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Around the World in Manila: Touring Café Ilang-Ilang with Executive Chef Konrad Walter

by Ceej Tantengco

Inside The Manila Hotel, you will never forget where you are.

Unlike some hotels that offer an opulence that seems taken out of time and place, Manila Hotel retains its unique character by embracing Filipino culture and its own rich history.

I love driving up to The Manila Hotel’s white facade to be greeted by staff decked out in embroidered Filipiniana uniforms, before having coffee in the hotel lobby surrounded by seashell chandeliers and mahogany furniture. There’s no mistaking it’s Manila of course, and that’s true even in their restaurant Café Ilang-Ilang.

Café Ilang-Ilang looks out onto The Manila Hotel’s garden and pool area, bringing in a lot of sunlight during their daytime service.

Pro tip for the ‘gram: Get a table by the windows for the best food photos!

They offer three dining periods, with themed dinner buffets and live cooking stations that turn meals into a theatrical experience.

At the helm is Executive Chef Konrad Walter, who was kind enough to give a personal tour of the buffet. The Swiss master got his start in Bern over 50 years ago, worked his way around the Middle East and Macau then settled in Manila in 1993. Walter says the secret to running a buffet is not just providing international dishes, but knowing your audience—which people want the exotic and experimental, and which want traditional dishes done well.

“We’re The Manila Hotel, so we should be known for Filipino food. But if it’s just the usual dishes you’ll find at most restaurants, that won’t feel special to our Filipino clients. You need to give something more,” he says.

Caf Ilang-Ilang mixes can’t-miss favorites like crispy-skinned rellenong lechon de leche and ginataang puso ng saging with shrimp, sure, but they made it a point to include regional dishes such as Pampanga-style batuteng tugak (stuffed frogs with ground pork and sausage) and sinampalukang dumalaga (young native chicken in tamarind soup). “We have [deer], wild pig, and even balut!” adds Walter.

Skip the plain rice and get some of Manila Hotel’s tinola rice or black rice, which you can also enjoy with ulam from other countries.

At the colorful Korean section, things are more traditional. “Our Korean diners like things classic,” says Walter. Try the tender galbi jjim, and don’t forget to pair it with their house-made kimchi, which they prepare fresh every week.

Every now and then, though, they put their own twist on a Korean treat. They take the traditional doughnut, usually filled with sweet fillings like red bean, and instead fill it with kimchi. The kimchi doughnut is one of Walter’s own favorites, and he hands me a bun. I notice that it’s has been dusted with chili powder in addition to powdered sugar. From the first bite, I can taste why he likes this so much: sweet and savory, you can’t have just one.

The Japanese station is the most popular among Filipino diners. Here, they have generously cut sashimi, freshly rolled sushi, and teppan dishes on demand. Crowd favorites also include the carving station for roast beef, and the Chinese station for dimsum, hotpot, and roast duck.

My personal favorite was the Italian station led by Chef Marco Chini of Bologna, the gastronomic capital of Italy. “He’s a traditional Italian cook from the heartland,” says Walter. “You should try his fresh stuffed pasta.” With the station by the glass windows, there’s no way you’re missing the Italian cold cuts bathed in sunlight. That’s just how human nature works.

Make sure you take some prosciutto e melone, or sweet melon slices wrapped in prosciutto. Leave space for brick oven pizza and freshly prepared pasta with whatever sauce you want. I asked for the house recommendation, and the team whipped up speck e rucola, a tomato-based sauce with spice-cured speck ham and arugula.

What I enjoyed most about the live cooking stations is that the men and women manning them aren’t just there to prepare your food in silence; they’re more than happy to chat with curious diners about ingredients if you only ask.

See the wheel of parmesan? Cut yourself a chunk for munching—as big as you like, they won’t judge. And while you’re at it, pop over to the bread and appetizers and slice yourself even more fresh and aged cheeses.

Café Ilang-Ilang devotes an entire corner of the restaurant to desserts. From delicate confections like the soft-as-cotton Japanese cake, to the indulgent multi-level chocolate fountain, to cathedral window and almond lychee gelatins, to gelato flavored with local and imported fruits, to a selection of traditional Filipino desserts like leche flan, maja blanca and halo-halo…there’s something for every sweet tooth here. I found myself going back for something simple, though: Manila Hotel’s signature chocolate pralines.

The Manila Hotel takes great care to remind guests of the beauty of Filipino culture and the warmth of Filipino hospitality. Not that we’re in any danger of that happening—with meals this good, you won’t forget a single moment.

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About Ceej
Ceej Tantengco is an award-winning essayist turned reporter. Her work takes her around the country, which is the best bonus she could ask for. She recently created and co-hosts her own sports podcast called 12 Minutes With.

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