If seafood were a religion, restaurants like Sunae turn nonbelievers into devout followers.
“You know, it’s only recently that I’m learning how to appreciate seafood,” I admitted to my dinner companion at Señorita Sunae while finishing my seafood laksa. A few weeks ago, we were invited to try the restaurant’s new dishes, and seafood featured prominently in our intimate feast.
If I had been invited to this dinner many years ago, I would have declined. Growing up, I always felt queasy after getting a whiff of the salty and marine smells of ingredients like shrimp and squid. And when I would try to eat them, I couldn’t get past what I perceived as an icky mouthfeel and fishy—dare I say horrid—aftertaste. “Perhaps you haven’t been served fresh, quality seafood,” a friend once mused when I shared these anecdotes.
However, there was a time that I couldn’t refuse. Four years ago, because of a writer shortage and a tight timeline, I got assigned to write about a certain Cantonese restaurant in Manila. The menu was filled to the brim with seafood: XO sauce and shrimp, salted egg squid, and shrimp dim sum, among others. Seated among Manila’s food writers and editors, I prepared whatever acting skills I had to prevent any hint of queasiness as I sampled the menu.
To my surprise, I finished my platter before I realized that I wasn’t getting any of those repulsive textures and tastes that I had associated with seafood—”clean” was the word that popped in my mind. When I spoke to the chef after the dinner, he shared that he takes pride in using only the freshest ingredients. My friend was right—perhaps I wasn’t just getting the good stuff cooked well.
Memories of this Cantonese restaurant breakthrough came flooding back during my dinner at Sunae, precisely because I was enjoying my fill of seafood as the night progressed. Two new dishes stood out to me: first, there’s the Bangkok-style crab and prawn omelet, a heap of stir-fried garlic rice wrapped in egg chock-full of crabs, prawns, onions, and the richness of aligue.
I wrote in my notes that the dish, though filling and not overpowering in terms of flavor, was a bit too oily for my liking. But it’s fried rice. And a Thai omelet, I muttered to myself. Have you ever met a Thai omelet that isn’t oily?
Second, the kinilaw tahure: fresh, raw tuna; tofu cream (tahure is fermented soybean curd), seasonal fruits (our dish had strawberries, which is a personal favorite), and quinoa. Judging by the ingredients alone, the table already knew that it was going to be a complex dish, what with the savory tuna taste; salty tahure; the bright punches of sweetness and sourness from the strawberries, and a bit of heat from the chili oil.
However, it was the contrast between the crispy quinoa and the tender tuna that sealed the deal for me. In my mouth, cutting through the mushy fruits and fish were these small bits of earthiness that also highlighted the rest of the dish’s flavors.
There was a third dish that our group raved over: the mackerel Penang curry, a thick slab of pan-fried white fish seated in a bowl of aromatic Thai Penang curry, kaffir lime, and strawberries.
What I loved best about this dish was that the mackerel separated into hefty flakes when I cut through it, allowing me to gather as much curry sauce, lime, and basil on the morsel. It was pan-fried enough to have a crusty exterior while keeping the white meat soft, yet not undercooked.
There was one thing, however, that I thought could have been taken out of this dish. And this surprised me because, on its own, I would eat heaps of it—the strawberries! With how fragrant, herby, and spicy the dish already is, I felt like the sweet-sour flavors from the fruit were competing with what the mackerel was already absorbing from the curry. It doesn’t ruin the dish, mind you; I just felt like it was an added layer that the mackerel could have done without.
We finished the rest of the dinner with other new dishes and Sunae classics: chicken skewers, fried dumplings, and dim sum for appetizers; a special Sunae sisig, an ode to Chef Christina Sunae’s Kapampangan roots; the aforementioned seafood laksa that brought back memories of the Cantonese episode; KFC (that’s Korean fried chicken for you), which I considered the “palate cleanser” in a table filled with Southeast Asian flavors, and Sunae’s unconventional take on the halo-halo.
I once remarked that if seafood were religion, I grew up a nonbeliever. However, over the years, I’ve met people and tried out restaurants like Sunae that, through the freshest seafood and masterful ways of cooking, are slowly converting me into a follower. Perhaps I can consider this article as my way of spreading the gospel of seafood—or Sunae, for that matter.
Señorita Sunae Asian Kitchen is located at the second floor view deck of One Bonifacio High Street Mall, 28th Street, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig. They are open daily from 11: am – 11 pm on Sundays; 12 noon – 10 pm on Mondays and Tuesdays, 12 noon – 11 pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays; and 11 am – 12 midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Follow Sunae on Facebook and Instagram.