Article and Photos by Joanne Boston-KwanHull
Chef "Lee" was a name that was swished around by a number of different people from various aspects of my life over a number of years. After some connecting dots, I finally made the realization that everyone was talking about the same guy. I learned from my mom that he was a handsome young chef at her work who would greet her warmly in passing. Another friend told me her husband had DJ'ed with him in high school. And through the culinary industry grapevine, I heard he helped open a now-well-known restaurant in Hawaii. Chef Lee and I conversed online, exchanged "likes" on social media and have seen each other at special events. Each time I would see him, I teased that mom and I still were waiting to taste his dishes. Fast forward a few years. It took a while, but my mother and I were finally at Chef Lee Opelinia's table ready to embark on a scrumptious journey called "Province."
What is special about his dinners is that they are invite-only AT HIS HOME. That's right, he welcomed his guests to sit at the island in the middle of his gorgeous blue/stainless steel kitchen to watch him create and converse. His wife and young daughter graciously excused themselves from the residence when we arrived because "Daddy is working!". It was definitely an intimate affair with only 4 guests at each seating. Chef Lee explained that his dishes were not what our mom's made at home; rather, they are refined dishes that are inspired by the ones that were. For a living, Chef Lee currently cooks in a fine dining environment, so we were excited to see his creativity come to life - as a Filipino-American living in one of the most food-driven cities in the world.
Fanny Bay Oyster / Calamansi / Coriander
The fully-cooked oyster still had the texture of a raw oyster, but had that lovely tinge of smoke. The foam on top was made with calamansi which gave a nice tartness while the young coriander lent freshness and verdant quality.
Black Truffle / Crème Fraiche / Chive
Truly a Lee Opelinia specialty. We have heard it's a hit at each of his dinners and here is why: polvorone is normally a sweet shortbread-like confection. His version incorporates black truffle giving it a decadent earthiness. The crème fraiche and chive were a touch of brightness in contrast to the deep flavors in the polvorone. If only he had more than one per person. These are spectacular.
Charred Filipino Eggplant / Hen Egg Espuma / Sourdough
Typically a breakfast dish, tortang talong or eggplant omelet, is enjoyed with rice or pan de sal. This was a very Thomas Keller-approach as he made an egg foam and put it on top of a talong puree. Bits of toasted sourdough gave a crispy texture to the dish. Playful yet elegant.
Spot Prawn Kilawen
Trout Roe / Meyer Lemon / Sorrel / Scallion / Ginger
Kilawen is similar to kinilaw and ceviche where the seafood is "cooked" in citrus or vinegar. The spot prawns were so sweet! While the main flavor here was sourness coming from the lemon and sorrel leaves (which grew in his backyard!), a bright saltiness came from the roe as little bursts of flavor.
Dungeness Crab / Koshihikari Rice / Radish / Pea Shoots
Our first main dish wowed us and made us remember the times our lola would cook rice porridge when we were sick. Chef Lee created an arroz caldo with huge chunks of sweet Dungeness crab and fresh pea shoot leaves. A bit of lemon on top and we were in bliss. The koshihikari rice became a velvety platform for the succulent toppings. We definitely took our time with this course. Each bite carried two memories - one of old and one of the present. Remarkable.
Pork Belly / Kabocha/ Chinese Long Bean / Pickled Pearl Onion
Chef Lee prepared the pork early in the meal to ensure it would be cooked by the time we finished our arroz caldo. He paired the beautiful pork with remnants of sitaw't kalabasa. A quick sauté of long beans and a puree of sweet kabocha squash. Of course, a pickle of onion livened up the dish. Again, we took our time here savoring each crisp bite of pork and vegetable.
Green Mango / Coconut / Mitsuba
Dessert! Green mangoes are truly a gift. The sour sweet fruit was a nice palate cleanser and the "mango blanca" - a play on maja blanca - was light and perfectly satisfying. He made that green sauce with mitsuba - also known as Japanese wild parsley. The herb made the whole dessert even more refreshing as it has a slight bitter, almost celery quality. Of course, some fried lumpia wrapper pieces never hurt anyone. Winner.
Filipino food is not automatically thought of as "fine dining" because it is so deeply rooted in the home; however, it seemed that we were living a paradox...here we were eating white table clothed table-worthy food in the HOME of a warm and friendly chef who wishes to produce refined variations of Filipino dishes. Yes, this was not mom's or lola's cooking. It was Lee's cooking. He used the techniques he learned over the last decade and incorporated his memories as a young Filipino into his stellar menu. He extended a part of him into this meal. He let us taste the herbs before putting them on the plate as garnish so that we can trace the nuances of each. He gave us tips on how to get a crispy skin on the pork belly. He gave us his secret to a perfect itlog espuma. And even gave us a taste of some [very concentrated] crab flakes he would use as a garnish. I appreciated that the dishes were balanced. Where there was richness, there was a counter of sourness or tart and sweet. The portions were just right. The timing of plating was impeccable. The presentation was gorgeous. The whole meal was a phenomenal experience even moreso because it was a one-man show.
In addition to the glorious dishes, the conversation we had with each other was a special component to the dinner - it let us peek into each other's lives and share our experiences growing up with Filipino food. This transfer of knowledge seems to always been present when eating Filipino food! Rightfully so as Filipino food evokes so much emotion. That's the beauty of Filipino food.
I looked at my mom every so often during the meal. This was my treat because it would soon be our birthmonth. Her eyes filled with intrigue as she watched Chef Lee cook. I would ask her "are you happy, mom?" A quick "yes" came in return. So thank you, Chef Lee for showing us that Filipino food can be prepared at this caliber and that it can have value and be worthy of fine dining. Thank you also for showing us how you gave your food undeniable soul with your stories and beautiful execution.
I can't wait to see what he cooks up next.
To find out more about Province, check out Chef Lee's Facebook page.