Manilla Social Club

2 Hope Street
Brooklyn, New York 11211
b/t Roebling St & Havemeyer St
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(718) 384-4396

Cuisine: Filipino, French
Our Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ Great
Cards: All Major
Price: $11-30
Hours: Mon 9am-1pm; Tue-Fri 9am-1pm & 6pm – 10pm; Sat-Sun: 11am- 10pm
Brunch: Saturdays and Sundays 11am to 4pm
Booze: Full Bar
Subway: L to Bedford or Lorimer, G to Metropolitan
Delivery: None
NY Times says:

Björn DelaCruz never learned the name of the dish he ate at a roadside shack under a narra tree, not far from his grandmother’s orchid farm in Davao Oriental, the Philippines. It was simple, made with carabao (water buffalo) milk, chayote and fish likely caught in the river running alongside.

At Manila Social Club in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he offers an approximation of that memory: black sea bass, its skin a dark lattice, becalmed over hunks of chayote stewed in shallots, garlic, fish stock and heavy cream. (“I can’t get carabao milk,” he said, ruefully.)

This is beautiful to eat, rustic and sumptuous at once. The unexpected touch is absinthe, whose licorice edge scythes through the richness of the cream.

Elsewhere, a clef of foie gras, gone liquid inside, rests over noodles tangled with nubs of duck leg confit. Mr. DelaCruz calls this pancit pranses (“French noodles” in Tagalog), declaring his split allegiances. But this time the ingredients resist each other, the noodles a diffident backdrop despite their gloss of foie gras oil.

Nostalgia likewise suffuses Mr. DelaCruz’s finest dishes, like liempo (pork belly) braised in coconut milk, so lush it made me close my eyes, to have a moment alone with it. Sirloin steak is slow-cooked, then seared with soy and calamansi juice — added at the last minute so its sting is barely blunted — and dredged in an ash of leeks and onions that have been dehydrated, nearly burned and pulverized.

Best of all is torta talong, a humble eggplant omelet here spiked with eggplant ash, like a distillate of smoke. It’s half-cooked on the stove and finished in the oven so it comes close to a frittata. More eggplant, thick-cut and deep-fried, is heaped on top; garlic fried rice makes a bed below, with crispy shallots nestled between and a streak of banana ketchup, not house-made but from a bottle of Jufran, a staple of the Filipino larder.

Does it matter how far a dish travels from its origins? Mr. DelaCruz cooks duck breast and duck leg separately, then bathes them in a brothy sauce that could be a genteel French cousin of Filipino adobo. No definitive adobo recipe exists — some versions favor soy, others vinegar — but Mr. DelaCruz’s, however lovely, still puzzles, tasting not enough of either.

In kare-kare, short rib is softened with coconut milk and espresso until it becomes trembly and vulnerable. But in lieu of the traditional peanut sauce comes a velouté based on a roux of coconut oil and rice flour, given a whiff of turfiness by hazelnuts, almonds, cashews and sesame oil. It is delicious, if not quite recognizable as kare-kare.

A few bar snacks — sliders of house-made longanisa sausage, minus the fire you find at Filipino restaurants in Woodside, Queens; Spam sliced and crisped like fries, although sadly not crisped enough — lack the thoughtfulness of the more ambitious entrees. (Mr. DelaCruz may be partly distracted by conjuring up special-order items like a $100 doughnut with ube mousse filling and Cristal icing, leafed in 24-karat gold.)

But all ends well. Some nights there is only one dessert, bread pudding mottled with layers of ube halaya (purple yam and coconut milk turned into jam). Ube crème anglaise is poured tableside, so much that it swamps the plate, an improbable royal purple sea. You would want no other.