Tasting Tagaytay

A trip to Tagaytay always starts or ends at Sonya’s Garden.  This once secret garden has since expanded to a more commercial-looking place but the salad and pasta spread, though unchanging, have always remained plentiful, delicious, and fresh.  And then there’s Sonya whose sincere charm in greeting her guests have made the place legendary and unsurpassed.  However, yesterday, she was without her trademark white linen dress and big straw hat.  She seemed “less” Sonya.  Perhaps Sonya’s Garden was changing.  I just hope whatever change takes place does not detract from the secret garden ambiance.

A very welcome change though was the panaderia churning-out all sorts of home-made goodies fresh from its ovens.  By the time my sisters and I headed to the parking lot, we were armed with bags of goodies.    The cheese hopia is especially to die for.  The thin crisp crust is oozing with cheesy goodness.  Bite into it fresh from the oven and the sweet-salty taste of cheese is just heavenly.  The last time we were at Sonya’s together was three years ago when I treated them for my birthday.  The panaderia had run out of cheese hopia then so this time we made it a point to buy some first before heading to the conservatory for lunch.  Another favorite is  a soft butter cookie with a generous chocolate center that comes with the name of “Globo De Oro.” The Chili Bread which was soft and generously stuffed with bacon stood out among the raisin bread, spanish bread, and adobo bread.  I had a couple of rolls plus some cheese hopia and leeks hopia all freshly heated in an oven toaster for breakfast this morning—a wonderful (and gastronomic) way to greet my quiet home-bound Sunday.

I’m not a fan of chocolate cake but a slice of it is a welcome addition to the dessert platter of banana turon and fried camote.  The trick is to eat it with a sprig of mint and wash it all down with tarragon tea.  It had always been salad and pasta at Sonya’s Garden ever since I can remember.  Some of my friends have criticized it for its unchanging menu though I remembered a time that an additional cost gets you roasted chicken.  I used to go to Sonya’s a lot especially when I still had car and when Tony was still here.  We even used to go there every weekend and Sonya once gave us a complimentary lunch.  I never minded that the greens were with the usual accompaniment of pineapples, melons, pop beans, and whatever fruit is there in season and topped with Sonya’s Secret Sauce.  The pasta had always come with the sundried tomatoes, white sauce with chicken, capers, and black olives. The shrimp had since been replaced with salmon belly (they should have steamed it rather than fried it).  Always yummy was the freshly-baked bread with spreads like olive tapenade and pesto.  Everything was always fresh, delicious, and plentiful.  Sometimes a little surprise like black peppercorns in olive oil or jackfruit made a nice diversion.

There weren’t that much people dining at the conservatory yesterday which made it all good as it was quiet and cool.

With the pot of basil Joy bought from the garden scenting the vehicle, we drove along the ridge while munching on some cheese hopia.  We love to eat so there’s always room in our stomachs for more in spite of all the refillable plates of salad and pasta we had.

We stopped at one of the stalls along the road and loaded the pick-up with pineapples, chayote, and papaya and since the back was uncovered we had to put everything inside. We would have picked-up some raisin bread and English pot pies at Bag O’ Beans but it was kinda traffic and there wasn’t any parking.  Yna wanted some mushroom burger so next stop was at Mushroom Burger.  The place was flowing with people and there was a looooong line at the counter so we bought fresh white mushroom instead for Php 90/pack.  I did notice that they were serving potato fries in place of the mushroom fries.

Numerous restaurants had since sprouted along the ridge turning it into one ugly congested place.  Bed and breakfasts  of all kinds were also on offer but they lacked the charm of Sonya’s.

I missed the turn-off to the road leading to Manila so we detoured to the Maryridge Convent for Good Shephered ube jam, orange and lemon jam, and alfaro cookies. We came just in time as vehicles were arriving and the narrow road that led in/out of the convent was a tight squeeze.

Along with all the food, we were crammed inside with fresh flowers from the stalls near the corner of the road along the ridge.

The final stop was at Rowena’s for her pies.  This tiny place has since grown and she now has a spacious parking lot and a cafe with outdoor seating.  There were shelves of all kinds of pasalubong including Thai snacks that have been repackaged.  We bought boxes of ube pies, buko pies, and sylvannas.  The latter was a big big big disappointment as it tasted dry and burnt.  No wonder they looked kinda brown. The small pies were still delicious though with crisp tarts, generous fillings, and crumbly tops.

Back in Manila, we bought some burgers at Good Burgers along E. Rodriguez for dinner at Yna’s house.  The best of the three varieties we got was the Mediterranean burger with its tangy dressing.  Good Burgers has always had really juicy burgers grilled just right.  They also have the best vegetarian burger which tasted almost as good as the real beef one.

Tagaytay makes a wonderful day trip to escape Manila though the heavy traffic and the crowds can be a major let down at times but the food stops make it all worthwhile and you can munch your way through the traffic with cassava chips and cheese hopia.  Oh and by the way, our lunch at Sonya’s was supposed to be a meeting to discuss our plans. We spent about 30 minutes discussing our next project and spent the rest of the day eating.  Now that’s what you call business with pleasure.




Categories: Philippines, Tagaytay | 1 Comment

The Gentrification of my Secret Garden

Sonya’s Garden is the stuff that dreams are made off. Decades ago, spoken reverently in whispers, “have you gone to Sonya’s Garden?” it seemed like the lost city of gold where romantic dreams are fulfilled amidst gastronomic wonders in an epicurean setting.  People spoke of eating rose petals, of a beautiful garden with flowers that smelled like butter, and best of all, how everything was so personalized from the charming Sonya who made conversation with you to the fine china and linen.

My friend Tony and I used to go to Sonya’s almost every weekend.  We were such main stays that the staff recognized us (and still recognizes me; Tony having since moved to the US) and at one point, when we asked for the bill, were given a piece of paper that said, “My compliments, Sonya.”  During those times, there weren’t too many people then and the place was a pure explosion of blooms and foliage.  Bright colors, mis-matched furniture, and quirky decor lent an atmosphere of artistic homeliness.  It was the kind of place that you would like to bring people you love so you can share the experience.  I brought my entire family there to celebrate one of my birthdays and my close friends for a quick escape from all the stress in the city.

As years wore on, the place became bigger and bigger.  Additional dining places were set-up and the garden expanded.  More people could be accommodated and on some weekends it sometimes resembled a pit stop for everyone escaping to Tagaytay (Sonya’s is actually in Buck Estate, Cavite).

Yesterday, I was back at Sonya’s with my sisters.   If the bags for sale displayed on a table by the outdoor receiving area were any indication of the changes that had since taken place, then Sonya’s Garden had now been a full enterprise.

The conservatory was bright and airy as usual. It had long been renovated with a more permanent ceiling and floor but I still miss the bamboo slats and the pebble wash-out.  A path had also been cut into the patch of flowers and plants.  We still dined on wooden tables covered with crisp white linen with floral embroidery.  Yummy still was Sonya’s Secret Sauce  and the salads and pasta condiments were just as I remember— plentiful, tasty, and fresh.  There has been little change in the food and some people have been a little put-off with it.  But I never really minded as long as the freshness and deliciousness remain consistent.   What I minded was that the beautiful floral mismatched plates, cups, and saucers had been replaced with restaurant-look plain white, the kind with a silver line around the edges.  “What’s happening?!” I thought out loud.  “Where’s the burst of color?”  Even my sister commented on it.  “Perhaps the dish washers were breaking all that precious china so she might as well keep them or use them for the bed and breakfast,” I rationalized.

As we posed for pictures in the garden outside, something different struck me.  I couldn’t place my finger on it until I looked up and saw the sky.   It dawned on me that there seemed to be less plants.  The day bed on the corner was gone and some of the canopies seemed to have been removed.  Yeah, it was brighter and more spacious but it was also less intimate.  I remember shaded walks and hidden corners.

As we headed to the parking lot, I saw Sonya with a group of elderly guests.  She was as charming as ever, joking with them and taking them to walks around her property.  So many have copied her but none have come close to equaling her and her concept.  Maybe because while others have simply set-up places, Sonya had set up a haven whose concept include herself.  Going to Sonya’s was like visiting the private haven of a gentle and wonderful person.  Perhaps it was that concept of the place that I had always held dear; and seeing all those big additional dining places, the plain white china, the cemented floors, and the over-all seeming modern look, made me yearn for that romantic vision of Sonya’s Garden.  It was after all, everyone’s own secret garden.  The vision of that secret garden crumbled before me as I saw Sonya in brown blouse and pants.  I almost fainted with tears in my eyes.   “Where’s your white linen dress and your big straw hat?”  I wanted to tell her.  Sonya was supposed to be an ethereal flower fairy hovering mystically over her guests and her domain.  She was not supposed to be in pants and blouse and a brown one at that!

I still enjoyed our lunch and still found pleasure in wandering around that afternoon but I wish those days of my secret garden.

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