MANILA,  August
19, 2004 (STAR) Eating out at Island Cove Resort & Leisure Park, the nearest total tourist destination south of Manila in Binakayan, Kawit, Cavite, is always a royal experienceÖ or something close to it.

If youíre partial to Chinese dishes, then the place to be at this Mediterranean-inspired, 12-hectare resort by Manila Bay is the much-talked-about Xiang Li Chinese Fusion Restaurant. Jill Zhang, 27, who was born and bred in Fookien, China recommends the roast Peking duck, which is the real thing from Beijing, he announces with pride. He can prepare it three ways: The meat roasted, the bones boiled to make a rich soup, and the skin wrapped with sliced leeks and cucumber in a pancake to be dipped in black bean sauce.

If youíre adventurous, try Island Cove Cafeís exotic dishes, like ostrich steak, ostrich salad or adobong baboy damo. Chef Winfried Herbst, a German national with over 30 years of culinary experience, is at your service. While youíre enjoying dinner, try the santol juice or dragon fruit for dessert.

Those who prefer something native, particularly seafood, should go to Fishing Village. Guests have the choice of catching their favorite fish themselves from an actual fish pen, or they can just order the seafood they want and still be assured of a dinner of fresh seafood. Fishing Village is built over 10-foot-deep seawater and straddles a two-hectare fish pen teeming with all kinds of fish that thrive only in deep seawater.

Food, glorious food, says Island Coveís food and beverage director Jun B. Araneta, is fast becoming the crowning jewel of the resortís treasure trove of attractions.

Fusion Style Of Cooking

"The food we offer is comparable to the best anyone can get anywhere in the country, if not better," says Araneta. "Our chefs pay attention even to the littlest details that go into the preparation of our food. For our Chinese dishes, for example, we use herbs and seasonings that are grown in China as much as possible. But the large part of the ingredients and vegetables we use, even the meat itself, are procured from the farms of the Remullas (former Cavite Governor Johnny Remulla and his family-owned Island Cove.) in Indang and Trece Martirez, and are thus farm-fresh. Then for authenticity, we hired a young cook from one of the provinces of China and a widely-experienced German chef to take care of European and American dishes."

Prior to joining Island Coveís kitchens this year, Zhang spent eight years cooking for some of the biggest hotels and restaurants in China.

However, he clarifies that what he brought to Island Cove is a style of cooking Chinese dishes more suited to the Filipino taste. He calls it fusion cooking.

"Where the original recipe, for example, calls for more spices to make it real hot, I use less of it," Zhang explains. "Filipinos are not known to favor real hot dishes, so I tone down on the use of spices. But I throw in some other locally-sourced ingredients to enhance the taste of the dish more to the Filipinosí liking."

Araneta volunteers that since Zhangís arrival, the resort has built a following among Filipino-Chinese from Cavite and Metro Manila, who now dine regularly at the Xiang Li Chinese Fusion Restaurant to satisfy their craving for Zhangís best sellers, like crispy noodles, cold cuts, roast Peking duck, lotus pancake, stir-fried frog legs, fried sliced eel with sesame seeds, Szechuan fried chicken, seafood fried rice and pineapple fried rice.

Though priced at P480 per order, the pineapple fried rice, which is good for three or four persons, is still among the restaurantís fast-moving dish.

Siomai is as common as siopao nowadays, but Zhang will take pains to explain that what he uses for his siomai are 100 percent shrimps.

"The siomai in other eateries is a mix of shrimps and ground pork, so ours is tastier," he says.

Ostrich Steak

At Island Cove Cafť, chef Herbst is pushing exotic dishes, such as ostrich steak, ostrich medallions, ostrich meatballs, ostrich salad and adobong baboy damo. Similar to beef in color, flavor and texture, ostrich meat cuts, according to Herbst, are low in fat, calories and sodium, and high in protein and iron.

"Ostrich meat is now considered the ultimate choice of health-conscious people worldwide," adds Herbst, a culinary school graduate in Germany, whose vast experience as a chef includes stints with other five-star hotels and restaurants in Malaysia, Singapore, China and Hong Kong apart from Germany and the Philippines.

Herbst, who worked for three years at the German Club in Makati as executive chef and operations manager in one of his early jobs in the country, says the resortís supply of ostrich meat comes locally, from Island Cove itself and the Queetown Farm of the Remullas in Indang.

"We raise ostrich right here at Island Cove and at the Remulla farm. They are fed with organic feeds so the meat we get out of these birds is 100 percent steroid- and hormone-free," Herbst explains.

A part of the hotel at Island Cove, the Cafť serves European and American food, with Herbst supervising its kitchen.

Fishing Village

Itís brisk business every day at the Fishing Village where guests are served the freshest of seafood in any of the venueís 33 bamboo cottages or three pavilions, all of which straddle a portion of Manila Bay. Open huts are also available on land, part of Fishermanís Grill, where buffet is an option at lunchtime. Above it is the Fishermanís Deck from where bar regulars can view the sunset, as well as the skylines of Cavite City and Manila.

Conceptualized by Cavite Rep. Boying Remulla, one of three sons of the former governor who are all into politics, Fishing Village continues to be a big hit largely because of the thrill of fishing that guests can experience for themselves. On weekends, itís always fully booked with groups of balikbayan and whole families from Metro Manila and nearby provinces and towns turning up for the fun of fishing.

At Fishing Village, the fun is endless as guests cast their lines inside a two-hectare fish pen teeming with lapu-lapu, apahap, pargo, talakitok and barracuda, fish that thrive only in the deep seawaters, as well as milkfish, shrimps and crabs.

"Some fish caught here weighed seven to eight kilos each," says Benjie Pakingan, head of the general services department. "You could just imagine the excitement when guests, especially beginners, landed fish this heavy."

Pakingan recalls a time when one guest caught as many as two large basins of milkfish.

At the end of the fishing, oneís catch is weighed to determine how much heís going to pay for the fish.

Guests may have the fish grilled or cooked whatever way they want, but what usually happens is that they bring home their catch, like trophies, to show off to relatives and friends.

Busy, Busy, Busy

Great food and great service complement Island Coveís first-class hotel accommodations, complete with state-of-the-art facilities for relaxation, recreation, entertainment and fun, and for business, as well. There isnít any day when a function is not being held at any of the resortís12 open-air or air-conditioned function rooms, banquet halls and pavilions for groups of anywhere from 15 to 20 persons to as many as 500.

Saipan-trained Ferdie Pulia, the resortís banquet manager, remembers having organized a one-day function for over 3,000 employees of a Japanese firm located at the export processing zone in the adjoining town of Rosario.

"During the peak months, we average eight functions daily," Pulia says.

Araneta proudly points out that the service the resort offers is five-star. "Our hotel may be three-star, but what we give is five-star service, made possible by the expertise of the department heads, polished by years of work here and broad and the kind of training they give to their staff," he adds.

The food and beverage manager himself personifies the extensive experience each department head of the resort brings to his job. He was restaurant manager of Westin Philippine Plaza for 11 years, F&B manager of Cebu Plaza for 1-1/2 years, was involved in the pre-opening stage operations of Shangri-La Makati for three years, and human resource consultant at the prestigious Schallenberg & Associates.

Industry Leader

Island Coveís proximity to Manila, says resort general manager Norlinda Agustin, accounts in no small measure for its steady success over the years.

"But the one really big factor going for our resort is that we boast several state-of-the-art facilities serviced by an exceptionally- trained staff working under highly experienced superiors," Agustin adds.

Many in the resort industry, she goes on to say, copy what Island Cove is famous for. "But we manage to stay on top of our competitors because we introduce a new facility or a fresh innovation every year."

This yearís new addition to the resortís existing features is the full expansion of the Island Cove Wild Life Sanctuary, a brainchild of the Remulla patriarch.

Up for viewing in the sanctuary are crocodiles, several species of birds including monkey-eating eagles, hawks and ostrich, African fowls, deer, snakes, monkeys, Bengal tigers and bear cats. In September, 3,000 butterflies from Los BaŮos, Laguna will be set free in a 1,200 square-meter butterfly farm.

Next time you visit Island Cove Resort & Leisure Park, make it an educational one as well. Tour the Island Cove Wild Life Sanctuary and marvel at some of the most wonderful of Godís creations.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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