September 10, 2007 by bernadiva
3870 17th St
(between Noe St & Pond St)
San Francisco,CA 94114
I entered Palencia with a touch of trepidation, mostly because Filipino food is not known for being “haute cuisine” and I was interested to see how they were going to pull it off. Much of the food I grew up eating, thanks to my mother (an amazing force in the kitchen), was absolutely delicious, but very simple. Vegetables and meat with a generous side of rice; vinegar, patis and bagoong as condiments. I wondered if this “Filipino Cuisine” was going to be some sort of fusion between traditional Filipino and American food, to cater to a broader audience.
Upon first glance at the menu, I immediately recognized every single dish as something my mom makes. The table was set with a fork and spoon at each place – any kid who grew up in a Filipino household will tell you, that is truly how we eat – no knives! Ukoy – a sort of tempura-like pancake of vegetables and shrimp, was something that I never really liked as a kid. Their version was smaller than what I’m used to, but packed more flavor than my mom’s (I know, blasphemous, right?). I actually liked this a lot. Next up, fresh lumpia – it was missing a few ingredients that I like (fried tofu, more veggies), but it was quite good. Soup course – we ordered the nilaga. It was really nice, with less fat than homemade, a rich beef broth, and vegetables cooked ‘al dente’. So far, so good. Then came the main dishes.
Daing na bangus – marinated milkfish – this was excellent. They smoked the fish, giving it a stronger and heartier flavor than usual (I am used to the fish just being marinated in vinegar and fried). The bistek was just okay – sweeter than I like it, it could have used more vinegar. The lechon kawali was good, but I’m not a big fan of fried pork skins, so I didn’t really care for it.
To end our meal, we ordered the halo-halo, which had really delicious chunks of leche flan, macapuno, jackfruit, red beans, and a scoop of mashed ube, topped with your choice of ice cream (we chose ube). It was perfect.
The experience itself was satisfying – purely Filipino dishes (no fusion) using finer ingredients, and presented on banana leaves. The sounds of Filipino folk music floated gently through the small dining room, reminding me of my childhood days learning how to dance Filipino Folk Dances from my mom…the capiz lanterns….the large sepia-toned family photo at the back of the restaurant….people at the bar drinking San Miguel beers…Palencia captured a lot of the essence of the Philippines, while elevating the food to a fine dining experience.
My only complaint is that Filipino food is usually served in huge, inexpensive portions, and Palencia is not cheap by any means. I probably wouldn’t go running back anytime soon, but I was thinking of taking my great-aunts here sometime, for Merienda, just to give them a “fancy” version of food from their homeland.