“It’s actually a little bit of everything, so I don’t want to call it comfort food,” says chef Kalel Chan of Chelsea Kitchen. “It’s more like feel-good food.” But even that description understates the amount of work that goes into each dish. With the menu sampling and combining dishes from Filipino, Italian, and American cuisines for starters, Chelsea Kitchen provides a many-leveled dining experience that isn’t immediately apparent.
Take the grilled cheese sandwich, for example. Served with a side of tomato soup and fries, it’s as straightforward an entrée as we can get. But what we don’t know is that the dough is intended to be crusty on the outside, while the inside has the right amount of airiness to hold in the white and sharp cheddars. Also, the bread has to keep itself together when it’s dunked in the tomato soup.
Now the tomato soup uses fresh local tomatoes and mixes these with canned tomatoes for sweetness and tomato paste for depth. To add dimension, Kalel included smoked pimenton for aroma and chicken stock for a hint of meat, and to complement the creaminess of the cheese, a topping of milk froth.
The hand-cut potato fries require a different kind of work, and are made using an old recipe. After being scrubbed and cut, the potatoes are soaked in water three times to remove the starch. The third soak is in salt water to concentrate the flavor. The potatoes are then blanched in oil, drained, and frozen before the final dip in the fryer right before serving. As Kalel says, “It takes time to make, man-hours, electricity, freezer space.”
All this work goes into the levels of flavor, texture, and aroma that goes into every dish. As Kalel says, “It’s all about the dimensions to the dish. Each dish has to have at least three dimensions.”
And when it comes to dimensions, the sesame-seared tuna and mango salad has a lot. The tuna—fresh from General Santos—is rolled in sesame seeds, chopped dill, and flat-leaf parsley and seared. It’s mixed with locally grown arugula, mesclun, and coleslaw, with the crunch of cashew, the sweetness of local mangoes, and the caramel of crispy shallots. As with Chelsea Kitchen’s salads, this comes with two dressings: the ponzu dressing rounds everything out with its salty-sweet flavor, while diners who prefer a creamy dressing will like the miso sauce, which delivers a spicy kick near the end, repeating the arugula’s peppery bite.
This salad is one of the latest additions to Chelsea Kitchen’s menu. Kalel makes it a point to review the menu, often ordering anonymously to check the quality of the preparation and presentation. He also changes things periodically, challenging the restaurant’s own bestsellers to give regulars something new to look forward to.
One of their longstanding bestsellers is the Southern fried chicken bites. Deep-fried in a light, airy batter, it comes with two dips: mama’s gravy with its hint of pepper, and maple butter with its smoky sweetness. The concept behind them is chicken waffles, meaty bites that go with the usual waffle dips. They are best eaten by hand, and if you get a few bones here and there, that’s how you know they’re the real thing.
Kalel and Raintree owner Martin Wisniewski constantly look for new things to include in the menu. “I try new dishes halos everyday,” says Kalel. “Siyempre you have to reformat your menu regularly para hindi maging boring.”
Another result of their exploration is the clam chowder pizza, combining Italian and American cuisines. With a pizza sauce made from clam chowder soup—complete with carrots, celery, onions, and garlic—and topped with clams and mozzarella, it is literally clam chowder on a pizza. Kalel also added a slice of lemon for contrast with the clams, and arugula to counter the creaminess of the chowder base and the mozzarella.
Chelsea Kitchen has also combined Filipino and Italian food with their tinapa aglio olio. The standard aglio olio spaghetti gets a light dusting of tinapa flakes and a combination of fresh and wilted arugula. Even in this simple dish, the flavor play in several dimensions can be tasted.
Even some of their desserts are the result of experimentation, like their donut holes. Kalel explains that “Actually, it’s an accident lang. I was doing food development in Chelsea Serendra. Kaharap ko yung dough, may nakuha akong cutter—it’s actually pizza dough—tapos ki-nut ko, tapos binato ko sa fryer, ayun, nag-puff.” After that, he thought of injecting dulce de leche into the newly fried dough. The result is an airy, chewy dessert that goes well with Yardstick coffee.
Diners wanting to try out Chelsea Kitchen would do well to remember that the kitchen staff moves fast, serving the dishes within five to ten minutes of ordering. The crispness of the fries, the airy crunch of the donut holes, the gravy’s aroma, the maple butter’s liquid sweetness are at their best when fresh and hot from the kitchen. It is also a testament to the efficiency of Chelsea Kitchen’s service staff.
Chelsea Kitchen approaches food by exploring many dimensions of flavor in the most simple of dishes, bringing together a varied selection of cuisines and ingredients, and altogether creating a hearty, complex dining experience.
This article was originally published in Explore Philippines Magazine Issue 4 with the title “Dimensions in Dining”