We couldn’t get reservations at one of our favorite fine dining restaurants in Manila – Toyo Eatery – so a well-traveled gastronome friend suggested something else, a restaurant we had never heard of – Balai Palma. In her opinion, this restaurant offered the best tasting menu in Manila. Naturally, we were intrigued.
We were lucky enough to secure a reservation and what followed was a meal that all four people in our group felt was the best we’ve enjoyed in years. Needless to say, we were blown away.
This was our experience at Balai Palma.
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WHAT IS BALAI PALMA?
Balai Palma is a private dining concept by Chef Aaron Isip. Open since August of 2022, it’s located in a townhouse along Palma Street in trendy Poblacion, Makati. Balai in Illongo (Chef Aaron’s mother is from Iloilo) means “house”, hence the name.
Balai Palma is open only for dinner, at 7:30PM, from Tuesday till Saturday. Reservations are a must and can be made through their Instagram page.
Tasting menus may vary but our two-hour degustation included sixteen or so dishes spread out over eight courses. It consisted of mostly seafood dishes made with ingredients sourced every morning from the local dampa (fresh seafood market).
At the time of our visit, Balai Palma’s tasting menu cost PHP 7,500 per person. Full payment must be made in advance, which we did via bank transfer.
Address: 6081b R Palma, Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines
Operating Hours: 7:30PM dinner, Tue-Sat (closed Sun-Mon)
What We Paid: PHP 7,500 per person
WHO IS AARON ISIP?
At the end of the degustation, Chef Aaron visited every table and we learned quite a bit about this talented young chef.
After graduating with a degree in Marketing Management from De La Salle University, he pursued his passion for food and left Manila in 2004 to attend Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. He toiled in the demanding kitchens of Paris for years before earning his stripes. He would become Chef de Cuisine at Dix-Huit, which was named one of the best restaurants by Le Figaro in 2014.
In 2015, he received the Trophée Espoir for the Île de France region from renowned French restaurant guide Gault et Millau. If I understand correctly, the Trophée Espoir is awarded to promising young chefs in France, a distinction that can catapult a chef from relative obscurity to culinary stardom.
In Chef Aaron’s words: “I was the only Filipino who’s ever gotten such an award by such a well-respected guide. It was just the stuff of dreams.”
After vacationing in El Nido, Chef Isip decided to leave Paris and return to the Philippines in 2016. He planned on opening a restaurant in Palawan because “[he] saw the potential of El Nido and how it drew a lot of global tourists. The thought of living the island life became a dream [he] wanted to realize.”
Unfortunately, his dream would have to wait because of COVID. To keep himself busy, he launched Gastronômade, an online venture featuring small batch artisanal sauces made from locally sourced organic ingredients. Gastronômade is a portmanteau word for “gastronomic nomad”, and is a reflection of Chef Aaron’s love for food and travel.
In August 2022, he inched closer to his dream when he opened Balai Palma. The private dining restaurant is set in his residence – a 70-square meter Poblacion townhouse where he continues to reside to this day (at least as of this writing).
BALAI PALMA RESTAURANT
Aside from Chef Aaron’s stellar tasting menu of mostly seafood dishes prepared using French culinary techniques, Balai Palma is interesting because of the space itself. It isn’t common to enjoy a meal of this caliber in what essentially is still the chef’s home.
Inspired by wabi-sabi, he told us that Balai Palma is decorated with furniture, accessories, antiques, and carvings that he meant to use in his El Nido restaurant. The majority of his pieces were either collected through the years during his travels or produced by local designers and craftsmen.
Chef Isip has a highly developed palate, but as you can see from Balai Palma’s living room, he has a refined eye as well.
Chef Isip is especially attached to this hammock which he bought in Tulum, Mexico. He’s been going to Tulum every year since 2014 and considers the Mexican coastal town his second home.
Balai Palma consists of five dining areas – the Main Dining Room, Lounge & Cinema Room, Speakeasy, Alcove Patio, and Roofdeck Terraza – and can accommodate up to thirty people a night. Our group of four was seated on the Roofdeck Terraza but you’ll be seated in different rooms depending on the size of your group. Unless I’m mistaken, the Main Dining Room is the biggest.
This picture was taken just off the Main Dining Room and offers a glimpse into the kitchen. Aside from the food and decor, what I loved about Balai Palma is that it doesn’t feel like a restaurant. It feels like you’re having dinner as a guest in the chef’s home, which is basically what this experience is.
This is the stairwell leading up to the third floor and Roofdeck Terraza dining area.
This is the Roofdeck Terraza. Isn’t it beautiful? We had a great view of the Poblacion skyline from here.
There were just four people in our group but I believe this al fresco space can accommodate up to six.
Have you ever seen a wooden bathtub before? And on a roofdeck?
Don’t you just love the textures in this space? Chef Isip has a great eye for detail.
BALAI PALMA TASTING MENU
At the start of your meal, you’ll be offered a welcome drink, either alcoholic or non-alcoholic. I don’t remember what this drink was but it was delicious.
Hors d Oeuvres
The first course consisted of three hors d oeuvres, starting with local escargots dressed in a light sauce made from white wine, herbs, and butter.
The second hors d oeuvre consisted of three parts, the first being this bowl of mantis shrimp prepared with guava leche de tigre and cilantro.
The second component of hors d oeuvre number two was this Pacific sea bream crudo with guyabano aguachile.
If I remember correctly, these were prawn tapioca crackers.
To eat the second hors d oeuvre, you put a little bit of the mantis shrimp and sea bream crudo onto the prawn cracker.
The first two hors d oeuvres were delicious, but this crispy chicken skin with amaebi spot prawn, kamias, and grilled calamansi was my favorite.
Ube in Three Textures
This next course was amazing. As its name suggests, it consists of ube prepared in three ways with the freshest halaan clams, Oscietra caviar, and clam emulsion.
Halo Halo del Mar
This next course aptly named Halo-Halo del Mar (halo-halo of the sea) was an interesting blend of flavor, texture, and temperature. You can see three types of shellfish in the picture below but this course actually consists of four dishes.
On the half shells are raw Irish Gallagher oysters with green mango and bone marrow warm relish; Hokkaido scallop with suahe shrimp, ikura, and tamarind anchovy sauce; and giant clams with Joselito papada Iberico and mangosteen ceviche.
In the spirit of the iconic Filipino dessert, the shells are sitting on tamarind shrimp sinigang shaved ice with crab fat curry sauce. So interesting!
Giant Mangrove Crab Cold Somen
The first of our main courses were these cold mangrove crab somen noodles tossed in an aligue (crab roe) and tarragon sauce. The noodles were topped with Chilean uni and fried soft shell crab.
Boudin Noir Soup in Cuttlefish Ink
This was one of my favorite courses. A play on Filipino dinuguan, it consists of sauteed squid, pork chicharron, white beans, and sigarilyas (wing beans) served in a bowl with cuttlefish ink and a side of puto (rice cakes). If I remember correctly, the tuille was made from squid ink.
Puto and dinuguan is one of my favorite Filipino food pairings. These leveled up rice cakes look to have been topped with uni, microgreens, and caviar.
Here’s a shot of our server pouring cuttlefish ink into my bowl. Such a fun and tasty dish!
Lapu Lapu a la Meuniere
This next course was good, though perhaps not as interesting as the others. It consisted of lightly floured lapu-lapu (grouper) fried in butter and served with marble potatoes and yuzu.
The last main course consisted of Okan wagyu wrapped in mustard leaf with buro (fermented rice paste), mushrooms, and grilled vegetables. It’s served with housemade chimichurri and microgreens.
We don’t usually expect too much from tasting menu desserts but Chef Isip knocked these out of the park as well.
We were served three desserts, starting with this longan sorbet with compressed longan in olive oil served over a bed of crushed polvoron.
The second dessert consisted of chestnut ice cream served in a sweet potato chilled soup with miso dulce de leche.
Here’s what the dessert looks like poured over with the sweet potato soup.
The last of the three desserts was this cup of dark chocolate sablé with gianduja gelato, jasmine crème, and hazelnuts. What a decadent end to an extraordinary meal!
At an additional cost, Balai Palma offers two supplementary dishes – lobster lechon and foiesilog. Lobster lechon consists of a roasted spiny lobster wrapped in Kurobuta suckling pig belly confit. It goes for an additional PHP 7,500 and is good for four people.
We went with the foiesilog, which refers to a spoonful of pan-seared French foie gras served with koshihikari garlic rice, a quail egg, daikon-onion light soubise, pickled green papaya atchara, and spring onions. It goes for an additional PHP 450 per order.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON BALAI PALMA
We loved chatting with Chef Isip at the end of our meal. Joyful and unpretentious, he seemed to be a genuinely humble guy with a sincere love for food.
He told us that a second restaurant, a bigger Balai, was in the works. I don’t know when it’s scheduled to open but the new place will serve tasting menus while this existing restaurant will transition into an ala carte type of establishment.
As for his dream of opening a restaurant in El Nido, I guess that will have to wait. When it finally does open, we’ll be among the first to enjoy his food and the restaurant’s views, which he so enthusiastically described to us on this night.
We’re looking forward to it Chef Aaron.