Monday, December 2, 2013

Hello, Palawan! (Day 1, Part 3) - Dining Out in Puerto Princesa City

DAY 1 - Dining out

Our original plan was to have lunch at La Terrasse and dinner at KaLui’s. But because we arrived in Puerto Princesa near lunchtime of Saturday, the guided city tour was scheduled at 2 pm, and KaLui’s is closed on Sundays, we opted to move La Terrasse for lunch the following day and have our first Palawan dinner out at KaLui’s instead.

We planned to later unwind and meet May’s high school friend Magda and her husband Bruce at Casa Nieves on Libis Street (across the Shell corner gas station) so I, in turn, could have my reunion with good friend Dante who owns and operates this new haunt.

KaLui’s is an experience in itself. It serves some of the tastiest dishes I’ve ever had but that’s getting ahead of myself. KaLui’s is a highly recommended restaurant and strictly requires reservation. Dinner time accommodates 3 sets of diners from 6:30-10:30 pm.

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KaLui is so popular, everyone and our "taxicle" driver knew about it.
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Prior reservation is strictly observed.

A funny thing happened on the way to KaLui’s when I asked Chingbee, who had dined there last year with Carla, whether dressing more comfortably and shod in slippers was okay since we all basically had limited footwear in tow in anticipation of the outdoor activities in our to-do list.

When we got to KaLui’s however, we were ushered in only upon taking off our footwear—to my surprise, everyone and the waiters were barefoot!

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Didn't catch this until we were asked to wait for our turn.
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This area is magical.
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Never appreciated paper lanterns this much.

KaLui's interior is all wood and bamboo and the floors waxed and slippery, so be careful. We were given the table towards the rear which is closer to a small open area that is both the a performance space and designated smoking zone. That Saturday evening was a full house, mostly of tourists who we bumped into at some point during the city tour earlier.

Food is great and, as we were to discover in the next 2 days, bowlful! In Palawan, when restaurant servers say a dish is most likely “good for 2,” they really mean 3 people.

Another good point about KaLui’s is how fast they serve the orders. The servers are efficient and know their menu very well, too. Our salads were firm and crunchy, fried dishes were hot and crispy and rice comes in generous servings. We were told that fruits are expensive in Palawan and popular varieties come from other islands yet KaLui’s did not skimp on fruits and fruit juices. Sea foods were succulent and fresh as expected. KaLui’s is a vegetarian and vegan-friendly place, too, which makes full-vegan Chingbee a happy and satisfied diner.

In all, we had tuna (cooked and raw), shrimps, vegetables, salads, meat, the local fare Tamilok (fried), juices, and dessert (plus a buko salad on the house). It was a treat to know that all this combined and unique experience was surprisingly affordable at less than P350 per head.

I have reserved a longer post on Casa Nieves because the place and its owner are stories in themselves but here’s an overview.

Casa Nieves: lively and invigorating. The jutting bamboo rafters on the left make up the
suspended 3-tiered outdoor bleachers. [Courtesy of Casa Nieves]

The anticipated reunion of friends, May’s and mine, happened there over beer and good cheers.

We were picked up at KaLui right after dinner by Magda and Bruce who both hadn’t heard of Casa Nieves which, really, wasn’t anymore that surprising given the reaction I got from Puerto Pension’s front desk staff earlier that day when I inquired about it, and from our tour guide; and also because the place is so new it hadn’t yet been formally launched.

Anyhow, we navigated our way through the city towards Libis street in search of the place (Casa Nieves is halfway between the Palawan Coliseum and  Robinson’s Mall). We made it there in about 7-8 minutes tops from a brief stop at a local store for bottled water to bring back to the hotel.

Until about two years ago. Casa Nieves was a nondescript commercial building that housed an insurance office, a pest control outlet and some traditional enterprises typical of a thriving provincial city when Dante, the proprietor, and his brothers finally decided to make it into something more to their vision.

Dante and his brothers took management over from their mother, Nieves (after whom the place is named) and, retaining its basic structure and unit divisions, slowly turned it into a cluster of rooms and units each providing rather interesting and unique services and goods not commonly found in Puerto Princesa. The hidden gems within the building Dante and his crew are currently working on are what makes Casa Nieves special.

Hidden gems

When we got there, Casa Nieves still was a work in progress and is scheduled to be fully open by April 2014. At the ground floor is the psychedelic Salapo Bar where May and her friends hung out while Dante gave me, along with Chingbee and Mike, the grand building tour.

Next to the bar is Kape Borit, a food stall designed like a 70s downtown-Manila carinderia (eatery). The middle unit is LemonGrass Flower, a rose-colored shop of artisan crafts that serves as an extension of IsDa Gallery adjacent to it.

IsDa Gallery, meanwhile, is poised to exhibit progressive, forward-thinking art and pieces by Palawan’s local artists and select collaborative work.

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Salapo Bar on the G/F of Casa Nives.
"Salapo" is Cuyonon word that could mean euphoria or, according to Dante, "to experience something stronger than the usual.".

On the second floor, one is greeted by Ciweeti, an all-black multi-purpose open space designed for intimate seminars or talks. This room exudes very strong Magritte vibes largely as a result of the upended chairs-and-table-set installed on the ceiling reflected by mirror tops on the work tables which create a multi-dimensional space that challenges one's perception. (Pretty much of Palawan is mind-altering I must say.)

Next-door is a multimedia rendering room that will soon open to creators with such project requirements. They will be given the option to keep their digital files or personal hard drives stored within the facility for on-going work.

The third unit is a room groups of friends can bunk in called Rural Bunks. It is an engrossing light-and-bamboo installation by Palawan-based carver, jewelry designer and wood artist Nuno Finez set inside a minimalist anteroom with two triple-deck beds.

From the 2nd-floor balcony, Dante created a passageway that leads to an open 3-tiered bamboo bleachers. Suspended more than 15 feet from the ground, the bleachers overlook the building facade and driveway where outdoor concerts and performances can be viewed. The bleachers also serve as screen support for its outdoor film viewings.

The end unit on the 2nd floor is Tabo Room, an earthy and unpretentious space I would describe as neo-rural designed by Dante in collaboration with installation artist Alvin Bayking.

Up on the roof deck surrounded by mid-high walls that serve as canvas by some of Puerto Princesa’s young artists is Casa Nieves’ largest enclosed space that can host any activity. From here, the night sky of Palawan is clearly visible despite the city lights and evening bustle below.

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LemonGrass Flower, an artisan shop named after a rare, if not mythical, flower.

Brief but meaningful

Dante is a very dear friend since university days. More popularly known in the show business industry by his full name Dante Nico Garcia (you may have heard about him from his critically acclaimed 2008 film opus “Ploning”) but who I call by the endearing nick Ga, is a Puerto Princesa City-based Cuyonon who found his life's mission away from the limelight and back in Palawan. Dante envisions the entire 3-storey building as an artists’ haven.

Backed by a foundation he put up with friends, Dante, who started as a production designer for films and remains active in the movie industry, is driven passionately by an advocacy and not by gimmick or a desire to simply be different from the rest. As such, and with this campaign in mind, Casa Nieves has been attracting and supporting a growing pool of Palawan's most prolific artists and skilled artisans.

The Saturday evening rains cancelled an earlier outdoor screening of “Busong,” a film by Aureaus Solito, Dante's fellow Palaweño and still another dear friend whose mother is from Southern Palawan.

Arriving almost 10pm at Casa Nieves, too late as it was for the screening had it proceeded as scheduled, what we caught was the last few hours of the open mic segment anyone so inclined could join.

An open-air open mic treat in front of Casa Nieves' LemonGrass Flower, a bold, rose-tinted artisan shop flanked by IsDa Gallery to the left and Kape Borit to the right.

By 12 midnight, loud music had to be lowered in accordance with city regulations. Nevertheless, Casa Nieves can stay open for an extended period for as long as patrons are around.

As for ourselves, we wrapped up the Day 1 past 1:30 a.m. also to give way to our friends (and transport hosts) who needed to be home for their family. Acknowledging how short 2 hours was to cover more than a decade’s worth of catching up and life stories, Dante and I agreed to meet again during our stay in Palawan.

Gracious Cuyonon host, beloved friend and fellow advocate Dante Nico Garcia spread love, love, love and cheers with writer  Chingbee (L), CDO-Palawan food entreps Bruce and Magda and social dev proponent May (R).

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