MANILA, October 28, 2005 (STAR) By Bea Ledesma - In a restaurant as beautifully designed as The Fireplace, the upscale steak house at the new Hyatt Hotel and Casino Manila, only one question matters: Does the food match the décor? With its copper-colored ceilings, comfy stylized furniture, leather-covered, chocolate walls, and beautiful lighting, it looks like the menu has a long way to go before it can even meet the restaurant’s elegant interiors halfway.

But it does go beyond the halfway mark – way beyond, in fact – as the hotel’s executive chef Hubertus Cramer, responsible for the hotel’s entire culinary operations, puts together dishes that are perfectly cooked and presented without being intimidating. Center Court The open-plan kitchen allows diners to view the activity behind the counter as the staff cooks on the 10-foot copper-covered, wood-fired oven, a marvel in design and efficiency, and clearly, the main feature of the room. "We’re going back to old cooking methods," chef Cramer explains. But the star of the entire affair is the food. At a recent lunch to launch the restaurant, the meal begins with imported raw goose liver thinly-shaved over a crisp cracker (later, food and beverage director William Yuen explains that it is a walnut crouton drizzled with extra virgin olive oil) and then drizzled with a balsamic vinegar reduction, which was almost syrupy. The salty essence of goose liver, with its lovely velvety texture, meets its mate in the sweet balsamic glaze and crisp crouton, making it a pitch-perfect little dish. While this is not on the menu, it bodes well that the staff at The Fireplace pays this much attention to tiny hors d‘oeuvres. What must the main menu be like?

Well, it begins with freshly-shucked oysters from Kalibo served sampler-style, from fresh and raw to cheese-covered. The hero of the dish is the little frothy, cappuccino-esque shot glass filled with oysters blitzed with a flavorful beef broth to a light consistency. The perfect way to whet the appetite for what is sure to be a menu filled with knockout dishes.

A warm crab salad with arugula and pomelo mixes up the flavors, with the peppery arugula brushing against the citrus tang of the pomelo, making it the perfect foil for the moist and tender crabmeat. This is followed by the crispy pan-fried barramundi with asparagus and garlic oil. Fried till the skin crisps up to give it a light thin crunchy bite, the meat remains perfectly tender. The seafood at The Fireplace is amazing, with a selection that is procured fresh, except for the barramundi, which is imported from premium distributors. "Most of the seafood is delivered alive," adds Yuen, who explains that the seafood’s bright colors and pristine flavors are due to the freshness of the food in the resto’s larder. This explains the lobster’s rich orange shell and tender meat in the following dish, grilled rock lobster with pea puree, a refreshing dish that combines the sweetness of roasted bell pepper with the vibrant pea puree.

For a steak house so well-versed in cooking seafood, it seems almost mad to expect beef as expertly cooked as the earlier fare. But its steaks certainly don’t disappoint. The grilled Australian black Angus strip loin with braised Portobello mushrooms was hearty, with a robust flavor not unfamiliar to meat lovers. Another steak offering was the oven-roasted Australian black Angus tenderloin with goose liver and caramelized onion. The meat was cooked medium rare, which is the only way to eat good steak. It retains the meat’s moisture and juices, allowing you to sample the real flavor of the beef. No gravy needed here, the succulent pink slices of steak with their juices running down the side work perfectly on their own.

Chef Cramer is aware of the importance of cooking meat properly, adding, "Meat should be cooked based on type and thickness." He continues, "Even veal should be roasted, not grilled, because intense heat dries out the flavor."

Anointing the steaks with luxurious side dishes only makes the food more homey than haute. Baked potatoes laden with sour cream and herbs, baby potatoes roasted in garlic and rosemary, and roasted capsicum drizzled in fine olive oil are among the side dishes offered. While the prices aren’t so easy on the pocket – the elegant interiors do hint at the upscale menu – the servings don’t leave you hungry for a pizza as so many overpriced trendy restaurants often do. Instead, The Fireplace leaves you full and sated, but always ready for more – in true steak house style.

The Fireplace offers wine by the glass and includes a helpful menu, which suggests wines for different kinds of dishes. While it doesn’t consider itself fine dining, the ambience is certainly smart casual.

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The Fireplace is located at the fifth floor of the Hyatt Hotel and Casino Manila, 1588 Pedro Gil corner M. H. del Pilar Sts., Malate, Manila. For more information, call 245-1234.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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