [to honor] a time when people still took pride in the family meal. People come here in groups of five, eight, 20. It’s a family place,” says Tatung. It’s also a perfect place for a date, with its well-curated wine list and elegant starters, like the fresh oysters, homemade sourdough pan de sal and lumpia fresca, to name a few.

Homemade sourdough pan de sal with garlic butter | Paulo Valenzuela
Lumpia Fresca | Paulo Valenzuela

The desserts reveal Tatung’s hidden frustration as a baker, a passion he had not been able to integrate into his former business ventures. “Gusto ko talaga na may bakery, and now we’re really planning to expand it and make it something of its own.” His cakes showcase the creative whimsy with which he coaxes local ingredients into performing stellar roles. The Ube Cake, for example, is a towering ube sponge cake with cream cheese filling wrapped deliciously in thick ube haleya cream. The Cassava Cheesecake is an indulgent serving of baked cheesecake atop a layer of warm cassava cake on a polvoron crust.

Ube Cake, Cassava Cake and Apple Pie | Paulo Valenzuela

“I almost gave up on the idea of running a restaurant”, reveals Tatung, recalling the succession of establishments he has opened, before deciding that media was his new calling. “But I still have it in me pala,”          

Judging from the number of people coming to Talisay, Tatung is most definitely back and completely in his element. Talisay recalls his first restaurant, simply called Chef Tatung’s, a private dining space where he first showcased his genius in bringing out flavors that hit the spot so strongly that you never forget his dishes. Talisay has this same magic, but it’s different, too, and perhaps going through the fire of disappointments may have helped refine Tatung and bring  out the diamond in him. 

Chef Tatung Sarthou | Paulo Valenzuela
The first floor, Talisay The Garden Cafe | Paulo Valenzuela

In Talisay, Tatung shows that he has learned to edit his culinary self, paring down to essentials so as to let more flavors in without cluttering the dish. “As you grow, you learn what is not important. Just like in my life. Sometimes you don’t actually need more, you just need something better. In cooking, when you try to learn more about the dish, you can tell its story more eloquently.”

Long known as an advocate for sustainability even when it wasn’t yet in vogue, Tatung maintains this ethos in Talisay, though he prefers to not be heavy handed in his campaign. The Goat’s Cheese Salad, for example, is made with cheese sourced from an artisan cheesemaker in Antipolo. The Paella Mixta, a house special, achieves that perfect bite and texture from organic tinawon rice sourced from the uplands. 

Paella Mixta | Paulo Valenzuela
Goat's Cheese Salad | Paulo Valenzuela

It’s been quite a journey from the first restaurant in Matipid Street to the new Talisay in Maginhawa. Tatung has definitely come home, and not just in geographical terms. The learning process has been a hilly journey and in retrospect, Tatung muses, “At Matipid, hindi ko pa alam pinagagagawa ko sa buhay ko.” (At Matipid [Street], I didn’t know what I was doing with my life yet.) 

Still, people saw his talent even when he was a gemstone in the rough, and his efforts have since paid off. “It’s very overwhelming,” he says, of the people who used to go to Matipid and to his second eponymous restaurant in Taguig. “These are the same people who are coming back [to Talisay], and they have stories to tell.” They’re willing to drive long distances because they miss Tatung’s cooking. Someone told him they hosted a baptism party at the old Chef Tatung’s, and introduced the child to him. There was a long table of diners who reminisced about his restaurant in Taguig. “They have clear memories of certain dishes that they love. And they brought other people too.”

"Come in and eat," says Chef Tatung | Paulo Valenzuela

The stars seem to have aligned for Tatung, and make everything he’s worked so hard for slowly come to fruition in Talisay. As he said, “Everything falls into place.”

Talisay exists because Tatung didn’t give up on his dream, and we are all the richer for it.

44 Maginhawa street, UP-Village, Quezon City. Call 02) 82939077, email [email protected], or  click here.