It is often said that a place can be explored more intimately through its cuisine: where food imparts an understanding of local culture through various flavors and textures, as well as acts as a bridge that connects outsiders to the vibe of the community. For Chef Myke 'Tatung' Sarthou, his love for the coastal community of San Juan, La Union, inspired his latest venture, Layag Grille and Kilawen. It was an easy choice to make, and integral to his decision was his business partner, Paolo Rimando. “I mainly did it on a whim,” reveals Chef Tatung, “I was confident that I had a business partner based in La Union.”
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The restaurant is small and quaint, nestled in the second floor nook of food collective found along the highway of San Juan; its homey interiors much at home in the bustling gastronomy scene proliferating the surf town. The casual vibe of the place is heightened by the open aired terrace adjacent to the dining area, where the shores of the San Juan coastline croon out a sleepy serenade that befits the charred aroma wafting in the air from the kitchen, a refreshing departure from the standard smokiness usually found in grilleries. “Obviously, when you come to a place like La Union, you want to have a taste of local cuisine,” relates Chef Tatung, “I also did not want it to become too “cheffy,” because it might lose its charm. So, i went for a simple straight forward grill and kilawen bar that explores the flavors of coastal cultures around the country and parts of Southeast Asia.”
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For a chef that is known for pushing the envelope for Filipino cuisine, this might seem like an oversimplified description of Layag's food. But, as with everything that Chef Tatung does, there is a characteristic mindfulness to the menu curation, where careful restraint is key to allowing the flavors to shine brightly on their own accord. “The format was simple: grilled food and kinilaw. Nothing more. It's easy to get overwhelmed by what other chefs are doing locally and internationally, where you can easily go wild with creativity,” admits Chef Tatung, “But, I really strive to remain relevant and do meaningful cooking that enriches our culinary landscape without disrupting it too much.”
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A close perusing of Layag's offerings reveals a variety of dishes that use local ingredients in the most unexpected ways. The seasonal fresh catch kinilaw heads the list of Chef Tatung's must-trys. “It is random and unplanned,” he recommends, saying that the unexpected variety provided by the local fisherfolk adds to the dish's appeal, “That's what makes it special and worth looking forward to.” Other notable dishes include the Octopus kilawen, where a splash of suka Iloko adds an unexpected nuance of flavor to the dish and the Grilled Prawns reposing above a bed of marigold hued rice that reeks of the flavors of coconut and turmeric.
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Having explored much of the Philippine flavor profiles extensively through his years as a chef, it would seem that Layag is another feather on the cap of Chef Tatung, but he is quick to refute the notion of resting on his laurels. Ironically, the more he feeds people, the more he is propelled to seek out new ways to redefine the cuisine that he love. “I remain forward-looking yet grounded,” reveals Chef Tatung, “There is still so much to uncover from our very own heritage. I hope Layag is just the start of a more meaningful culinary journey. Lets see where it takes me.”
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Photography by Vyn Radovan