“And for those who want to relive the experience of how it used to be, there will always be Forest House Bistro and Café.”
Up there in Baguio, the air is crisp and bracing. To escape the stifling lowland heat and stress, many Filipinos still pack up to make the climb to this mountain city. But through the years, change has inevitably crept in. Visitor’s maneuvering through the zigzags of Kennon road are welcomed halfway up by the iconic statue of the lion grinning in reworked garish brown and black. What used to be spectacular views of lush mountains, bubbling brooks and thunderous waterfalls have been replaced by patched or bald cliff faces, muddy runs and boulders left over from the recent landslide. The tree lines have receded, Trunks felled by previous logging operations. Perhaps those activities may have been a thing of the past. But so is the scent of pines.
Yet Baguio will always be Baguio, with or without the familiar scenes. And for those who want to relive the experience of how it used to be, there will always be Forest House Bistro and Café. Forest House owners Ari and Raquel Verzosa recall how about 10 years ago, there were on Baguio-style food establishments in the city. True, there were fast food chains and franchise but these were regular restaurants looking like, well, regular restaurants. The closet one got to Baguio ambience was the Baguio Country Club, but entry to that prestigious landmark required club membership.
Ari remarks: “Being in the business, as my family’s in hotel and restaurant, this concept came about, something that’s country. That’s why, Forest house has panels made of pine wood. We also wanted to serve good decent food that’s inexpensive— im not saying cheap—and some places where you can hang out,”.They wanted a family restaurant, a place where one can be casually dressed, where one can bring the kids for satisfying meals, or where one can hang out, relax and unhurried. But knowing how the Baguio population of about 300,00 was composed mainly of students with limited purchasing power, food portions had to be substantial without being expensive.
“ Our specialty is the Bagnet”, Raquel says. “ We really do it ourselves, we have our own processes. We can actually just buy, malapit lang ang Ilocos, but we really make it ourselves. And that’s our best seller. We also have international cuisine. We have pasta American dishes, basta its all big servings, you can always split it or share among yourselves”.
A sampling of Forest house’s offerings include the three-dip salad, an assortment of fresh Baguio vegetables rolled in crisp greens and dipped in dressings of strawberry, honey vinaigrette and blue cheese: a steaming potato cheese chowder: Jakero porkchop, grilled porkchop topped with chilicon on bed of fries: Forest House wine-sauced Chicken: Vegetable Kebab: Sesame Crusted fish fillet: Callos: and of course, their signature Forest House Homemade Bagnet. On Ala carte, one could order international as well as Filipino dishes. Depending on how much diners want to splurge, the bill may run from about P500 to P1,500, although there are meals that can go for reasonable P200-P225. But no matter how much one spends at Forest House, the view from the restaurant’s patio is spectacularly priceless.
“ It was the Manila people who kept us going on the weekends”, Ari explains. “On the weekdays, its kind of slow. The Baguio people would normally come in for merienda, special occasions”.
Raquel recalls: “ In the beginning, we had a hard time also. We were bombarded with criticisms. Masakit, pero okay, sige lang. And after two to three years, we got the hang of it na. We improved and we keep improving every year. Then, we got the big break”. The big break came when anonymous restaurant reviewers from posh magazine Philippine Tatler dined one day and were suitably impressed. And in 2007, Forest House was included in the list of Philippine Tatler’s Philippines best Restaurants. “(That’s when) people started to tickle in and more and more (came)”, Ari says. “And as of now, were on our fourth year of being in Philippine Tatler’s list. Were the only restaurant in Baguio that’s has achieved that”.
But running a restaurant involves more than just cooking food. The service factor is equally important. Applying skills gained from working in the airlines, the Verzosa couple trained their staff for personalized service.Ari reiterates: “ I believe the best service is something like when you’re in first class or business class. Dun nakatutok ka, its very personalized. That’s something that we taught the staff, this is how you take care of your guests. They’re not customers, they’re guests so you take care of them, you greet them, you talk to them and you’re sincere when you say “ Good evening, welcome to Forest House”. Its not like because Ari trained you,no. You’re truly sincere (when you say) “Welcome to Forest House”, And they’re there to take care of you, even the way they serve you, they follow up on your food, things that we learned from the airlines”.
Now on its 11th year, Forest House has enchanced the Baguio experience by setting up their very own bed and breakfast. Two levels below the restaurant are four rooms done in the same cozy country style. Soon to be added is a fifth room with a big bay window that commands a magnificent view of Baguio mountains. All rooms, named after the Verzosa children (Kylie, Chelsea, twins Kahlil and Keanu, and Yuri) are filled with touches of Raquel’s whimsical crafts, reminding guests of home and hearth. They invite total rest and relaxation that in fact, notes in Ari’s photo gallery insist that guests “must only have two things in your hands: remote control on your left hand and spoon on your right. Time to rest… Relax… escape”.
MEET THE TRAVELING COWBOY CHEF
Every once in a while, Forest House springs pleasant surprises for its guests. One of them is guest Chef John Wayne “ The Duke” Formica . Ari chanced upon this Lebanese-Italian Chef enjoying his fill of Dinuguan. Unusual for a foreigner huh? “The Duke” decided to embark on his “final pursuit of happiness”. Bent on a culinary career, he attended the cooking and hospitality institute of chichago, Le cordon bleu Program: traveled to Italy to learn from Italian Culinary Federation “ICF” Master Chef Biagio Longo: returned to Chichago and earned a spot as Sous Chef in Marcus Samuelson’s restaurant C-House: and successfully ran Michelin acclaimed restaurant Sunda.
But “ The Duke” was “hungry for more”. And so began his culinary explorations, traveling to countries all over the world, always searching, constantly learning, meeting new friends, expanding his ever-growing foodie experience. As visiting chef at Forest House, “The Duke” masterfully creates his own interpretations of food, using local ingredients and utilizing his vast culinary expertise. At a recent food tasting, he was at wits end trying to source ripe avocados for dish that he intended to serve. Alas, there were no avocados available in Baguio at that time. So instead, He used mangoes. Guests thoroughly enjoyed that mango Mousse, along with the entire feast of sautéed scallops and asparagus, cream corn soup, shrimp tossed green salad and citrus fruits with sesame dressing, herb pan seared pork tenderloin,. Hongkong-style steak with herbed frites, herb pan seared crispy salmon, bread pudding and longgan granita.
“The Duke” will continue regaling diners with his signature dishes at Forest House for the whole month of October.
Text by Malou E. Rosal
This Restaurant Blooms in Baguio City
Photos by Yolly Diolazo and Cesar Cruz, Jr.