Food is art, and 2023 painted the town red with all the devastatingly delicious bites it had to offer. This was the year that the restaurant industry is finally getting back into the swing of things since the pandemic.
I’ve had the immense pleasure of seeing restaurants come back to life and newer, online ventures blossom into brick and mortar establishments. It has also been the year of revisiting old favorites and discovering new ones.
The following dishes accomplish two things: they taste insane (only in the best way, of course) and they also evoked an emotional reaction from me that made me ask for seconds (and in some cases, thirds as well as a doggy bag).
Food is supposed to nourish—and in the best cases—please, but these dishes just seemed to surprise, delight, shock, and instill a sense of awe.
Without further ado, here are the most brilliant bites I’ve had in 2023—all in alphabetical order, of course.
12/10’s beetroot “sushi” frozen yogurt
A collective sigh of relief was breathed after 12/10’s post-pandemic comeback. The modern Japanese omakase had held a special place in the hearts of many diners, and many of us weren’t willing to let go just yet.
Something new they developed in the Rockwell space was their daytime dessert omakase—five courses of sweet bites that can easily be paired with their signature coffee blend. Among the five desserts served that afternoon, the beetroot “sushi” stood out.
The dessert was made with a pistachio biscuit, lime yogurt, and a coating of vibrantly red beetroot on top to simulate the look of a serving of maguro sushi. What really made the dish was the small dab of wasabi on top.
It was easily one of the most insane bites I’ve had the pleasure of having this year.
Bolero’s pork chop and cheesecake
Bolero’s menu managed to surprise me twice in one sitting. First with their mind-blowing pork chop, and again with their cheesecake. The modern European restaurant opened in the latter part of the year to (very deserved) rave reviews.
The pork chop managed to bring out a slightly extreme reaction from me. Instead of delight, it was anger. I was so angry that something could taste this good. And it showed because my expression momentarily stopped lunch so I could explain.
The dish had layers to it, starting off with a sweet bacon flavor that morphed into a more smoky barbecued pork taste. Instead of the fall off the bone type of texture that most of us expect from well-executed pork dishes, it retained a tenderness—but still with a nice bite to it—much like a very well-cooked steak.
And then came Bolero’s cheesecake. Bolero’s decadent dessert should be its claim to fame. It won the national award for best cheesecake in Spain in 2019, which is saying something because Spain as a country takes its cheesecake seriously.
While it’s of the baked variety, it’s very different from the thick and heavy New York style and light and fluffy Japan variety. The restaurant’s cheesecake is closest to a burnt Basque-style cheesecake—with a few major differences.
The cheesecake itself is thin with a beautifully blistered top. It acts more like a lava cake than a regular cake because the minute you cut into it, a steady stream of devastatingly cheesy goodness flows out and pools around its base. And with how good that cheesy stream is, surely nothing will go to waste.
Flavorwise, this cheesecake is also unlike any other. At first bite, you can really tell that cheese is the main ingredient. It’s a little savory in that sense, but the strong cheese flavor is accompanied by some sweetness from the cake itself and the supporting crust.
What really pushes this cheesecake into outer space is the caramelization of the dessert’s outer crust. It gives the cake a warm, caramel-like flavor that adds just an insane toasty bite.
This cheesecake currently ranks as my number one favorite (which dethroned Duck and Buvette’s earl gray cheesecake), which is no easy feat since I try to order cheesecake as often as I can. I was so deeply impressed that I made sure to order another slice to go so I can share it with my family.
And I’d do it again.
Chef Lica Ibarra’s queso de bola souffle
Trying chef Lica Ibarra’s queso de bola soufflé was a surprise—quite literally. Ibarra’s soufflé was a part of the Simple Things coffee and kakanin tasting event at Annex House.
Thanks to my wonderful friends at Annex House, they invited me to try the food (since I no longer drink coffee) during one of the seatings, and I was stunned to silence the moment I tried Ibarra’s dessert.
It was rich, creamy, light, and a little savory from the thanks to the main ingredient she used. I felt myself ascend closer and closer to heaven with every bite. And I also shamelessly asked for seconds. It was just that delicious.
And as a testament to Ibarra’s cooking prowess, some of the soufflés stayed sky-high even after they were exposed to cold air from the air conditioner for no less than five minutes.
Helm’s egg dish
Prior to my experience at the Helm x Seroja Serve it, Singapore! dinner, I will admit that I was a bit of a degustation skeptic. While I’ve had mind-blowing experiences with other degustation-style restaurants, it’s not something that I generally look for.
@nolisoli.ph Two chefs, 10 courses, one once in a lifetime dinner at the new Helm in Makati👏🏼 #TikTokFoodie #nolisoliph #foodtiktok #foodietok #nolisolieats #finedinning #finediningph #serveitsingapore ♬ Trio jazz for cafes and night background music(895099) – Ray Kamio
That was until chef Josh Boutwood’s egg dish at Helm completely changed my mind. This dinner happened in the earlier part of the year, but it’s still a dish I think about on a regular basis. While the dishes’ main component is egg, it tasted a lot like the more sophisticated older sibling of a mac ‘n’ cheese.
Shock was what I felt at first bite. It was an ingenious surprise in edible form that still continues to delight me to this day. My only regret is that I didn’t ask if they still had more in the back.
Los Taco’s tuna ceviche tostada
I’ve had a long-standing love affair with the now brick-and-mortar restaurant Los Tacos. Los Tacos started off as chef Keith Curitana’s pandemic baby, hawking authentic birria tacos online. It was one of my pandemic saviors and a huge part of what kept me happy during lockdown.
They’ve since opened up a physical space in Magallanes with an expanded menu that I can’t wait to come back to. One of my new favorites from their menu is the tuna ceviche tostada. It’s everything you want a tuna tostada to be—the fish is fresh and tangy, dressed in a rich chili sauce on top of a deviously crispy round of tostada.
It’s by far my favorite taco place in Metro Manila. And make sure to order their guacamole when you’re there. It’s a seasonal offering, but if you can get it, you’ll be treated to the best guac on this side of the world. You can quote me on that.
La Spezia’s scallop pasta
If there’s one dish I can eat every day and I’d never get sick of it, it would likely be La Spezia’s scallop pasta. The Quezon City Italian restaurant has a penchant for using only the finest ingredients, and the scallop pasta is one of the prime examples.
The dish uses the smaller, yet sweeter, Hokkaido scallop that pairs well with the citrussy sauce. The restaurant also adds dried scallop to give the dish more body and an even richer, more intense scallop flavor.
My only qualm with the restaurant is that it’s located in Quezon City. If I could, I’d go back every chance I get. But sadly, QC is a little too far from where I usually exist. As they say, distance makes the heart grow fonder, so I’m looking forward to reuniting with one of my true food loves in the coming year.
Labyrinth Singapore’s kaya toast
I have said this many times before, and I will say it again: “Before I am a person, I am a kaya toast enjoyer.” Kaya toast is—bar none—one of my favorite snacks to ever exist. And lucky for me, it was the dessert at another Serve it, Singapore! event I was invited to this year.
The special, sustainability-focused, eight-hands dinner featured chefs from Toyo (where the dinner was hosted), Metiz, with guests from Singapore’s Native Bar and chef LG Han from Labyrinth.
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As most of these fabulous dinners go, it was a long one lasting almost four sumptuous hours. The final course was prepared by Han and was a plate of assorted Singaporean treats—one of them being Kaya toast.
Han’s version was as perfect as kaya toast gets. The kaya itself was rich, coconutty, and sweet without being overwhelming, served with butter, then sandwiched in between toasted, crisp layers of thinly sliced bread.
It was one of those truly special moments that made me grateful for my job. But I was even more grateful to chef Han who handed me a jar of Labyrinth’s homemade kaya spread to take home. Goes without saying, though, that his version beats the one I made at home every single time.
Samira’s secreto iberico and steak
Another restaurant that served me a one-two punch was chef Chele Gonzalez’s Samira. The Tagaytay restaurant launched a new degustation menu that left my boss and Nolisoli’s managing editor Pauline Miranda and I in a two-day long conversation about which dish we liked better.
The top two contenders were their secreto iberico and the steak. The secreto iberico is a dish of perfectly cooked pork served with asparagus spears on a bed of rich and creamy risotto. When I first tried it, I wrote that it was “an edible version of comfort and richness that I’d want even my worst enemy (I don’t have one, for the record) to experience.”
The statement still holds true to this day.
And then, we had the steak. If I close my eyes, I can still imagine the taste of the grilled bolzico beef tenderloin and the creamy eggplant purée it was served with. It was a proper medium rare (the only way to have a steak) and my favorite steak of the year. My mouth is literally watering again as I write this.
Thanks to Pauline’s bird-like appetite, I ended up having the steak one and a half times because she was stuffed from the previous courses. The both of us never reached a decision on which one we liked better, but looking back now, both have won a permanent place in my heart.
I just wish Samira was a little bit closer so I can have it again (and again and again).
Yabu’s tornado omelet curry
I don’t care what anyone has to say, Yabu serves some of the best katsu in the Philippines in my opinion. It’s been a go-to restaurant for me since I moved to Manila. Their katsu has been a constant companion during times of both celebration and (most often during my college days) consolation.
Their latest offering is a take on the viral tornado omelet we’ve been seeing on social media since earlier this year. It’s served as a rice topping for their omelet curry, which is also one of my longtime favorites from the restaurant.
The curry comes in three levels: mild, medium, and spicy. The best part about dining at Yabu (as everyone knows), is the unlimited sides. Tastewise, it’s a consistently great experience and it’s impressive to see that they can make such an intricate dish on a mass scale.
It’s a comfort meal if there ever was one. It looks just like the viral versions we see on TikTok, and it tastes like a warm hug from a person you love. The egg is custardy and soft, which helps temper the flavor of the curry. Add in the katsu and it’s one of the best meals I’ve had this year.