Last Saturday, 17 November 2012, I facilitated a tour around San Miguel de Manila district. The said district used to be the country’s “millionaires’ row” where stately mansions used to stand next to each other, housing the country’s alta de sociedad. Before there was Ermita, San Júan, New Manila and La Vista, there was San Miguel.
Perhaps it can be credited that the influx of the buenas familias began when the Spanish Governor General finally moved into Malacañan after the earthquake of 1863. Malacañan was formerly a summer rest house constructed for Don Luís Rocha, a member of the aristocratic Rocha family. In the following decades, the area soon became a haven for the rich and famous.
During the tour, which was primarily for members of the Heritage Conservation Society’s Youth Arm, I was able to point out that unlike in other areas of Manila, which were unfortunately burned and destroyed during the “Liberation” of Manila, San Miguel was luckily spared from the terrible massacre of February 1945. Several old mansions still stand in the area although some have already been bought and turned into mere warehouses. Likewise, several beautiful properties purchased by the government, namely the Teus, Goldenberg and Laperal mansions are restricted areas. Visitors are not allowed to even take photos!
Luckily, two homes in the area, which are both associated to the Legarda-Roces families, have been adaptively reused and can be visited by visitors. These two are, namely, Casa Roces and La Cocina de Tita Moning. Both serve Fil-Hispanic dishes that remind us of our abuelitas, tias and mamás’ slow-cooked meals. Although critics aren’t so giddy about the food in Casa Roces (Cravings Group manages it), reviews have been consistently encouraging for the latter.
Casa Roces was the former home, according to Benito Legarda, a historian and former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, of Filomena “Menang” Roces de Legarda and her daughter, Teresa. For a couple of years after the death of Teresa, the house was closed. Fortunately, action was taken (presumably by the family) to open the house and renovate it.
Today, Casa Roces is a charming and eclectic example of adaptive reuse and also modern-meets-vintage. The entire house is practically open for dining and service is almost impeccable. The upper floors have function rooms that sport different aesthetics and are named after famous Roces publications. It is also a gallery and exhibit. The house too is made more interesting by several art pieces scattered throughout the property. Upon entering, the door immediately evokes the emotions!
Nearby along San Rafael street is another property turned into a restaurant: La Cocina de Tita Moning. Managed by chef Suzette Legarda Montinola, La Cocina de Tita Moning was the home of Dr. Alejandro Roces Legarda and his wife Doña Ramona Hernández or affectionately known as Tita Moning. The well-traveled couple’s home became a venue for numerous extravagant parties during Manila’s halcyon days and also a place where Tita Moning’s fine taste, hospitality and personal care are enshrined, cherished and relived.
The house is now a fine-dining experience venue. They refuse to be labeled merely as a “restaurant”.
Indeed, it is a one-of-a-kind establishment in Manila. Servers in French maid uniforms welcome and attend to the guests and tours can be facilitated in the Art Deco home. The house is filled with antiques and beautiful art works. Some paintings are also of notable cultural significance such as Zalameda’s “Sail Boats”, Félix Resurreción Hidalgo’s “La Inocencia” and a certain Luna I forget. One can also go around the house and see different rooms filled with an assortment of vintage furniture, old books, family photographs and even some odd nick-knacks. An avid photographer, Dr. Legarda’s photo equipment and paraphernalia can be enjoyed by photography buffs. His clinic is still preserved! A skeleton hauntingly guards that room. Meisen plates and other heirloom china, silverware and glassware are displayed and even used in La Cocina to facilitate a unique dining experience.
One thing I’d like to share is Ma’am Suzette’s generosity. Days before our huge group’s visit, I emailed Ms. Montinola to ask, just out of curiosity, if we can exchange the Ginatan with Chicken Relleno (our original merienda menu consisted of Pan with Queso de Bola spread, Paella Valenciana, Guinatan and Lemongrass Iced Tea). She replied asking me, “Mr. de Jesus, do you know how big a difference the price of meat is with guinatan?”. Embarrassed, I answered in the affirmative and told her I understood.
Lo! On the day we had our merienda, we had both relleno and guinatan! What a generous surprise from a gracious host!
Although we weren’t seated inside the beautiful confines of the house, we still felt the Old World charm in the patio. Our long 15-seater tables were beautified by rose petals strewn on the tables and candles lit. Unfortunately, one guest had a table napkin which had a hole! That was the only flaw of our stay.
Indeed, dining in these two interesting and inviting venues is imperative for any Manileño. They offer us a sense of history and likewise, showcase the better examples of adaptively reusing heritage structures. They are not only sources of hope but also opportunities to savor both time (you can stay long in these attractive restaurants and also relish the history related to the structures) and taste!
On a more personal note, I took home and relished a product of La Cocina de Tita Moning, the Salsa Monja, which my Spanish profesora gave me as we were making our way back to Cubao (she lives in nearby Manga Road in New Manila). Salsa Monja was actually a common side-dish in pre-War Manila. As the name suggests, it was made by nuns in the numerous convents of the city and it was a dish of pickled shallots and olives. La Cocina’s version is wonderful! I had it with crackers when I got home from the exhausting tour and also paired it with an arugula salad for breakfast the next day!
*Some photos taken from Mel Gabuya’s theoldaparador.tumblr.com