Wild Cantabrian turbot is king at Chef Chele Gonzalez’s new restaurant

Westin Manila’s newly launched Cantabria Spanish restaurant flies in the fish fresh from the cold waters of the Atlantic, and once you have a taste of it, you will understand why.

I have eaten many times at Chele Gonzalez’s restaurants around the Philippines, but first time to eat in one accompanied by his lovely wife, Teri. She and I met when we were club kids in our early twenties, but life got in the way and we got busy, well, living. We reconnected recently not only because we circulate in the same industry, but suddenly with very similar interests ever since she, too, became a mom to their daughter, Ainara.

Accompanied by another one of our girlfriends, the conversation flowed like time has not lapsed in chef Chele’s newest restaurant Cantabria—named after the chef’s hometown located in the northern coast of Spain. Having Teri there with us not only promised a fun evening (she’s a total riot), but also offered a glimpse of a different Chele.

Cantabria Spanish restaurant: Rodaballo a la parilla
Rodaballo a la parilla or grilled whole wild turbot at Cantabria restaurant in Westin Manila, Ortigas Center

The multi-awarded chef has worked in Michelin-starred establishments in Spain, and his many successful years opening a string of restaurants in the Philippines is testament to his talent and illustrious reputation.

Confidence comes naturally to him, and yet, when he is around Teri, he seems to stand a little bit taller, smile a little bit softer. I notice Teri’s hand is comfortable resting on his arm or brushing a stray lint off his pristine chef’s jacket. Teri, by the looks of it, is now Chele’s home.

Still, Cantabria the town will always be where it began, and now is a truly appropriate time to introduce regional Spanish cuisine to an adventurous Philippine market. The food is inspired by the beautiful seafood that they have access to in the area, but with a sharper focus on ingredients.

Cantabria Spanish restaurant: Chefs Chele Gonzalez and Ivan Saiz Sordo
Chefs Chele Gonzalez and Ivan Saiz Sordo, both hailing from the region of Cantabria
Cantabria Spanish restaurant:  Westin Manila’s newly launched Cantabria
Westin Manila’s newly launched Cantabria by Chele Gonzalez

Is this a Cantabrian thing? “Actually, it is more contemporary,” chef Chele explains, “especially when you have the best ingredients you just want its natural flavors to shine through.”

Guided by this principle, his menu showcases Cantabrian cuisine that reflects its love affair with the sea, their cool climate, and the diverse terrain.

There are tapas, of course, but far from what we have grown accustomed to in our many local Spanish restaurants. Elegant starters such as the wagyu tartare topped with ikura on toast and the scallop tartlet with celeriac puree and caviar are best paired with cava, as well as indicators that this is a chef-driven establishment.

Cantabria Spanish restaurant:  Anchovy baguette toast and charred eggplant
Anchovy baguette toast and charred eggplant

The food here toes the line between fun and luxurious, but execution proves that the kitchen is always serious under chef de cuisine Ivan Saiz Sordo, another Cantabrian native who has previously worked with Chele in his other restaurants.

There are croquetas—the chicken with freshly shaved truffle being the more approachable one—but the Singaporean chili crab with lime mayonnaise offers an unfettered adventure with Southeast Asian cuisine.

A solomillo iberico sando is sweetened with tonkatsu sauce, but the saltiness from the pops of caviar offer good balance and a hearty sprinkle of luxury.

Those looking to stick to an assortment of small plates can round things up with the braised beef and porcini ravioli with parmesan espuma and basil oil.

Still, I feel it would be remiss to come to Cantabria and not have their seafood dishes. It does not have to be such a commitment—the starter of Cantabrian anchovies on charred eggplant over toast is already quite the singular experience with the umami from the cured fish.

Cantabria Spanish restaurant: Grilled pork Iberico steak
Grilled pork Iberico steak, fried marble potatoes with green and red mojos sauces
Cantabria Spanish restaurant: Oyster and salmon Tartare
Oyster and salmon tartare, ikura and ceviche dressing

The arroz negro, too, topped with grilled scallops, baby squid, and herb alioli which is more rice stew than paella.

“We do not have paella in Cantabria,” chef Chele points out, “that is from a completely different region.” Teri further explains that with the colder weather in the north, they require heartier meals like stews, providing comfort and warmth during the chillier months.

And, if one can and must, the wild Cantabrian turbot—grilled whole over coals and held by a stainless steel fish basket—will not disappoint. A flat fish favored for its white, fatty, and collagen-rich flesh, it needs only to be seasoned sparingly with salt and perhaps some olive oil to be thoroughly enjoyed.

It is quite a large fish and can be shared by a group of ten accompanied by a few other dishes, so if you still need justification, there you go. And, if the turbot is too much of a luxury, then the baked local grouper is a worthy alternative.

There are desserts to end the meal, but with Cantabria’s elegant dining room offering the comforts of quiet luxury, one can easily want to linger and enjoy a few more drinks or one last bottle of wine. That is definitely what we ended up doing, catching up with old friends and sharing a little bit of industry gossip.

Chef Chele has many restaurants, some with more refined and more cerebral food than this, and others in far more exotic locations offering breathtaking vistas. But what Cantabria does well is food that transports you and give you a very specific and personal taste of Northern Spanish culture.

And for chef Chele, Cantabria brings him home.

The new lifestyle.