Saturday, December 19, 2020

Dining in the Next Normal: Spotted at the Ultimate Taste Test 2020 Master's Edition in Gallery MiraNila by The Blue Leaf

For over twelve years, the Ultimate Taste Test has become the launch pad for many successful home-based food businesses and entrepreneurs including the now famous Pepita's Kitchen by the Lechon Diva, Carmen's Best Ice Cream and Risa Chocolates. For the 2020 Ultimate Taste Test Master's Edition, the tradition continues in this new normal showcasing twenty-two food entrepreneurs that began their home-based food businesses during the quarantine...

The year began just like any other year with a lot of optimism and hope, but 2020 had other plans. A series of natural calamities followed by a global pandemic changed all that. The food service sector, and pretty much everything else, were put on hold as the new normal transformed the way we go about our daily routine. As a challenging year comes to a close, the Ultimate Taste Test 2020 Master's Edition by Our Awesome Planet ends the year on a high note with its long-running UTT series highlighting twenty-two food businesses born out of the quarantine. Creativity and resiliency shined bright in this new normal and just like the previous editions, the Ultimate Taste Test series provides a snapshot of the metro's latest culinary finds and trends. Take a peek at next year's rising stars in the culinary scene with the Ultimate Taste Test 2020 Master's Edition...

This year's edition for the Ultimate Taste Test follows a new format based on the health and safety protocols for the new normal (for more UTT event details, check out Our Awesome Planet). Held at Gallery MiraNila by The Blue Leaf, an elegant al fresco garden area located within the sprawling ancestral estate of one of Manila's prominent families, the Ultimate Taste Test 2020 Master's Edition is a strictly private event without ticket sales and by invite only affair. Unlike previous editions that were open to the public, a maximum of fifty guests per time slot (11am and 2pm) was enforced to manage proper social distancing in this new normal. Individual sampling portions were prepared at the different booths with no sharing allowed. With twenty-two different booths, it still is quite a substantial feast...

But the safety protocols didn't dampen the vibe nor the enthusiasm for one of the year's much-awaited culinary events. Gallery MiraNila by The Blue Leaf was also the perfect venue for a more intimate experience. 

The stately ancestral mansion takes you back in time, with its antique furnishings preserved and lovingly maintained by the Benitez family. In this new normal, stepping back in time is a much-needed and welcome change of pace. 

Back inside Gallery MiraNila by The Blue Leaf, another journey is about to begin with tasty bites from the #UTT2020 experience. This year's selection featured a variety of tasty options, from savory bites to indulgent nibbles prepared by professional chefs and home bakers. But what makes this year's edition special is that most if not all began their businesses during the quarantine. In a way, the quarantine experience was like life's pause button allowing many of us to rethink and value what matters most. And for some, it was a time to get creative in the kitchen...

Valini's Cuisine

What started with Pork Barbecue and Chili con Carne led to the Chicken Sate and their now famous Bagnet in a another inspiring story elevating comfortingly familiar flavors masterfully executed with the finest local ingredients. Valini's Cuisine is now making waves on the net with their savory offerings bannered by the impressive slab of pork bagnet, using pork belly from hogs sourced from the south and fed with all-natural feeds. The result is a layered marbling made even better with their proprietary cooking process that sets it apart from the usual bagnet offerings. 

A shot of fresh sugar cane juice prepares the palate for that savory burst of porcine richness followed by its light and delicate crispness. But it's the distinct notes of Chinese lechon macau that gives that slab of pork so much character. And flavor. A slab of the specialty Bagnet from Valini's Cuisine should brighten up any holiday feast at home (for more on Valini Cuisine, visit their FB Page at

Smoke Station PH

Meet the queens of the pit. For Malor Campita and Jennifer Wambangco, there's just no other way to barbecue premium meats than the old-fashioned way. That's low and slow with absolutely no short cuts. The tedious smoking process is a much closely guarded and much revered secret among barbecue fanatics, almost a religion. The female tandem takes it all in stride with Smoke Station PH and their lavish array of barbecued meats from Pork Belly, Pork Belly Burnt End Candies, Pulled Pork, Black Angus Brisket, Pulled Beef, Hot Smoked Salmon and Chili con Carne. At the Ultimate Taste Test 2020 Master's Edition, Smoke Station PH served their specialty Black Angus Beef Belly...

...and Smoked St. Louis Pork Ribs. The Black Angus Beef Belly, with its distinct pink smoke rings, brings a flavorful beefy punch to the palate followed by a rich smokiness. The tender fall-off-the-bone St. Louis Pork Ribs combines smoky hints with a savory sweetness to complement the delicate notes of the juicy pork. Barbecue is serious business, and these lady pit masters are more than up for it. I'm told that a humorous back story led the partners to owning a smoker, but we can all be glad for the outcome with Smoke Station PH (for more on Smoke Station PH, visit their FB Page at

Czaryn's Yummy Flan

Bring out the bilaos for the holidays. Czaryn's Yummy Flan brings a comforting, local and homespun vibe to your table with the sumptuous Best Ever Palabok generously topped with pork, shrimps, squid and egg paired with their signature Puto with Cheese. Served in a rustic bilao, the Best Ever Palabok becomes a nostalgic family feast for the holidays.

Every celebratory feast at home isn't complete without noodles. And Czaryn's Yummy Flan does it with a festive and flamboyant flair with its lavish and generous toppings of succulent shrimps, squid and tender pork. Each noodle is draped in a flavorful sauce and a squeeze of calamansi completes the flavors in this comforting local noodle dish (for more on Czaryn's Yummy Flan, visit their FB Page at

Happy Chicken

Happy Chicken shares their Pinaupong Manok sa Asin, tender and juicy roast chicken with its mild notes complemented by subtle salty hints...

...paired with sweet and sour Pickled Sea Purslane (also called "dampalit"), a type of perennial herb found in coastal areas. The tart freshness of the pickled dampalit pairs well with the Pinaupong Manok sa Asin making it a complete meal. The native-inspired packaging completes the local vibe. It's a unique taste of purely local flavors recreated by the same group behind Aro-en Gourmet Salt. There's always something new to discover with UTT, and this year's edition does not disappoint.

Salmon HQ

I first experienced Salmon HQ with their impressive Sushi Bake selections like the Crunchy California Sushi Bake and Aburi Scallops Salmon Ebi Sushi Bake, and I've been impressed ever since. What separates Salmon HQ from the rest of the usual sushi bakes is their generous, even over-the-top, servings of the freshest premium seafood in all of their sushi bakes. Every spoonful or stuffed hand wrapped nori lets you enjoy all the flavors of the various fresh seafood with every bite. It's the seafood that's the real star with Salmon HQ's sumptuous sushi bakes, and they do pile it on with each tray.

Even their sampling portions give you an idea on how they reinterpret the now popular sushi bake, stacked and fully loaded with the day's premium and freshest catch. Served with crisp sheets of nori, one can experience the rich briny sweetness and textural contrasts with each wrap. And that's how you do sushi bakes right. 

The intricate Salmon Cake is Salmon HQ's proverbial icing on the cake, with layers of thick slabs of premium salmon topped with fresh salmon roe. And it just tastes as good as it looks (for more on Salmon HQ, see my earlier posts, Dining in the Next Normal: A Sushi Bake Situation Dispatched by Salmon HQ and my round-up of the quarantine's freshest picks at Dining in the Next Normal: Fresh Picks Delivered to Your Doorstep...). When it comes to seafood cravings and indulgent seafood creations, Salmon HQ is your go-to option delivered conveniently to your doorstep (you can also check out their FB Page here at

Boomer's Tribe

Boomer's Tribe Variety Trading brings another regional delicacy, this time from down south, to #UTT2020 with their tasty Chicken Pastil with Palapa. A traditional staple from Maguindanao that's wrapped in banana leaves, it's a convenient and handy meal. Boomer's Tribe bottles their own tasty take on the southern staple with tender and juicy richly seasoned shredded chicken. The bold flavors are kicked up with the addition of palapa, a sweet and spicy southern Filipino condiment made with vegetables, chili and coconut. 

The sampling portion prepared by Boomer's Tribe included rice topped with egg, just the way it's enjoyed down south. And you'll probably want extra rice as the flavors of the shredded chicken pastil just calls for it. It's no wonder then that this is a popular breakfast staple in Maguindanao for that perfect hearty start of the day. It's one more layer in our rich and diverse culinary heritage featured at the Ultimate Taste Test 2020 Master's Edition. Boomer's Tribe also has a mission with its advocacy for local farm-to-fork ingredients as well as supporting farming communities. Each jar purchased goes a long way in helping these communities (for more on Boomer's Tribe, visit their FB Page at

Aurora's Kitchen Makati

Your culinary journey of local regional flavors at the Ultimate Taste Test 2020 Master's Edition continues with the authentic Kare-Kareng Kapampangan by Aurora's Kitchen Makati. Made the old-fashioned way without peanut butter, Aurora's Kitchen Makati tediously grinds their peanuts for the base of the rich and thick gravy. 

The thick bright orange peanut gravy is ladled to your sampler serving with rice, vegetables and tender beef tripe with a side of bagoong. The fresh ground peanuts makes all the difference for that unmistakable kare-kare that you've always loved. And everything comes together quite nicely from the soft steamed rice to the fresh vegetables and fork-tender beef tripe slathered in the rich peanut-based sauce that's perfectly finished with a dab of bagoong.

Cap your authentic Kare-Kareng Kapampangan feast by Aurora's Kitchen Makati with their specialty Ube Halaya. Perfect. You can't go wrong with something so comfortingly familiar (for more on Aurora's Kitchen Makati, visit their FB Page at

Seared & Served

A home kitchen shares its savory home-cooked meals at the Ultimate Taste Test 2020 Master's Edition with Seared & Served by Carla Aragon Altea. But there's one item you just have to try...

...and that's the Wild Umami Truffle Flavored Hot Sauce, or simply WU Sauce. The flavors are not one-dimensional, instead one can experience layers of soothing heat with the elegant deep, earthy and nutty notes of truffle for balanced flavors of pure umami goodness. It does pack a spicy and lingering punch without overwhelming the palate with its delicately balanced notes. If you need to perk up any dish like Seared & Served's Beef Kaldereta, Korean Beef Stew or Beef Stroganoff with some heat, the WU Sauce should do the trick. And they also have an equally flavorful Salted Egg Sauce  that pairs well with fried battered shrimps too (for more on Seared & Served, visit their FB Page at

Marikina Garlic Buns

The popularity of Korean style pull apart bread continues with another tasty spin by Marikina Garlic Buns and their Original and Bacon Mushroom Bun variant. The soft fresh-baked bun with a lightly crisp layer filled with the cream cheese and garlic combo is what hooked us on this Korean street food favorite, but Marikina Garlic Buns goes a step further...

...with the Bacon Mushroom Bun. Imagine a fresh-baked bun filled to the brim with generous dollops of garlic-infused cream cheese made even richer with bacon and mushrooms and you get the picture. Savory, creamy, garlicky and buttery all in one bite. The distinct smoky notes of bacon and earthy hints of mushrooms adds a richness to the creamy and garlicky bun. The Korean bun is no longer just a mere passing trend, it's definitely here to stay (for more on Marikina Garlic Buns, visit their FB Page at


Known for their authentic hummus with tasty variants like Hummus Pesto, Hummus Balsamic Vinegar, Hummus TandooriHummus Tomato Salsa and creamy Original Garlic Sauce, Yummza adds a garlicky and spicy spin with their Garlic Sauce Jalapeño to their growing portfolio of products. The richness of the oil and garlic emulsion with its silky smooth texture is given a refreshing shot of heat from fresh jalapeños for a delicately balanced blend that's perfect with pita bread or grilled meats. Yummza brings Balanced flavors in a jar with the Garlic Sauce Jalapeño, but there's more...

Your long search for a soy and gluten free vegan omelette is over with Yummza's new Vegan Omelette recreating the same mouthfeel and texture with all the flavors you love. A sampler sandwich was served topped with strips of Vegan Omelette delivering rich flavors with each bite. The light, grainy texture of the soft omelette will make a believer out of you with just a few bites   (for more on Yummza, visit their FB Page at

Kumakuma Curry PH

The metro's curry game is given a lift with Kumakuma Curry PH's savory Japanese style curry creations. A familiar storyline that began with a simple craving for authentic curry led to the creation of Kumakuma Curry PH, bannered by The Signature Beef Curry with tender beef brisket, dry beef curry, Japanese short-grain rice, fenugreek, onsen egg, beet & radish mostarda and spiced carrots. The combination of beef brisket curry and dry beef curry gives this dish bold and robust flavors from the rich curry base that's tempered perfectly by the sharp notes of the pickled vegetables. The creamy onsen egg completes the flavors for an authentic Japanese curry experience. 

Kumajuma Curry PH brings both Indian and Japanese curry styles together in a seamless blend with The Butter Chicken Karaage, an inventive play on Indian butter chicken and traditional curry. The juicy chicken is fried to a delicate crispness karaage style slathered in a thick curry with soft and fluffy Japanese short-grain, fenugreek, beet & radish mostarda and spiced carrots. The fusion of Indian and Japanese culinary styles combine for a refreshingly new curry experience. 

Kumakuma Curry PH gives the same attention to its elegant packaging, boxed up and wrapped in cloth for delivery. Each dish is a complete meal, prepared by true blue Japanese curry enthusiasts (for more on Kumakuma Curry, visit their FB Page at

Taco Tuesday MNL

Taco Tuesday MNL shares its own take on a savory beef taco from the Mexican state of Jalisco, the Birria Taco. The base of this unique taco is a hearty and richly seasoned fork-tender beef stew simmered for hours. Then, the stew is stuffed in a taco shell, dipped in the stew for even more flavor and then fried before serving. The result is an entirely new way of enjoying tacos. Taco Tuesday MNL is the only one serving this regional Mexican specialty, and they do it well. Served with a spiced cream sauce and chili, each crisp bite releases intense beefy notes from the stew draping the palate with a savory richness that can only come from a legit Birria taco. Expand your taco horizon and indulge in pure beef bliss with the Birria tacos by Taco Tuesday MNL (for more on Taco Tuesday MNL, visit their FB Page at

Mama V Delicious

The name itself is a clue to the rich and hearty homestyle cuisine offered by Mama V Delicious (you just have to try their Beef Lengua with Mushrooms and their specialty Bacon Carbonara). At the Ultimate Taste Test 2020 Master's Edition, Mama V Delicious featured their signature snack item, Crispy Kropek paired with their versatile Sassy Suka... 

...for a tasty combo that will have you snacking all the way to the last piece of crisp kropek. The light crispness of the kropek teases the palate with its subtle briny notes. But its the aptly named Sassy Suka that steals the show with its refreshingly tart, sour and mildly spicy finish. Try it with the other specialties of Mama V Delicious like Angus Beef Tapa, Chicharon Bulaklak, Daing na Bangus and Chicken or Pork Barbecue for that tangy and vibrant layer of sharpness and subtle heat (for more on Mama V Delicious and their extensive menu offerings, see my post, Dining in the Next Normal: This Weekend, Leave All The Cooking to Mama V Delicious...). This weekend, leave all the cooking to Mama V Delicious (check out their FB Page at

Adie's Delight

One of the highlights of my own quarantine experience has to be the Triple Cheese Bibingka Galapong by home baker Adie's Delight. Made entirely with rice flour or galapong which they tediously grind daily, the local rice cakes have a dense, silky smooth texture that's given an elegant spin with their blend of three cheeses like cream cheese, quezo de bola and Cheddar for an indulgent bibingka experience. It's bibingka, elevated like no other. At the Ultimate Taste Test 2020 Master's Edition, Adie's Delight featured their Triple Cheese Bibingka Galapong with Holland Quezo de Bola...

...along with their line of frozen offerings. What started with bibingka now includes a whole line of frozen, ready-to-cook and eat homemade meals, and the product line keeps growing. It's another inspiring story from the quarantine experience, and you'll soon find out that happiness is indeed homemade with Adie's Delight (for more on Adie's Delight, see my previous posts, Dining in the Next Normal: Happiness is Homemade with the Delightful Baked Homemade Treats by Adie's Delight and my list of game-changers at Dining in the Next Normal: Six Top Picks That Will Change the Way You Look at Bibingka, Brownies, Kutsinta, Siopao, Korean Pull Apart Bread and Banana Bread).


There's cheesecake, then there's the Japanese Double Cheesecake by Bite! MNL. Bite! MNL offers a wide variety of indulgent treats, from cookies to cupcakes, lavish cakes to tin cakes for the holidays. The sealed tin cakes are also the perfect packaging in this new normal. Open a can and let the smooth richness of the Japanese Double Cheesecake drape the palate with its decadent cheese notes. But there's an airy lightness to the Japanese Double Cheesecake that makes you enjoy another bite with less of the guilt. The contrasting flavors of the cheeses, from creamy to sharp hints, gives this Japanese Double Cheesecake by Bite MNL that double punch of indulgence (for more on Bite! MNL, visit their FB Page at

Lola Conching's Kitchen

An old-fashioned apple pie is always the answer to any question. And Lola Conching's Kitchen has that answer, freshly baked and made from scratch using premium apples with just a hint of cinnamon and wrapped in a light, flaky and buttery crust. When you can't have a warm hug due to social distancing in the holidays, this is the next best thing...

I brought home a slice of the Old Fashioned Apple Pie from the event and simply popped it in the oven for a few minutes the next day. And it still hit the spot. The buttery crust remained delicately light and crisp, bursting at the sides with sweet and succulent apples slathered in a cinnamon-infused sauce. But unlike other pies, one can still taste the pure and fresh sweetness of the apples. It's always a good time for some pie. Better still if it's straight out of the oven from Lola Conching's Kitchen (for more on Lola Conching's Kitchen, visit their FB Page at

Lucinda's Patisserie

Cheese rolls, in a variety of flavors, take centerstage with the fresh baked creations of Lucinda's Patisserie. Choose from Original, Milky Buttercreme. Savory Pork, Spicy Savory and Cream Cheese with Almonds, take your pick. Pillow soft with a fragrant aroma fresh off the oven, the popular cheese roll is given an indulgent makeover with inventive new flavors by Lucinda's Patisserie. The best way to get acquainted with the cheese rolls of Lucinda's Patisserie is with the Original, but you won't be disappointed with the Cheesy Caramel and Ube Cheese Roll...

The distinctive colors of purple yam gives this cheese roll a familiar local vibe, and one bite delivers all the nutty goodness of ube complemented by the creamy sharpness of cheese. The Ube Cheese Roll is generously topped with cheese in that signature style of Lucinda's Patisserie for a fresh take on cheese rolls...

...while the Cheesy Caramel is just pure indulgence best paired with a robust, freshly brewed cup of coffee. The sweetness of the caramel is perfectly tempered by the mild sharpness of the cheese for delicately balanced notes. Craving for some cheese rolls? Let Lucinda's Patisserie open your palate to a world of sweet and savory flavors (for more on Lucinda's Patisserie, visit their FB Page at

By: Chef Kin

Cookies, Butternut Crinkles and Mascarpone Cake, By Chef Kin weaves an indulgent spin on elegant desserts including the traditional tiramisu. In collaboration with JC Wines, By Chef Kin shared their new Limoncello Tiramisu at the Ultimate Taste Test 2020 Master's Edition. Masterfully recreating the familiar soft and elegant texture of tiramisu, the vibrant citrus notes of limoncello adds a zesty layer for an inspired take on the Italian classic. Each bite just melts in your mouth leaving lingering citrus notes and you're ready for another indulgent bite. Exciting things are happening with the inventive tiramisu offerings from By Chef Kin, and it's another must-add to your holiday shopping list (for more on By: Chef Kin, check out their FB Page at

Marlene Monfort Pastries

Chef Marlene Monfort's culinary journey began at age 7 with her first Kitchen Aid Mixer, and she hasn't stopped baking since. Her journey eventually led to the Le Cordon Bleu of Culinary Arts Pasadena, California graduating with honors in Patisserie and Baking back in 2005. Returning to her roots, Chef Marlene Monfort's passion for baking continues with her Negrense delicacies prepared with a modern international twist with Marlene Monfort Pastries (for more on Marlene Monfort Pastries, visit their FB Page at

At the Ultimate Taste Test 2020 Master's Edition, Chef Marlene Monfort shared samples of her signature Carrot Cake with Classic Cream Cheese Frosting and the moist and decadent Chocolate Cake with Coffee Pastry Cream Filling and Cocoa Frosting that's hand-stirred over the stove the old-fashioned way. The Carrot Cake has that moist and grainy texture  delivering a fresh nutty sweetness while the Chocolate Cake brings that old-fashioned vibe with its deep, rich and luscious chocolate notes complimented by hints of coffee for that perfect finish. Elegant desserts made with a whole lot of love, that's what you can expect from Marlene Monfort Pastries.


Chocolate cravings? No worries, the Salted Caramel Brownie Cookies by CHOC PH will have your palates swooning over its chocolatey goodness. The unique cookies take on the familiar texture of brownies with its crisp top layer and bold burst of chocolate followed by the sweetness of salted caramel finished by a mild salty kick.  It's one cookie with a whole lot of character (for more on CHOC, check out their IG Feed at


Another home baker shines at the Ultimate Taste Test 2020 Master's Edition with MailChip and her indulgent cookie creations. MailChip offers a variety of chunky and chewy chocolate chip cookies that's perfect for gift-giving or an indulgent and much-deserved reward to yourself. Now with exciting new variants just in time for the holidays like White Chocolate Peppermint, Orange Dark Chocolate Chip and White Chocolate Cranberry Cookies, you've always got mail with MailChip (for more on MailChip, see post, Dining in the Next Normal: Fill Up Your Cookie Jar with These Cookie Picks...). Got mail? Prepare for some cookie indulgence with MailChip (you can also visit their FB Page at

Gelato Manila

With years of experience behind one of the metro's leading gelato brands, an old friend finally creates her own flavorful story with pure artisan gelato goodness. Gelato Manila is the metro's newest entry to a well-developed and competitive market, adding their own creative spin with decadent flavors like Mint Chip, Ube, Pistachio and Vanilla Chocolate Chip using the finest and freshest ingredients. 

That day at the Ultimate Taste Test 2020 Master's Edition, Gelato Manila unveiled two unique variants drawing inspiration from local ingredients and flavors, the Polvorones and Vegan Pili Nut. The Polvoroness replicates the flavors and texture of the local delicacy in a smooth artisan gelato with just the right level of sweetness but it's the Vegan Pili Nut that steals the show for me. Pili nuts, tediously grinded for its essence of oils, provides the creamy base for this vegan gelato.  

And the Vegan Pili Nut is just as smooth and dense as Gelato Manila's other artisan creations with the full roundness of deep dark chocolate flavors lining the palate. For chocolate purists, the Vegan Pili Nut by Gelato Manila is a decadent alternative packed with all the flavors you love in a purely vegan option. Expect to hear even more from Gelato Manila very soon (for more on Gelato Manila, visit their FB Page at

After the votes are cast, a winner will emerge from the year's final edition of the Ultimate Taste Test. But I'm giving my vote for all twenty-two just for simply choosing to rise and move forward despite the uncertainty of this new normal. It's a gutsy response that reminds all of us to end the year strong. The new normal is here to stay, and my congratulations to the Ultimate Taste Test 2020 Master's Edition team and all twenty-two participants for showing us how to face the new normal with resilience and optimism. 

For more on the Ultimate Taste Test 2020 Master's Edition by Our Awesome Planet, check out the link here.

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