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Pilgrimage to DenLim’s Kitchen in Pampanga

Pugon lechon with buro —MARGAUX SALCEDO

For years, there has been this private dining destination in San Fernando, Pampanga that everyone raved about: DenLim’s Kitchen.

I finally got to try it out upon the invitation of Beth Romualdez, who threw a post-birthday bash there last Thursday.

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The restaurant is almost 80 kilometers from Manila and it was exhausting to get out of the metropolis on a weekday night. But when I arrived at DenLim’s, it felt like all of the stress from the traffic went away.

Chef Dennis Lim, founder of DenLim’s Kitchen, was standing at the counter beside the long family table, attending to the food. He is a pleasant man, very chill.

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While waiting for the group to be complete, he begins to serve homemade bread (his family created LA Bakery, which is what the building where DenLim’s now stands used to be) with a bangus dip. This is a starter with a bite, greatly appreciated by the gourmets on the table—as was the summer salad that had apples and pinipig.

Then chef Dennis, whose last stint was as private chef in the South Hamptons in New York, segues to seafood. Two large chunks of salmon with asparagus, beautifully cooked, are served. This is followed by large shrimps in truffle sauce, which was okay but not a strong point in the menu. It felt more like a filler than a dish that defines the chef.

Pork, on the other hand, is the chef’s strong point. No Kapampangan chef/cook worth his apron would fail at this game.

He presents sisig on top of pasta, instead of the usual flair of having it on a cast iron plate. It’s a creative escape from singing the same old song. Yet, laudably, he is able to maintain everything sisig lovers love about the iconic Filipino dish: the crunch from the head parts, the hint of spice, the savoriness of pork meat.

Another sure hit is the pugon lechon. Instead of spit-roasted pig, however, DenLim gets the liempo cut, with ribs attached, from his butcher and pops it in the oven.

Once again, this is not served with rice, not even with liver sauce, as is traditionally done. Instead, Lim meshes in another Kapampangan delicacy: the buro (fermented rice with fish) or balo balo (fermented rice with shrimp). But instead of fish or shrimp, he uses pork with the fermented rice.

The pork meat, meanwhile, is to be eaten like samgyeopsal, wrapped in a lettuce leaf with a couple of pieces of arugula and a cherry tomato. No sauce added. It’s almost as if the chef is teasing guests with a “healthy” meal.

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The last item on the menu is the Caveman’s Shank, a huge leg of beef served with the bone. This is Lim’s response to Batangas’ bulalo. It is fork tender although the flavors of the beef in this one do not sing as loudly and beautifully as the earlier two dishes of pork. The mushroom gravy that the meat sits on needs an update.

Visually, the idea of this dish as the piece de resistance is spot on. But there is something missing with the shank that leaves the entire show missing the crescendo. It would be excellent if the chef found a way to make sure the pork does not outshine the beef.

What surprisingly stands out is the side of corn. Simply cooked on charcoal, it shows restraint, which proves evidence of maturity on a chef.

By this time, all my tablemates had no more room for food. Thankfully, Pampangueño foodies Isser Sugay and Pau dela Cruz told me to pace myself and I was happily able to appreciate even the queso de bola cheesecake.

A few tips if you will make your way to DenLim’s Kitchen. First of all, know that it is a good 2.5 – 3 hours from Manila. From the San Fernando exit, DenLim’s is another half hour. There is no sign on the gate and door but Waze will you tell you when “you’ve arrived at your destination.” Second, mind your time because the chef will not start until the party is complete or at least practically complete. For the benefit of your hungry companions, respect the reservation hour. Third and most important, pace yourself. The 8- or 9-course meal (with dessert) is a marathon, not a sprint, and you will want to get to the finish line.

Sadly, the kitchen is fully booked already for all weekends (Friday to Sunday) until December. However, there are still weekday openings as well as some lunch openings. When making your reservation, remember there is a minimum head count of 12 pax. If you are a party of less than 12, the restaurant might accommodate you but you will still have to pay for the minimum head count.

Make sure to bring cash since they do not have a credit card facility. Also, it would be best to inform the restaurant beforehand if they will need to accommodate senior citizens and if you will need an official receipt because in spite of their popularity, they still subscribe to the idea of being a private dining concept as opposed to a full blown restaurant.

I strongly recommend that you make DenLim the finale of your San Fernando food tour. Go visit Our Lady of Manaoag first and say a prayer for the country and for water. Buy pasalubong at Susie’s and Nathaniel’s. Have lunch at Everybody’s Cafe. Then hit DenLim’s Kitchen to wind down and have a bottle of wine (no corkage) before heading home.

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TAGS: Beth Romualdez, Chef Dennis Lim, DenLim’s Kitchen
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