I’ve always been intrigued by Filipino food, mainly because I don’t know much about it (other than balut that remains on my to-eat bucket list).
Almost every Filipino person I ask about where the best place (in any city) to get such cuisine is, the answer is their mom’s house.
Luckily, I don’t need to awkwardly ask for an invite to Lamesa Filipino Kitchen. It’s not someone’s mom’s house. It is, however, clearly a labour of love for the chef and owners.
The cuisine of the Philippines reflects the traders, neighbours and colonizers who have come across its borders, resulting in a delicious fusion of Spanish, Chinese, Malay, Indian, and American flavours.
A group of us (four adults and three kids under 6) trooped to Lamesa for the unique Sunday dinner called kamayan. It’s basically a communal feast that laid out on banana leaves and eaten with your hands. No utensils. (I made a damn video. Watch it below.)
Chef Daniel Cancino and owner Les Sabilano start this masterpiece of a meal with paintbrushes, dipping them into containers of sauces and sweeping them onto the banana leaves. Then come dollops of other homemade sauces — stuff like caramelized shrimp paste and mango hot sauce — from squeeze bottles.
Mesmerized, we watched as they artfully arranged dish after dish on the green leaves.
Some standouts included:
Fried chicken adobo – Chicken adobo is a very traditional dish that’s simmered in a sauce of vinegar, garlic and soy sauce. Lamesa takes it to the next level by frying it for an extra crispy layer.
Crispy lechon pork belly – tender pork meat, slight layer of delicious fat, and a crispy skin.
Devilled eggs paksiw – simmered in vinegar, I could have eaten 10 of these.
Garlic rice – Deceptively simple yet so addictive.
The ube cornbread was a neat creation from purple yams. “Boneless bangus” is sweet milkfish that’s marinated in vinegar and then deep-fried golden.
There was a fair share of non-protein, non-carbs – grilled corn on the cob segments, dressed salad greens and Japanese eggplant — I guess to most people, that’s just called “vegetables.”
The meal per person is $40 and there’s a kid’s dinner for $10 consisting of a chicken leg, garlic rice, and corn.
I thought the kids would love eating with their hands — since God knows T (now age 3) does it at home all the time. Instead, H (age 6) demanded a fork and refused to sully his hands, and T followed his brother’s lead. Weirdos.
They did lap up Lamesa’s version of halo-halo (it means “mix-mix”). The traditional Filipino dessert is usually made of shaved ice, evaporated milk boiled sweet beans, coconut, sago, yams, and fruit. I’m not a fan of beans and tubers in dessert, but Lamesa made theirs with strawberries, caramelized banana, coconut, tapioca pearls and Rice Krispies. Yum.
On another visit for a regular weekday dinner (served with utensils!), Lamesa was just satisfying.
The starter tuna kinilaw ($14) is incredible: albacore tuna, with coconut, avocado, calamansi (tiny limes), and chili. It’s a fantastic mix of puckery, buttery, and slightly spicy, scooped up with a salty shrimp chip.
The traditional chicken adobo ($20) gets a slight twist with some confit garlic and chimichurri. Props to keeping it as a juicy chicken thigh, and not swapping to breast meat.
In the mood for something heavier? The bistek tagalog ($25) is a huge hunk of braised beef blade with a lovely citrus jus accompaniment — and chunk of bone marrow to scoop. Yaaaaaas!
Aaaaand finally, Lamesa does brunch too. Yeah, I’m kinda in love with this place right now.
My favourite Filipino dish is longanisa, a sweet fatty sausage that’s a pain in the ass to cook (the high sugar and fat content always messes up my pan or BBQ) but so so good to eat with rice and fried eggs (together they’re called silog). Lamesa’s version come as patties and are smokier and not as sweet.
Speaking of the two jerks, they split a plate of bistek and eggs ($15). The sliced, pink-rare pieces of flat iron steak were so tender that you could cut them with just the edge of a spoon and a fork. Good thing, because traditionally, that’s what Filipinos use to eat with, and what Lamesa sets out as utensils.
Were the kids in heaven over such beautiful steak with a soy citrus jus? Of course not, they were whining their faces off because the meat dared to touch some delicious coconut polenta. Like I said, jerks.
Jason got the same dish and was over the moon about the probably sous-vide, poached egg. At least that’s what I think he said over the kids’ whining.
The best part about brunch at Lamesa (for me as a parent, anyway): they take reservations and there’s no stinkeye pressure from a lineup to make me feel hurried/harried.
The service at Lamesa is sweet and attentive. If it’s your first experience with Filipino food, they are great at explaining the basics. The cocktail menu is fun, and apparently there’s a monthly karoake night after service. Wha!
The restaurant is cool and eclectic at the same time. In the bathroom are black marker sketches of famous Filipino people (Rob Schneider and Enrique Iglesias!?), while original stain-glass light fixtures still hang from the tin ceiling.
I’m already planning to take my parents to kamayan next time they’re in town.
High chairs. Standard narrow restaurant, so leave strollers outside. Stairs down to bathrooms, no change tables. Some booth seating in the back.
Lamesa Filipino Kitchen, 669 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ont. (647) 346-2377. Open for dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5-10 p.m. Sunday 5-9 p.m. Weekend brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m.