Last night, I had the grand honor of being invited to a very special – and privileged – place here in Manila; the Maria Luisa Garden Room.
In fact, most people here in Manila have never heard of it, but that’s by design, as it’s one of the oldest members-only private restaurants or clubs in Manila, and therefore in the Philippines.
It’s now a little less exclusive, but the quality is even better, as it was take over a year or two ago by new management, including executive chef Robert from Sweden and a restaurant group that has signature projects on the island of Boracay and elsewhere in Manila.
The Maria Luisa Garden Room is also housed in a notable place: the Makati Garden Club, which has been a naturalist’s haven in the middle of crowded, hot, and polluted Manila for almost 50 years. It’s one of the last private open spaces in the city where people can go to be one with nature, walking around the forest and gardened grounds, breathing the fresh air, and getting their hands dirty in the soil.
The Garden Club features a florist shop, a plant nursery, the aforementioned Maria Luisa Café, and they even have classes in cooking, art, flower arrangement, gardening, and more.
Named after the founder, Ma’am Maria Luisa Perez-Rubio (along with Belen King), the on-site eatery is known as one of Manila finest “secret restaurants” – and for good reason. The menu reads something like you’d see on a European private yacht or Michelin-starred restaurant in France or Italy, an epicurean’s dream in the food-challenged Philippines (in my humble and accurate opinion).
So, how did I, a camo shorts and flip-flop wearing beach bum without the beach pen for hire get an invite to this old money social club, where Manila’s movers and shakers dine and take refuge from the city’s ills?
It’s good to know people, and I happened to befriend one of the main people behind the restaurant’s rebirth, who was kind enough to extend an invite.
But it wasn’t that simple, because it was even hard for me to get to since it’s tucked away on the diminutive Recoletas Street near the corner of Ayala Street, which is one way.
Coming into the grounds of the Makati Garden Club at night, I was also a little turned around, and strolling in the dark trying not to veer off the path or fall into their water gardens as I looked for my friend.
Thankfully, the staff corralled me back to the small but quaintly-decorated restaurant, which was pleasantly intimate and filled with the lively conversation of plenty of European expats and businessmen and their wives, as well as locals and regulars.
I was greeted by warm hugs, a cold Pilsen beer, and food fresh from the kitchen: their Charcuterie Platter with thinly sliced Jamon, salami, a pate de Campagne that was nothing short of incredible, soft goat cheese, capers, pickles, olives and more, all to go with a homemade sesame bread.
From there, we went on to sample the Mediterranean Seafood Salad, with fresh mussels in a wine sauce, and then, a mixed salad with warm roasted chicken.
Finally, after hours of drinks and conversations, inside the restaurant and outside under the stars, we wrapped it up with a house-made chocolate ice cream made with cocoa beans from Davao in the Philippines.
In all, it was a rare and storied meal for someone like me who lives (and eats) on a budget, and I appreciated the opportunity to experience the Garden Club, some of the best food I’ve ever tasted, and, the best part, make new friends.
Now, let’s hope and pray I get invited back!