It’s understandable that the menu at Picasso of Manila would list some dishes without description. Not too many non-Filipinos are going to order chopped pig’s ear (sisig) or pork stewed in pig’s blood (dinuguan).
The rest of us can get a fine and adventuresome meal by ordering one of the many seafood, pork or noodle dishes cooked by chef and owner Ernesto Malazo, which are explained in detail on the menu.
Filipino cooking relies on seafood, not surprisingly, but even more so on pork. The cooking style is influenced by Chinese methods — many dishes are mixtures of meat and vegetable morsels served over rice or noodles — and by the Spanish colonizers who left behind many recipes, or at least their names. The flan for example, is not what you’d get in a Mexican restaurant.
Overall, the cuisine is heavier and fattier than Chinese, but it also includes light fish soups that are akin to Thai soups. Ginataang na hito, for example, boils catfish in coconut milk with jalapeños. Garlic and vinegar are recurring themes.
During the week, a majority of Picasso’s customers are Sheraton guests or those doing business at the GM Tech Center across the street. They tend to order from the Italian menu that includes steaks and chicken. On the weekends, parties of Filipinos are more common (Malazo says there are 17,000 Filipinos in metro Detroit). At 10 p.m., karaoke begins, with both American and Filipino songs on the machine.
Why Picasso? That was the name of the Sheraton’s previous restaurant. There’s an eccentric mural behind the dance floor, but it’s no Picasso.
Now about that pig’s ear appetizer: The ears are chopped up and fried, mixed with onion, and served with a fried egg on top. They’re crunchy — that’s the cartilage, I presume — and quite tasty, with a hint of vinegar.
Other appetizers are lumpiang Shanghai, crisp, slender egg rolls filled with pork, and calamari either American-style (breaded and served with ranch dressing or cocktail sauce) or Filipino-style (sautéed with garlic, onion and peppers). The latter are a bit chewy but not bad, and certainly garlicky.
I enjoyed sinigang na gangus, which is salt-water milkfish (a relative of the catfish) in a clear sour broth that tastes of lime and vinegar. The fish has a relatively strong, nutty taste without being fishy; it’s way too bony, though, so ask to have it filleted. The soup is full of green beans (a common ingredient), tomatoes and a big jalapeño.
I also tried gambas, shrimp sautéed with tomatoes, garlic and plenty of hot chilies. They’re bright red and bright-hot. There are a dozen seafood entrées — shrimp, milkfish, tilapia, catfish and squid — to choose from.
At the other end of the spectrum, the national dish, adobo, is made with pork belly, and is fatty as can be. When my friend reheated her leftovers in the microwave the next day, they exploded. Adobo is cooked with vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and onions, and all are apparent. It’s smoky and very, very rich. You can lighten it up by ordering the chicken version, or a combination of the two.
Almost as fatty is bicol express, tenderloin with garlic, onion, jalapeños and bagoong, a paste of baby shrimp, fermented and salty. On its own, bagoong can be overpowering, but in this dish, tempered with coconut milk, it just adds interest. Although the menu calls this dish “very hot,” ours wasn’t — perhaps tempered by the chef for non-Filipinos.
On the lighter side, I found the pancit bihon, another staple, disappointing. It’s thin rice noodles with carrots, snow peas, and a choice of pork, chicken or shrimp. I thought it pretty ordinary and bland, but Malazo says it’s his biggest seller. You can also try pancit Canton (egg noodles “Cantonese style”) or some of the other noodle dishes.
Pinakbet is a gorgeous melange of bright vegetables: eggplant, green beans, squash, okra and tomatoes. Look out for the bitter melon, which is indeed bitter. Although this dish is listed under the “Vegetables” section, it includes pork; you can ask for it meatless.
For dessert, there’s a rich, dense, caramel-colored and -flavored leche flan, which is delicious. I was disappointed, though, in Malazo’s version of halo halo, a dessert made of evaporated milk, sweet beans, a bit of leche flan, ice cream and crushed ice. In the past, I’ve found this dish like ambrosia, but this time the ingredients didn’t integrate, and the crushed ice piled up between the other layers.
Picasso’s is open every day for dinner. There’s a full bar (a necessity with karaoke).
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.