April 4, 2012
A welcome stop at Nasugbu
A Commonwealth-era structure houses Casa Central.
On the several occasions that I found myself in Nasugbu, Batangas, I never failed to notice the compound of houses just across the Central Azucarera de Don Pedro. The stretch of the the Nasugbu national highway just before the fork in the road (the left taking you to Calatagan, and the right to Nasugbu) smells of molasses and wood, adding to the pastoral vibe that greets travelers once they leave the busy tourist stretch of Tagaytay.
The compound of houses belongs to the wealthy Roxas clan, who founded the huge sugar refinery and practically built this sleepy town south of Manila. The houses were built around the 1930s for the managers of the refinery, and came complete with its own chapel and infirmary.
I had always been curious about the compound, and thus found myself ecstatic when I learned that it is now home to a restaurant called Café Central.
Café Central resides in one of the roadside Commonwealth-era houses, a single-storey house with a generous silong and a concrete veranda that offers a view of the refinery and the road. The steel-wire gate leading to the compound offers access to the house, which itself is set off from the road by a large, gravel-covered parking lot.
Around the house, dotting the gardens are artifacts from the sugar refinery. Fans of mechanical engineering would have a field day ogling things like 1920s era rotary vaccum filters and electric cable reels, while those into landscaping and architecture would appreciate the fact that the bricks which used to line the cooling towers of the mill now form part of the pavement (and probably have fun reading the serial numbers baked into the bricks as well).
Inside Café Central
Architect and designer Bettina Bonoan revealed that very extensive restoration was done on the structure that houses the restaurant. The structure itself is one of many similar houses in a compound. The architecture is typical of the Commonwealth era: tall ceilings, large windows, sturdy bones of wood and concrete, and a design that echoed the relaxed nature of Nasugbu life in pre-war-Philippines.
The restaurant is actually only part of Casa Central, which is part co-op store, part tourist central for those curious about the town's long love affair with sugar. Beatriz Roxas, proprietor and head cheerleader of the Roxas Foundation (which oversees the cooperative than runs Casa Central) warmly welcomes visitors to this, the foundation's newest baby.
The restaurant itself is worth visiting. Roxas said the walking orders of the kitchen is to create dishes that they would serve the wealthy Filipino-Spanish clan, and it would pleasantly surprise visitors that the Roxases, it seemed, are no different from you and me when it came to matters of the palate.
Café Central serves everyday Filipino fare and everyday the kitchen presents a set menu at an affordable Php195. On the day of our visit, the restaurant was offering Kaldo ng baka (a sort of cross between sinigang and bulalo, and quite refreshing on a hot summer day), a choice of Inihaw na liempo (grilled pork belly), Pork barbecue, Adobong pusit (squid stewed in its own ink and some souring ingredients) and Daing na bangus (marinated milkfish fried in generous heapings of garlic).
The mains were all excellent, and one of our companions noted a common thread among the savory entreés: they were all touched in some way by sugar. Sugar, as any traditional Filipino cook will tell you, is the secret ingredient in most Filipino dishes. It fulfills that critical balance of sweet and salty that most Filipino dishes require, providing even a welcome break to some souring agents in food. It was, in my opinion, the secret ingredient in giving their grilled pork dishes that desirable brown glaze.
Green salad of lettuce and mangoes in a sweet anchovy dressing
Even Café Central's very excellent Green salad (recommended both by the kitchen and Roxas herself), had a curious anchovy-based dressing that hinted at some sweetness. The complimentary crudités were served with bagoong (native anchovy paste) that was suspiciously sweet and so addictive that we found ourselves buying jars of the paste from the co-op store at the restaurant's silong.
The salad dressing, we learned, is a family recipe so the kitchen was loathe to part with details even as we continued to guess at ingredients in an attempt for the cook to perhaps let out a nod of confirmation.
The set menu also offers salads (a choice of cheese encased in ladyfinger peppers, grilled eggplant and salted egg, and Café Central's specialty green salad), as well as a dessert of banana fritters in muscovado syrup or sweetened banana with taro pearls.
For drinks, the sugarcane juice is highly recommended. Served with a tall, thin sliver of the raw sugarcane, the juice is extracted through a special device proudly mounted inside the kitchen and visible from the dining area through the waiter's window.
The restaurant serves all-day merienda fare like the Ala Eh bun, thick chocolate drinks, and the banana fritters. Ala carte specials-of-the-day are also offered, enough for parties of three to four.
Café Central's Inihaw na Liempo
After meals would be a good time to leisurely stroll through the tree-lined compound. First stop would be downstairs at the co-op store, which sells products from the different communities being assisted by the Roxas Foundation. Here you can buy the famous bagoong mentioned earlier, muscovado sugar (of course), salted eggs, various handicrafts, very hippie clothes fashioned out of flour sacks, among other things. Roxas herself proudly models one of the blouses made from the flour sacks (available for around Php300 each)
"Casa Central is the venue chosen to showcase and sell these products," Roxas told us. "By simply dining and buying here , you are supporting our out of school youth and the livelihood beneficiaries of the Roxas Foundation."
The foundation also helps keep some of the structures in the compound in perfect condition. The old CADP chapel has been restored and 80 years of paint have been stripped away to reveal the magnificent narra that was used to create the pews, the windows and doors of the chapel. On either side of the chapel are the sugar museum and the infirmary, which sports on its front lawn a large concrete relief map of the Philippines.
"Café Central is a meeting point where people can experience life in a sugar central," said Roxas
Café Central is located inside the CADPI Compound, along the Nasugbu national highway in Barangay Lumbangan, Nasugbu , Batangas. Call (+63917) 980-9459 or (632) 810-8901 to 06 for inquiries.