Local foodies these days can dish on their favorite Japanese street food specialties and good friends sometimes raise their voices when arguing over which Vietnamese restaurant has the best pho. But start talking about how the fermented tang of bagoong sets off fried rice or about the restorative properties of dinuguan, a pork and blood stew, and the room may quiet down.
These are staples of Filipino cooking, though those of us who didn’t grow up eating it will likely have little standard for comparison. They’re also standout dishes at Milkfish, however, and this new Mid-City restaurant is uniquely adapted to jump-start the culinary conversation.
The chef Christina Quackenbush ran Milkfish as a pop-up for two years before she and fiancé Dean Lambert opened their own restaurant in April. While the seemingly exotic cuisine was a good fit for the offbeat pop-up format, as a full-time restaurant, Milkfish has blossomed into a showcase to peel back the layers of Filipino cooking and discover some familiar common ground.
A robustly polyethnic cuisine that owes as much influence to Spain as to China and Indonesia, Filipino cooking at its bedrock is country cooking, with its mandate to extend what’s on hand and make full use of precious resources. This plays out through fermented and preserved flavors and the elevation of off cuts to marquee status through patient slow-cooking and a whole lot of seasoning. Plenty of Southern cooks will recognize this approach, which is also a wellspring for other global cuisines now being rediscovered and interpreted by chefs.
This food is nothing new to Quackenbush, who grew up in the Philippines. But she is applying a chef’s aesthetic to interpretation and presentation and in the process recasting elements of the mother cuisine for a modern, accessible, mid-range dining experience.
The kare kare ($15) is a good example. It starts with big, bony cuts of oxtails coated with a luscious and surprisingly compatible sauce of peanut butter and garlic and dabbed with that bagoong, a chunky paste that carries a rambunctiously salty marine essence through it all.
These sound like the makings for a pretty burly meal, but with a precisely molded column of rice, bok choy greens splayed over it like a pressed flower and a knot of dark green long beans it all comes together as a composed and measured dish.
An easy entry point for this menu is the chicken adobo ($12), which has an edge from vinegar and soy sauce but satisfies the same comfort food craving as many another roasted chicken. The two-bite lumpia eggrolls ($6) also make a good introduction, with rolled pork encased by an ultra thin wrapper. I prefer these to the lumpia Shanghai ($7), which are fatter but much more oily.
The tamarind-based sinigang soup ($9) can be breathtakingly tart, the broth as strong as pickle juice, at least until you tame it a bit with the toasted rice on the side. For Filipino-style ceviche, or kinilaw ($10), fish (usually drum) is marinated in vinegar instead of citrus for a more subtle flavor.
Even from the pop-up days, I’ve always found the Milkfish name problematic, conjuring an odd image of fish and dairy. But Pacific milkfish is a popular catch in the Philippines, and Quakenbush makes it an appealing centerpiece of her menu.
The fish itself is strong-flavored, dense and rich, like preserved fish even when it’s served fresh. Preparations here vary, but a pan-fried version ($18) with coconut milk sauce topped with spicy, pickled red cabbage is one of the kitchen’s go-to dishes.
While some people will recoil at the mention of blood stew, this one, the dinuguan ($13), is soothing and soulful, with the mouth feel and lush earthiness of a Mexican mole. It coats strands of pork more like thick gravy than stew and pairs well with a Spanish tempranillo from the short wine list.
Cocktails often draw on tropical flavors to match the menu. So calamansi, a mellow Filipino lemon, is whipped into a tequila and cilantro cocktail, and there’s a bourbon-soaked hunk of jackfruit to spear at the bottom of an old-fashioned.
Milkfish’s address was previously a pizza franchise with zero personality. Now there’s tons of it, from island-inspired art to the service — which often includes family stories from one of Quackenbush’s five children, who each play a role in the restaurant.
At least half the dishes can be readily converted for vegetarians. The restaurant delivers around its adjacent neighborhoods, and it keeps later-than-usual hours. When we sat down for dinner after 9 p.m. on a recent Monday, we weren’t the last people in the door. If Milkfish is banking on the curiosity of local diners to try something different, on nearly all counts it seems determined to meet them halfway.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.