"Bahay Kubo," a folk song entrenched in Filipino culture, tells of a country home and the various plants and vegetables that grow around it. The song is familiar to virtually every schoolchild raised in the Philippines, but more than just a nursery rhyme, a bahay kubo is also the name of the indigenous stilt house of the island archipelago, and a national symbol of the Philippines. It's a place of refuge, community and, yes, gastronomy.
At Kaya, the modern Filipino restaurant by Kadence alums Lordfer Lalicon and Jamilyn Bailey, the structure housing the restaurant has the look, and certainly the feel, of a bahay kubo. Calamansi, lemongrass, banana, pineapple and tomato as well as herbs and edible flowers bloom about the restaurant's outdoor garden. Inside, Kaya has all the homey feels: on the walls, personal effects and family photos of Lalicon and Bailey provide the backdrop, while artwork, ceramic serveware, terracotta floor tiles, even a ceiling resembling a terraced rice field, lend Kaya an intimacy rarely found in any "casual fine dining" restaurant.
Bailey pointed out the bahay kubo print on the wallpaper next to the kitchen on our inaugural visit, and we got a kick out of hearing her sing the song. A couple of months later, chef Lo croons a few lyrics while serving us one of the five "waves" of Kaya's $95 tasting menu — a menu rooted not in the fried and porky Pinoy faves we've come to know and love, but in seafood and vegetables. No question, it's a menu that deliberately tests any preconceived notions people may have of Filipino fare.
Seeing a harukei turnip from Winter Park Urban Farm dramatically impaled into rice fermented with Cape Canaveral shrimp sautéed with garlic, onions and tomato was eye-opening — as eye-opening as a dish of fried tilefish from Ponce Inlet served in a traditional palayok clay vessel. Clay bowls come lined with a tamarind-miso-guava paste and wee marigold petals, into which a starfruit-dashi broth embellished with gai lan broccoli and Worden Farm Seminole squash is poured. If it's not abundantly clear by this second wave that local sourcing is of the utmost importance at Kaya, then you've likely downed one too many "alleged negronis" ($14), with their pina colada vibes, or enjoyed Brett Ware's curated wine and sake pairing ($85) a bit too much.
Local purveyor Fungi Jon's gourmet mushrooms are a star ingredient, particularly in the third wave's noodle and veg-forward pancit sotanghon featuring mung bean noodles sautéed with mushroom jus and oyster sauce, and textured with Italian brown mushrooms in addition to a host of other ingredients (red napa cabbage, yellow beans, okra and a poached egg for crowning glory). Another third-wave fave saw fairy-tale eggplant glazed in patis (Filipino fish sauce) artfully nestled next to Seminole squash simmered in garlic, bagoong (shrimp paste), onion and coconut milk. It's hard not to applaud how Lo fuses Filipino flavors into our local bounty, even in the rare lackluster offering. Thinly shaved picanha marinated and cooked in soy sauce, kalamansi, black pepper and garlic was surprisingly tough, and serving it with snow pea tips seemed a bit of a head-scratcher. It was part of the fourth (and most substantial) wave of dishes that are meant to be enjoyed communally with garlic rice. Lift the lid off that cauldron and you'll be greeted with what our server described as a "garlic facial."
Pores were opened almost as wide as our mouths when those stellar kernels were forked along with a sausage round fashioned from tilefish and scallops. It sat in a roasted red pepper and pineapple sauce and came topped with a sweet pepper salad sheened in a fermented datil chili vinaigrette. Fried pea tendrils were a graceful finishing touch. One of the best things I shoved into my yap in 2022 were Kaya's grape and cherry tomatoes marinated in mango vinegar and calamansi gastrique and served with a salted egg salad. I had that fourth-waver on my first visit to Kaya, along with thrice-cooked Berkshire pork belly served over a brown butter sweet-potato puree, U10 shrimp cooked in coconut milk and crab fat, and mushroom adobo featuring a host of Fungi Jon's finest. A similar mushroom adobo was served on my last visit, as was a dish called laing — kale and collards stewed in coconut milk with ginger, garlic, datil peppers and shrimp paste, then topped with fried Patagonian bay scallops and Berkshire pork belly. It was thoughtful, gorgeous and according to one Filipina server, "very familiar in its flavor."
It's the restaurant's goal, after all, and it's a goal that's accomplished in the fifth wave, dessert — be it with coconut-milk sticky rice steamed in a banana leaf with ube and caramel sauce, or the fruit salad to end all fruit salads comprising strawberries, brown sugar apple, pandan jelly, macapuno coconut and sago pearls layered with strawberry pastry cream, yogurt crema and topped with pinipig (flattened rice). It's very familiar in its flavor, I thought to myself and pictured my mum or dad or anyone in my household thinking the same. No surprise, really, considering that at Kaya, home is where the heart is.