Domu Lab, the chef incubator/hitmaker by local impresarios Sonny Nguyen (Domu, Tori Tori) and James Beard Award-nominated restaurateurs Johnny and Jimmy Tung, is grooming another budding star from the second-floor studio at The Neighbors in East End Market. DJ Tangalin follows chef Tung Phan, who took Camille and its French-Vietnamese tasting menu to a permanent space in Baldwin Park this past June. Should Danilo's Pasta Bar similarly churn out the hits, Tangalin could very well parlay that success to a brick-and-mortar of his own. Until then, the Philippines-born chef, along with chef/pastaio Nick Breyare, are keeping their heads down while simultaneously turning the heads of patrons with their riffs of Fil-Italian fare remixed with French pops.
Danilo's à la carte menu is available for walk-ins to enjoy at any of the window-side seats at the Neighbors, but for those seated at the reservations-only eight-seat bar, Danilo's tasting menu comprising eight courses is the smart choice. For one, it really flaunts the talents of Tangalin and Breyare; second, it's reasonably priced at $75.
The menu changes weekly, but an amuse of balsamic-pickled red potato coated with Danish blue cheese fondue and draped with house-cured, 28-day aged duck prosciutto is a bite worthy of any week in the year. So is an accompanying bite of baked herb polenta dressed with candied red onion and basil pistou.
The presentations may be a lot more fussed-up than some may expect but, then again, Tangalin was an acolyte of Eric Ripert, first at the now-shuttered 10 Arts in Philadelphia, then at Le Bernardin in New York City. In fact, he spent six months staging at starry award winners all over the country — Bryan Voltaggio's Volt in Maryland, Cyrus in California wine country, Coi in San Francisco, Village Pub in the Bay Area, and Jeune & Jolie in Carlsbad, just to name a few. So seeing a crudo of hand-speared fluke tartare elegantly placed atop Indian River oysters slicked with chive oil, or a bourride (Languedoc's answer to the Provençal bouillabaisse) of PEI mussels and lemongrass-infused chicken sausage brightened by confit tomatoes, seems hardly out of place for Tangalin.
The latter is served with an antipasti of toasted ciabatta dressed with a puree of butternut squash and carrot, spiced apple mostardo and pepitas. The toast, prettied with a little parsley, shaved with Parm and drizzled with olive oil, is gorgeous in and of itself — it just makes sopping that thick fish broth a bit ugly. Arguably the most fetching dish was roasted lamb rubbed with ras el hanout. The pair of chops come propped against rounds of sage- and thyme-roasted delicata squash brushed with an herb emulsion and garnished with pomegranate seeds. It had all the North African vibes, so if you're wondering about how Tangalin's Filipino heritage plays into this taste-track of eats, well, I was kinda wondering the same.
"I'm Filipino," Tangalin says matter-of-factly. "I was born in the Philippines and these dishes are borne from my experience." Third-culture cooking cuts a wide swath, no doubt, but when Tangalin comes out of the kitchen to deliver his next plate, he comes out grinning. "Pancit!" he beams and we both laugh, though this most Pinoy of dishes is no laughing matter. Squid ink tagliatelle (from Orlando City Pasta), Chinese sausage, bay scallops, chicken, carrots and cabbage in a shallow pool of oyster-soy broth is the sort of dish that makes Danilo's one of the most notable restaurant openings of the year. And it's precisely this kind of cooking that earned Tangalin a chef of the year nod by Eater San Diego in 2018.
The pancit is followed up with house-made tortellini filled with ube and lemon-herb ricotta sauced with coconut-turmeric ginataan. Squash (in this case, kabocha squash) was the primary veg, but its pulpy, fleshy texture wasn't exactly complementary. For that matter, the delicata squash paired with the lamb didn't quite mesh for me either. But the flavors of the dishes — all of the dishes, in fact — were so well-thought-out, and their preparation so skillfully executed, that textural hiccups were easy to look past.
Danilo, by the way, is Tangalin's first name, and Jazel is the name of his better half. She also happens to be the pastry chef, and her bibingka, a sort of coconut-rice cupcake, is a capper I'd eat any day — the palm leaf cream-cheese topping, in particular. A sweet ube tiramisu is also served, as is flan drenched in a mixed-berry syrup topped with pistachios. Bergamot is included in an homage to The Menu, specifically the palate cleanser scene ("Is this bergamot I'm getting, Chef?").
It just serves to bring all this lofty fare down from its rarefied heights. Tangalin and Breyare may be a couple of hyper-focused cooks, but they project a loose, almost relaxed stance in the kitchen. In fact, Tangalin says they often know what the other is thinking and finish each other's tasks in the kitchen. It's clear Tangalin has a good rapport with Breyare, and that the future holds a lot of promise. Something tells me that with Danilo's, DJ's just scratching the surface.
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