CAVITE, Philippines -- For six years, Caviteños have kept a secret that they will probably disown me for revealing: CARL CED'Z GRILL AND RESTAURANT, the best lunch place within 30 minutes of Roxas Boulevard.
Cozy, unpretentious - The fully air-conditioned cozy eatery looks and feels like someone's living room re-arranged for a party. A small bar greets patrons at the entrance, lit by thousands of small lights flickering at noon like lost fireflies. One whole wall is lined with serving plates and covered food warmers, at the end of which are the pots of soup and stacks of shellfish.
The buffet of a dozen dishes look and taste like they were prepared by somebody's grandmother. There's nothing fancy or pretentious; fusion is an alien word that would not come to mind. The dessert table has 10, sometimes more, homemade Filipino sweets we all remember from our childhood. There are baskets and baskets of fresh oysters and mussels and pitchers of iced tea. All one can eat and drink, for only P175/person!
Oyster heaven -- I am a sucker for fresh oysters, and would travel to restaurants and public markets to chase these saltwater favorites. A few hotels and restaurants offer oysters by the dozen, or as part of a very expensive lunch/dinner buffet. Never, in my many, many years of eating out, have I encountered an eat-all-you-can oyster bar for P175, inclusive of lunch and iced tea.
Real food, real people -- Here is a run-through of a typical weekday buffet menu. Two kinds of fried rice, one topped with flaked roast chicken and the other studded with colorful diced vegetables, eggs, sausage and seafood. A Seafood Medley of fresh prawns, crabs, fish filet and squid rings in creamy sauce with peas and carrots. Chicken Kare-Kare, sometimes alternating with Chicken Curry. Breaded Fish Fillet with Tartar Sauce on the side. A simple spaghetti with olive oil and garlic. Pork Adobo, Cavite style with very little soy sauce.
The long table of "kakanin" is a balikbayan's dream: Maha Blankang Puti, using white native corn; Buko Fruit Cocktail Salad with cream; Leche Flan with hints of grated dayap skin; Haleyang Ube; bowl-molded Kutsinta using home-made lihiya; Kalabasa Pudding soft as custard; Minatamis na Saging na Saba at Sago; Fruit Salad in Gelatin with Cream; ripe mango, papaya, bananas.
Sailing Iron Chef -- During a high school reunion there last week, the last dish I tasted was very revealing of the owner-chef: Boneless Tilapia Pinangat sa Manibalang na Pinya. These were very delicate fillets of Tilapia poached lightly with cubes of semi-ripe fresh pineapple. I was shocked. It was like discovering a country cook worthy of competing with TV's Iron Chef!
It turns out the owner/chef is the very humble-looking guy manning the bar, looking for all the world like a low-ranking employee instead of a man who has traveled aboard luxury ships all over the world, serving dignitaries and celebrities for more than a decade.
Wine only please -- Ferdie Estoy returned to solid ground in 1998 to his Cavite-born wife and son, and opened the restaurant in 2005 after much research and preparation. Culling all the experience from 5-star luxury liner kitchens, Ferdie decided to offer an affordable buffet for families and company employees instead of the more lucrative beer-and-pulutan eateries that dot the highways.
"We do not even serve beer, although we sell inexpensive California wine (P470 per bottle) because we discourage groups that hang around until the wee hours. The restaurant opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 8 p.m. weekdays. This enables me to spend time with my wife and kid. We are closed Sundays, for the same reason," says Ferdie, a true family man who follows in the great sailing tradition of his province mates.
Caviteños and the sea -- Caviteños have traditionally been sailors, boarding vessels of all nations at what we now call Sangley Point, long before the Spaniards turned Cavite into a ship-building center. When the Americans took over as new colonizers, the lure of the sea (and of the almighty dollar) enticed thousands of young Caviteños to sign up with the US Navy, a proud tradition that went on until the US closed the Sangley Point US Naval Base in 1991.
Without the US Navy to enlist with, young men have since then turned to serving aboard commercial vessels; the most coveted placement is with luxury liners, whose facilities sometimes go far beyond the luxury of land-based hotels. These luxury vessels provided Ferdie Estoy with experience and education on food preparation; exposure to the cultures of several continents and close encounters with people of all races honed his communications skills. He was well armed to own a restaurant.
A feel good place -- There is a certain feeling one gets at Carl Ced'z, a nice comfortable assurance that all will be alright: the bathrooms are clean and with rolls of tissue, the music is pleasant and not offensively loud or too modern; the plates are ceramic and not melamine; there are knives with the fork and spoon; the salt shakers work; wine is served in real wine glasses; the parking lot is shaded by tall trees; real plants hang from the roof.
Yup, whoever owns this place has been around some.
Getting there: Take an aircon public bus bound for Naic, Cavite, Noveleta and ask the conductor if the bus will use the Centennial Highway. Get off at the Kartini Hotel in Gahak, Kawit. Carl Ced'z is across the street.
By private car: Go south via the Coastal Road, follow the directions to Island Cove, and drive past it to the Zeus gas station, where the road forks. Drive straight to Kartini Hotel and park across the street. For reservations, call (046) 4845668.