Review: Maharlika

April 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

An email confirmation (and ensuing two-week wait) scored a reservation for two at the East Village’s newest Filipino pop-up restaurant, Maharlika.  However, a misplaced booking put my boyfriend and I at a small iron table outside, but no resentment here due to yesterday’s sunny, warm weather. We were the lucky ones. Straddled along the corner of 12th Street and 1st Ave, a gaggle of hopeful diners waited outside Resto Leon for a table at the popular brunch spot, where weekend mornings transform the French bistro into the latest pop-up darling, Maharlika.

“Can I just say ‘I told you so?’” a young Asian woman jokingly chided her boyfriend as the two waited outside. A phone call just four minutes earlier would have snagged them a coveted table, apparently. Smiling, she continued to remind him as he disappeared inside the restaurant.

Her resolve is justified. Since its opening in mid January, critics have been raving over Maharlika.

Nikki Goldstein from Serious Eats hailed the food as a conversation starter and showstopper, saying “the menu is filled with words likely unfamiliar to the average New Yorker, and the result is an exciting dining experience—not only for what many of us find a novelty, but for the quality of the cooking and the jovial atmosphere once you’re there. It’s hard to order without asking questions, and since the early crowd consists of both curious eaters and Filipinos looking for a taste of home, the latter become eager educators right along with the staff. The dynamic is genuinely convivial—proof that food really can bring people together.”

Just a few weeks ago, Time Out New York’s food critic Jay Cheshes called the new brunch spot an “earnest, endearing product [that] takes a stand for Filipino cooking in Manhattan.” He went on to affirm Maharlika’s continued good work in the New York food scene, saying of the team behind Maharlika, Nicole Ponseca, Enzo Lim and Miguel Trinidad, “they dream, in fact, of going full-time and permanent, if only they had the scratch and the venue, [but for now] Maharlika has performed well enough already to earn a stay of execution, prolonging its run at least through the summer.”

And, it’s Maharlika’s Filipino spin on the typical brunch dishes that has put it on the culinary map. The brunch menu switches out omelettes and French toast for pig ears and taro root leaves and, along with it, the restaurant supplies diners with information about noteworthy Filipino politicians Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda Marcos, best known as Marcos’ wife and footwear fanatic, as well a much-needed glossary of Filipino ingredients.

My boyfriend, adventurous when it comes to food, ordered the sizzling sisig with eggs, knowing full well what was in the dish.

Maharlika's Sizzling sisig with eggs

Grilled pig ear, snout and belly came crackling in a black, cast-iron pan topped with a raw egg. Mixed together with garlic, lemon and onions, the dish is eaten with a spoonful of garlic rice. The result is salty and textured – some bites are crunchy while others are soft, which make for a satisfying mouthful. The whereabouts of the pork weren’t so exotic; simply, the dish tasted as if it were made from the more typical parts of the pig. No stringy strands of pig ear in this dish. Calamansi sauce, which tastes like soy sauce with citrus, is optional to stir in, but adds more saltiness to the dish. Although, it ended up being a little too salty for my boyfriend’s taste.

Maharlika's eggs Imelda

I ordered the eggs Imelda, a Filipino version of Eggs Benedict. Two cloud-like poached eggs sat atop a dark green bed of laing, a traditional Filipino vegetable dish made of taro root leaves, coconut milk, shrimp paste and chilies. English muffins were replaced by pandesal, the bread of choice in the Philippines, and a calamansi-based hollandaise sauce drizzled from the whipped edges of the egg on top to the bottom of the pandesal. Flanking this Filipino-infused Eggs Benedict were a pair of grilled prawns, salad greens and crispy kamote fries, essentially home fries made from sweet potatoes and served with a red, jelly-like banana sauce. Altogether, the dish was delicious – savory and sweet in the right places.

The service was rushed to accommodate the constant flow of eager diners. At one point, Nicole Ponseca, Maharlika’s general manager, snuck outside to chat with another diner, perhaps a friend.

“It’s crazy today!” she exclaimed, “but, I’d rather run around like this than wonder where everyone is!”

With expectant diners ready to get their hands on traditional Filipino dishes and an expanded service (Maharlika serves prix-fixe dinners on Monday nights at Alias), it looks like Maharlika is here to stay.

★ ★

351 E. 12th St. (1st and 2nd Avenues), East Village;,

ATMOSPHERE Warm and friendly – no rush here.

SOUND LEVEL Outside is quiet and serene, inside is a bit more boisterous.

RECOMMENDED DISHES Eggs Imelda with mimosa.

ALCOHOL Bar serves typical brunch drinks, like bloody Marys and mimosa, but with a Filipino inflection.

PRICE RANGE Brunch dishes range from $11-$14, drinks hover around $5.

HOURS Saturday to Sunday, 11am to 3pm.


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