Bale Dutung: a case for excellent dining experience

I do not normally write about restaurants except for when I take photos of the good food I discover along the way. Add to that checking into restaurants I like whenever I get to try them out. Other than that, I do not typically write about them only because the web is already filled with many restaurant reviews some from real foodies, some from the occasional foodie and some who have been paid to write fake reviews.

Bale Dutung is quite the exception though because it sets the bar really high in terms of providing their dining guests a superior dining experience that’s worth the 95Km drive from Manila.

Rhex first brought me to Bale Dutung in 2011 on our way to Baguio. It was our first time to try their famous 10 course degustation with a feature on enjoying lechon in five ways. We visited Bale Dutung again in 2012 to try their Kapampangan menu, also a 10 course degustation that’s not just about lechon.

Today, we brought my dad who’s visiting from the US to Bale Dutung, which for Rhex and I a third time to dine there. And all three visits have been nothing but excellent. In my opinion, Bale Dutung has cracked the perfect recipe for making people happy through a memorable culinary experience.

Yes, of course, it is the food by Chef Claude Tayag that draws us to Bale Dutung despite our self-imposed strict low calorie diets. All 10 courses are paired with hefty servings of trivia, stories, and perspective from Mary Ann Tayag, the chef’s wife. She patiently walks you through the challenging 10 courses of the meal. She actually tells everyone that her job is to make sure she gets to take their guests to the last course. I will write more about Mary Ann later. We had the lechon degustation today and each dish served was a delight.

Secondly, ambiance couldn’t be better. You will enjoy your degustation in an al fresco setting. First time we went there, it was so hot they had to place huge blocks of ice in front of industrial fans. So, it is best to come in light, casual, summer-ready clothes. The restaurant is set at the open air ground floor of a traditional Filipino right next to a garden. Place has a good mix of antique furniture and decor which Mary Ann says Claude loves to collect.

Third and most important reason why I think Bale Dutung is a great case for excellent dining experience is the woman behind the success of the chef — Mary Ann Tayag. She calls herself as the “serbidora” in charge of making sure you enjoy the food they have passionately prepared for their guests down to the last dish of 10 courses. She welcomes each group that arrives smartly, professionally and at the same time in a very personal way. When you’re booking, she would ask for the complete names of those in the party. As we have built some rapport with her, and this being our 3rd time to visit, today, she went straight to our table, sat down and caught up with us like we were some old friends whom she hasn’t seen in a long time. Sharing stories and insights is her strong suit. A former flight attendant before discovering her passion for food and her husband, she knows how to carry a good conversation never making you feel awkward with all the attention she gives you. She has so much to say about food and the food business. She trots around the floor to talk to the other guests making sure they are enjoying their time at their home. She uses a portable PA system to talk about the background of the dish they are serving and tips on how to enjoy them. But just like good friends, she joined our table to eat with us after going around other guests’ tables. There are also a few little details that add to the very personal touch of Bale Dutung: your assigned table comes with a degustation menu card personalised with the names of the people in the party, official photo op with the chef for their collection along with a guestbook that’s passed around for giving feedback or immortalising the memorable dish which also has the pictures of those who dined with them that day.

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In my opinion, Bale Dutung won’t have the same experience without Mary Ann which gives their good food, great ambiance an irreplaceable unique personal touch. Chef Claude came out to meet the guests and join them in group photos and later on joined our table for our own photo as well. Rhex tells me that Chef Claude came straight to him to shake his hand perhaps recognising that this is already our 3rd time to visit as though he knew Rhex personally well by now. Mary Ann walked with us to our car then, like old friends, we beso before saying goodbye. When we get married, we are hoping to invite her to become one of our ninangs.

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Top tips:

1. Come early or be on time. The degustation doesn’t start if other tables are not yet filled with guests who have made the reservation. Sometimes, late guests are also indirectly called out by Mary Ann.

2. Rhex and I love the lechon menu. If you want the best of both the lechon and Kapampangan menus, opt for the Anthony Bourdain menu. Note though you sometimes have to go along with what menu has been requested by the largest group in the party.

3. Buy their homemade bagoong. It is the best bagoong out there. And you can’t buy it from the supermarket which already sells Claude’s sauces.

4. Take San Fernando exit. We like this better than the Angeles Exit.

5. Book ahead. Mary Ann has already said no to some presidents because schedules didn’t match.

Bale Dutung is a 1.5hr drive from Manila and can be found on most GPS apps. Address is Paul and Francis Streets, Villa Gloria Subdivision, Angeles City, Pampanga. It is worth the full tank and saving an entire day for the experience. Reserve at (045) 6250169.

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