The day after my first La Mesa experience I was still thinking about their food. The Tasting Menu was great, but I hankered for a few of the things that I did not get to try. My dinner plans with a colleague was a bust, so I wanted to leave it to chance once again. I decided I would walk towards La Mesa, but if any other spot tempted me enough along Queens Street West, I would allow myself to be persuaded. I paused at one or two places, but not enough to stop.
Arriving for Sunday dinner, I was pleasantly surprised that they had space for one and offered me the Kamayan experience. Kamay in Tagalog means hand, which is what you must use to eat the food. The food is laid out on banana leaves, something that is generally plentiful in the rural areas of the Philippines. The leaves are easily cut, cleaned, and can be used instead of plates, and is also used in some of our cooking processes.
To serve, La Mesa has two staff people alternating their explanations of the feast, and I use that term purposefully. They began with a long swipe of a purple-tinged bagoong caramel that was placed underneath the lightly-salted salad (caramel not seen in photo). In various spots on the banana leaves they also strategically placed a brown sawsawan so that you would be encouraged to dip your food into them. Their sawsawan gel seemed to be made up of hoisin, soya sauce, and perhaps oyster sauce as well. Three generous drops of mango hot sauce delivered on the heat. I added small amounts to different meats to create flavour pops in my mouth. I was also happy to see the soy garlic puree offered, as I was already a fan from the other night.
Another thing that I enjoyed was the tapas-style feel to the feast. They had five differently cooked proteins on offer! As a renowned carnivore, that alone brought my happiness level up a couple of notches from the outset. I loved the taste and texture of the skin on the fried chicken adobo. It intrigued me and forced me to savour it slowly as to try to determine what they use in their marinade. The mussels were supple and the boneless bangus was the salty contrast needed between the seafood. Pork was served two ways: as lechon kawali in a lettuce wrap, dressed with a calamansi aioli that I loved, and pork rib inasal. The roasted rib was a bit on the sweet side, but if you combined it with the saltier grilled broccolini, you had a perfectly balanced bite.
I could only take small bites of some of the other offerings, as I had no access to a refrigerator, and there was no way I would be able to finish the entire meal. They offered crispy tofu with black bean sauce dolloped on top, a deviled egg, deep-fried cauliflower, and kalabasa corn bread. All tasted great and I felt pangs of regret that I couldn’t swallow them up. I haven’t even talked about the fried garlic rice, so let me just say there were two mounds of it which was plenty. If my photo was taken table-side instead of an aerial shot, you would be able to see the amount of rice more clearly. All this for $40 was again worth the time and money.
There were two other things I wanted to highlight about La Mesa, the bevies and the wall art.
Over the two evenings, I was able to try three of their cocktails, which they have given familial names to. I sampled the Tito Boy, the Lola, and the Lolo Cool J. I am no connoisseur in drinks, but couldn’t resist the names. The Tito Boy was a good strong drink and the Lola a bit of a sweeter one. My favourite of the three was the Lolo Cool J, made of bourbon, ginger, pineapple syrup, and lemon. While I don’t have a sweet tooth, when we are talking about alcohol, I normally prefer sweeter drinks. The Lolo Cool J was not overly sweet and I found swirling the candied ginger and letting it sit for a bit made it tastierwhen you eventually bit into it. It took the edge off some of the alcohol, which made it easy for me to enjoy it twice that night over such a large meal.
Finally, I think it was so easy to come back to La Mesa because of the feel you got from the restaurant. I appreciated their wall art and floor art in front of one of their bathrooms. The servers (including the owner) were friendly, but more importantly not fake. We had solid conversations about the current Filipino offerings in Toronto, a brief history of how La Mesa was started and how it has been received by the Filipino community, and also talked about their latest venture, Lasa. I never disclosed that I was a blogger during either visit but I’m guessing my experience would not have been any different.
Come to La Mesa for the Kamayan experience but make a reservation. The restaurant was full from the time I was seated to when I left. It does not matter if you go solo, on a date, or with a flock of friends, I’m confident you’ll have a great time!