Restaurant Review: Philippine Cuisine Gets Rockstar Treatment at "Maharlika"

June 29, 2012 2:05 PM EDT | By Anthony Smith
The "Sisig" at Maharlika. (Photo: Creative Commons)

It's called Maharlika, the Tagalog word for royalty, but when you eat there, you feel like anything but. That's an observation that has nothing to do with the food, which is quite tasty, and everything to do with the service. One of the chief cultural exports of my motherland, The Philippines, is the hospitality of its people. My favorite Philippine restaurants in the states all have the feeling of stepping into someone's home. It's not that the team at Maharlika isn't committed to a dining experience that speaks to those cultural trappings; rather, it's a place that seems to have gotten too big for its britches.

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When it was a pop-up, egregious mistakes were more forgivable. Losing your reservation? Sure, that sucks, but I can deal with that. Now that it's a grown-up restaurant, it really can't be making those mistakes. Meaning that, when I call to make a reservation, I shouldn't be told that if I "come now, I'll be seated very quickly" only to be told upon arrival that "two hours is very quickly." When I objected, politely, that there isn't a slow-moving universe out there where that could be considered "very quickly," I was told that such semantic trifles were a matter of "opinion."

That's all the acid I have in my ink-well. Switching gears, the food is excellent-- albeit a little pricey. Growing up in a pinoy household, thinking of food means thinking of generous-- nay, charitable-- portions of delicious food prepared with more comfort in mind than craft. It's an aesthetic that ignores everything else in the service of decadence and deliciousness, and it's maybe why it undoubtedly informs my experience of all other foods and cuisines.

So when you're paying a little bit more than what you're used to paying at other less hip Filipino restaurants (in the Lower East Side, nearby Krystal's comes to mind), you'd expect larger portions and better food, right? Eh. But being 1-for-2 is okay: the food is delicious, the best Filipino food you can get without schlepping too far out of your way.

And since Filipino food is one of those cuisines that most East Coasters haven't been to exposed to yet, might we make a few suggestions: if you're in a Benedict mood, we're politically quite happy to say that the Eggs Benigno, a playful take on the Eggs Benedict that uses Spam and kalamansi hollandaise (kalamansi is a Philippine citrus fruit that tastes like a lemon and a lime had a beautiful baby), trumps the Eggs iMelda, a pricier dish that swaps out the spam for grilled prawns (delicious) and fresh taro root leaves laing (inedible). Both come with kamote home fries (kamote is a Philippine take on the sweet potato). And while both are cutely named for two very important figures in Philippine history, I just need to take a moment to point out that its due ONLY to the kitschy, campy way that the story of Imelda Marcos was exported to other countries (her shoe collection!) that this restaurant gets away with naming a dish after a mass murderer and enemy-of-the-people.

The crown jewel of their brunch menu is their Pampangan-Style Sizzling Sisis with Egg. Sisig is all the parts of the pig you're not supposed to eat-- the snout, the cheek, and the belly-- cooked three different ways and sauteed with garlic and lemon. It comes on a bed of Philippine garlic fried rice (the best stuff in the world), and has an egg cooking on top of it. The waiter explains that you're supposed to mix up the egg and wait for it to cook. But knowing how utterly transcendently delicious this dish is, that wait is the worst part of it. This isn't just an imperative for Americans, it's for all my fellow ex-pats reading this article: this is one restaurant dish you won't be able to say your grandmother does better. It'll slay all of your expectations for what a pinoy restaurant can offer.

But then again, so will the fact that they'll probably lose your reservation.

Grade: B+/B for food, D for service

Maharlika Filipino Moderno

111 First Avenue


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