In a week, La Cocina de Tita Moning, the bespoke restaurant experience in old Manila, will be closing her doors to guests and diners after a 15-year run. Located within the former home of Dr. Don Alejandro Roces Legarda and Doña Ramona Hernández (aka Tita Moning to relatives and the then tightly-knit Manileño community) in one of the earliest Art Deco residences in the city (the house was built in 1937), La Cocina de Tita Moning was opened by one of the couple’s grandchildren, Suzette L. Montinola, who is also a faculty member at Enderun Colleges, not solely to run a business but likewise, to share to the greater public Tita Moning’s recipes, which were already quite popular among her friends and family.
The restaurant was a big hit. It was a novel experience in a Manila that was still beginning to jumpstart what is currently a booming restaurant scene. What set La Cocina de Tita Moning apart was the fact that diners (who had to call at least 24 hours in advance to reserve a table) were given an experiential meal, which made them feel they were being transported to a bygone Manila – a Manila of gentility, sophistication, class and affection. Specializing in Fil-Hispanic menus, La Cocina de Tita Moning provided the total dining experience –
from the ambience,
to the exquisite La Cartuja china,
the Murano table centerpieces, the silver,
the staff’s attention – all those made it a wonderful place to mark special occasions.
And the beautiful part is, visitors come to a realization that there was indeed that kind of Manila in recent history. It was a chance to dine how our grandparents dined, and for those who are not from the same social background as the Roces-Legarda family, an opportunity to eat how the alta de sociedad wined and dined.
However, for this author, La Cocina de TIta Moning wasn’t only a restaurant; it was an important asset or feature of my tours.
As some of you know, I give tours around Manila and in all the groups who asked me to guide them around Manila, I never failed to recommend La Cocina de Tita Moning as a must-visit stop. Usually, my tours would end there or would have a merienda stop in the patio. Ms. Suzette actually customized a merienda menu for my tour groups. For a modest fee of P500, my guests got to tour the house and have their fill of toast bread with their signature queso de bola spread, sotanghon guisado, really good chicken relleno, leche flan and pandan iced tea.
I can’t count the number of groups I’ve brought to La Cocina de Tita Moning. However, I can say that in all those visits to the house, the staff have always given us the warmest welcome that only a Filipino family could. Service was always top-notch and the food never faltered in consistency of taste.
When La Cocina de Tita Moning accepts its last order on 31 May (which happens to be my birthday!), I will miss it terribly. My tours always ended or started on a high point precisely because of the unique and genuine Filipino hospitality and heritage my guests experience when we stop at La Cocina de Tita Moning. For reasons we can only guess – and for things that are purely private in nature – the Legardas’ (a family whose members form part of the Philippines’ historic cultural and intellectual elite) decision to close to the public their private property is another loss for Philippine cultural heritage. Why? Not only is the house a heritage site but its recent mission and purpose of introducing Filipinos and foreigners to a real, tasteful aspect of our culture will be lost, and will be replaced by other restaurants in Manila which do not measure to the authenticity it offers.
And finally, on a more intimate and personal level, one of the reasons why I love La Cocina de Tita Moning so much is because it is the only restaurant in Metro Manila that reminds me of the cooking of a person I miss so much: my own lola (grandmother), my Lola Entel.
Born to a middle-class Manila family in 1922, Lola was known to her family, friends, in-laws and children in law (and then, to their own families), as a marvelous cook. Like any Filipina woman born to a Manila from that era, she had a strong Fil-Hispanic and Americanized orientation. What I miss from her own kitchen – morcon, lengua estofada or con champiñon, galantina, relleno, meat loaf, potato salad, pancit palabok, waffles and pancakes, doughnuts laced with generous amounts of sugar, kare-kare – a long list of things I dearly miss. All of those labors of love tasted of her own character – loving, passionate, patient, of good taste.
That is the great, almost divine, aspect of food – it evokes memories. Food (taste, scent, texture, presentation, etc.) take you back to stories from the past, and by savoring meals, you are reminded of so many things that actually, make you as a person. Food nourishes the body, the spirit, the mind and also, the heart.
To Ms. Suzette, Manang Tining, the entire staff of La Cocina de Tita Moning: muchísimas gracias por todo. Thank you very much for everything. Maraming, maraming salamat sa lahat!