by Jennifer Fergesen l Positively Filipino
A mid-century placard outside an especially pretty, omelette-yellow row house announces it as a “HOTEL,” like the neon “EAT” and “SLEEP” billboards on old American highways. But inside there’s more than a place to sleep. Hotel am Brillantengrund has styled itself as a showcase for art and design, a meeting place for creators, and the outpost of a burgeoning lifestyle brand. It also happens to house one of the most noteworthy Filipino restaurants I’ve ever encountered.
A Platform For Passionate People
The project is the brainchild of Marvin Mangalino, who took over the hotel in 2010. An Austrian-born transmedia artist with family ties in Laguna and the Visayas, Marvin fits seamlessly into the design-focused seventh district.
During my multiday August visit, he always wore a white V-neck, impeccably fitted shorts and Common Project sneakers, like the summer uniform of a particularly hip private academy. He speaks English with a Germanic lilt that lends an extra cachet to words like “cool” and “art.”
“I’m the most European of my siblings,” he admitted.
Marvin has remade the hotel in his own image, shaping it around his love of art and fashion while paying homage to his Filipino roots. It has become “a platform for artists, cyclists, passionate people generally,” he said during a conversation in the hotel’s courtyard lush with potted palms and bougainvillea.
The hotel restaurant, set in and around the verdant courtyard, hasn’t always served Filipino food. In its first years under the current ownership, the kitchen turned out Austrian staples like schnitzel and spätzle, which filled stomachs but “had no identity,” said Mangalino.
“So I said, why not just sell what I really like, which is Mama’s food?” He called in his mother Frezida, who grew up cooking in her father’s Laguna carinderia, to helm the kitchen. At 71, she still rules over the restaurant.
‘What Really Is Filipino Cuisine?’
The menu that Frezida and Marvin designed together is structured like a textbook for Filipino Food 101. There’s even an introduction on the first page titled “Was ist eigentlich Philippinische küche?” (“What really is Filipino cuisine?”) that explains its Spanish, Mexican, Chinese and American influences and assures diners that it’s rarely spicy.
That’s not to say that anything kowtows to Western tastes. The adobo and bistek, made with locally sourced meat, strike the syzygy between savory, sweet and sour that defines so much of Filipino cooking. Despite the menu disclaimer, the sisig bangus and Bicol Express prickle with more spice (from both birds-eye chilies and red peppercorns) than you’ll usually find even in the Philippines.
The restaurant makes one allowance for the tastes of the seventh district: much of the menu can be made meatless. The vegan siopao, branded with a green “V” as the red dots that separate steam table bolo-bolo from asado, comes stuffed with a stew of eggplant and tomato that tastes of long-simmered late summer. The monggo guisado, smooth and rich as risotto, makes you wonder why monggo isn’t vegan by default.
If there’s a vegan jewel in Brillantengrund’s crown, it’s the seitan bistek. Frezida and her staff make the seitan in-house, an intensive process that takes more than a day. To infuse the blank canvas of wheat gluten with flavor, the kitchen collects all their vegetable trimmings — carrot peels, celery leaves, the root ends of onions — and simmers the seitan in the brew for a full 24 hours. The result is a supple, savory product that holds its own against anything animal.
A Matriarch In The Kitchen
“I did not copy this from any book,” said Frezida of the seitan bistek, when I managed to lure her away from the kitchen long enough to tell me her story. “This is my own invention.” She guards her inventions like family secrets. When I asked if she could share one with me, she instead offered a cautionary tale.
Two years ago, she hired a line cook who angled to become her successor. “One time, he told me, ‘Mother, give me all your recipes, and you can take a rest,'” said Frezida, “and I laughed at him.” Three months later, he left the restaurant. “If I had given them, goodbye!” she said, with a toss of her hand. “We wouldn’t have any identity.”
Frezida has worked to preserve that identity through decades of turbulence. In 1978, after a devastating fire destroyed her family’s compound in the Philippines, she and her two eldest children followed her husband to Vienna. (Marvin was born the following year.) While raising her three children, she found odd jobs around the city — pressing medals in a factory, supervising an apartment building, managing an alterations shop, then pulling long shifts as a hospital nursing aide. One day into her official retirement from the hospital, she found a cleaning job in a hotel. “I’m not the type of woman to stay at home,” she said.
She expects the same tireless work ethic from her employees. I watched her scold a server for looking at her phone, severe as any Lola at a dinner table. Still, the staff speaks in awe of her driving passion — something she has in common with her son.
A Family Atmosphere
Don’t let the craft cocktails, Eames chairs, and fiddle leaf fig trees fool you; Marvin doesn’t want his hotel to be the hippest address on the block. “At most of these trendy and fancy places, it’s almost like a battle,” he said, evoking the silent contest that passes among the Beautiful People in some of the seventh district’s favorite hangouts.
“Here, you have the young hipster generation, but you also have normal old people, and over there a grandma sitting with her grandchild who’s studying in Vienna,” he said, gesturing to each of the umbrella-shaded tables around us. “The atmosphere, it’s like you’re visiting your family.”
It’s true — I felt right at home.
For Chef Frezida Mangalino’s seitan bistek, visit http://www.positivelyfilipino.com/magazine/the-happy-home-cook-seitan-bistek-from-hotel-am-brillantengrund.
Jennifer Fergesen is a Filipino-American writer with a focus on food and the stories behind it. Learn more about her project to explore the Filipino diaspora through its restaurants at globalcarinderia.com.