Daniel Cancino was holding a paintbrush as he approached. “We’re going to start with four different sauces,” the chef said. Our table had nothing on it save for a couple of drinks and a covering of fresh banana leaves. The leaves smelled deeply of straw and chlorophyll and wet tropical wood.
“This one is a bagoong caramel,” Mr. Cancino continued. He dipped the brush into a small container and swooshed it across the leaves. “It’s made from shrimp paste that’s caramelized down with some sugar and garlic.”
He turned and left as Les Sabilano, the owner of Lamesa Filipino Kitchen, appeared with another paintbrush.
“The next sauce is a soy and garlic purée,” Mr. Sabilano said. He painted another swoosh.
Mr. Cancino reappeared a couple of seconds later with a squeeze bottle of the dipping sauce called sawsawan, which he arrayed in artful dots in front of us.
The two of them traded off like that, back and forth in a relay as the banana-leaf table covering filled up in delicious stop motion, with sauces and then vegetables and meat, fish and fruit, with lime leaf and coconut-scented clams, steamed pandan bread and a mound of intoxicatingly aromatic garlic rice – a Sunday feast in the style that Filipinos call kamayan and the restaurant simply calls “Eat With Your Hands.”
There was grilled corn, crispy lechon pork belly and pork ribs braised in 7 Up to sticky and yielding. There was deep-fried milkfish, a Philippine favourite, that tasted rich and buttery, like a warm-water sablefish, napped in caramelized fat. There was grilled Japanese eggplant and deviled eggs subtly seasoned with bread crumbs, vinegar and pork liver, gloriously dark-flavoured chicken adobo that we scooped up with rice in our fingers, and tiny halved kalamansi limes that we squeezed over top. (The price for all this is just $40 a head.)
It was exquisite, all of it, one of the most refreshing dining experiences I’ve had in this city. And, although that kamayan dinner is available only on Sundays – Lamesa serves its superb, modern-Filipino cooking on plates, with cutlery, through the rest of the week – it is nonetheless a measure of the confidence and the polish they have injected into the restaurant in the past few years.
When I first reviewed Lamesa in the summer of 2012, just after it opened, it was a promising one-star spot with lofty goals – it hoped to bring Filipino flavours into the downtown food culture – but often tentative cooking. It seemed apologetic about its differentness.
Three and a half years later, the place has a new and uncommonly talented chef in the 25-year-old Mr. Cancino, who was promoted from sous-chef this past spring. His cooking is refined and intelligent and in-your-face delicious, without ever losing sight of the culinary tradition where it’s rooted. Lamesa has grown into a three-star restaurant. It should be near the top of every Toronto diner’s must-try list.
On another night, we started with Mr. Cancino’s albacore tuna kinilaw, a Philippine-style ceviche that played on the island nation’s Spanish and Mexican links. (Other main culinary influences on the islands include Malay, Tamil, Chinese and maximalist postwar American.)
The tuna had been quick-cured with floral-tasting kalamansi lime juice and was set on super-fresh guacamole the chef had moistened with coconut milk and topped with hot red slivers of bird’s eye chili. The spice and savouriness, the avocado creaminess, the fish’s delicate taste and texture and the limes’ fragrant sour acidity – all were suspended in perfect balance.
I looked up as I tried it and said to my tablemate: “Wow, we are in very good hands.” I had that reaction a lot at Lamesa. The dish came with pale pink shrimp chips that snap-crackle-pop when you dip them, and then erupt into crustaceous crunch.
Another dish, pancit Canton, played on the Philippines’ Chinese influence, but with a Canadian lightness: The noodles came tossed with pickled beech mushrooms and fresh mint, snap peas and pea shoots, chilies and sesame oil.
And the chicken adobo: You could smell the depth of rice vinegar, dark soy, bay leaf and heat-mellowed garlic that had set in a glossy glaze over the poached, then seared chicken thigh. The meat was moist and ridiculously satisfying, especially with Lamesa’s buttery garlic rice. That chicken adobo is the sort of dish that people line up outside restaurants for. It’s built on Mr. Cancino’s food memories from growing up.
The chef was born in Hong Kong, but lived in Manila from the age of 2 through 10, when his family relocated to Richmond, B.C. He grew up on adobo chicken, and kinilaw and dinuguan, a seafood and pork stew that is seasoned with spiced pork blood. (There’s a very good version at Lamesa, although it was overseasoned when I tried it earlier this week.)
Mr. Cancino’s family moved to Mississauga when he was 15, and he took a job washing dishes at a local Kelsey’s for spending money. But he soon learned that he loved cooking and kitchen life. He enrolled at George Brown College. He worked at Union, on Ossington Avenue, and at Kanto, the Filipino takeout spot that is housed in a shipping container at Dundas and Bathurst streets, as well as at Hudson Kitchen, where chef Robbie Hojilla, who is Filipino-Canadian, was a major influence, the chef said.
“My flavours come from growing up in the Philippines, but my technique is definitely Canadian,” Mr. Cancino said on the phone this week.
When I asked him what he hoped to do at Lamesa, he said: “I want to push Filipino food.” In a city with about 200,000 residents of Philippine heritage, Filipino food still doesn’t get a lot of respect. In years past, Mr. Cancino has even spoken of how many Filipinos here are embarrassed of their food. And Lamesa is the only licensed, full-service Pinoy restaurant downtown.
The chef and Mr. Sabilano have an added burden that chefs and owners at Japanese, Korean, Italian and Mexican restaurants don’t need to trouble themselves with. “I want people to understand how unique it is and that we’re more than our influences,” he added. “That’s my dream for sure.”
Maybe he doesn’t yet know this, but it’s already started happening. If he keeps on cooking the way he’s cooking, Mr. Cancino might soon be living inside his dream.
On a Tuesday night recently, I went back to Lamesa for a third visit. The room, with its high ceilings and wainscoted walls, feels cool and casual, but Mr. Sabilano, who came up through Canoe restaurant, and his floor staff are gracious and professional, always eager to explain their menu and the dishes. The crowd here is a mix of young Filipino Canadians, non-Filipino cool kids and older diners who have heard that they need to try the place.
We had the golden, crunchy lumpia spring rolls filled with corned beef cheek that Mr. Cancino had cured himself, and a clear, warming short rib and beef bone soup that Mr. Sabilano brought out with thin wooden salad bowls. “A lot of Filipinos grew up eating out of those bowls at home,” he said with pride.
He described the restaurant’s arroz caldo as “congee brought to the Philippines by the Chinese but named by the Spanish.” Whatever you want to call it, it was a bowl of autumn glory, the rice enriched with golden squash and warm spices, with bitter charred Brussels sprouts leaves and a soft poached egg. I could eat that dish three times a day.
The desserts are superb. The halo-halo (it means “mix-mix” in Tagalog) is a superfun frozen parfait of peach anglaise, purple yam ice cream, Concord grape jelly, tapioca pearls and Rice Krispies cereal.
The ube leche flan is a more serious dessert, at least judging by its plating. Ube is sweet purple yam, from which Mr. Cancino makes a jiggly soft flan and a rich, lavender-coloured custard. He layers those with tart stewed rhubarb, fresh sliced figs, the citrus sour of groundcherries and kalamansi gel and with smoky, popcorn crunch on top from a more Canadian component: puffed wild rice.
I’ve had it three times now, and it’s a genius dessert. The first two times, I asked myself: “This is Filipino?” The third time, though, I knew the answer. Of course, it is.Report Typo/Error