You need to look pretty hard to find restaurants that serve food from the Philippines in this city, and even in Toronto, where the Filipino population is sizeable. Why, I asked my Filipina-Canadian friend Margarita, can I find Vietnamese or Thai food in every corner, and yet there are so few Filipino restaurants? “Well, that’s easy,” she told me. “You’ll never ever make it as good as your mother’s, so why try?”
Tamis Café cleverly brings mum to the kitchen. Liza Sare is the savoury cook, assisted by her husband Lito. Her daughters Jessica manage desserts (she is a pastry chef, tamis in her language means sweet) and Jiselle handles the coffee/tea bar. When Tamis first opened, I made a note to check it out, then forgot. Possibly because it’s out of sight on Fourth Avenue, fifty paces off Bank (in the space I remember as the Tea Party). When I asked Liza how many months the café had been open, I was shocked to hear her say it had been a year and a half. Good grief. But how fine to discover its simple pleasures now. It’s a sweet room, the floors wood and worn, the brick walls hung with local art, plants and flowers and baby-blue painted bits prettying things up.
Lunch (or breakfast/ brunch, afternoon tea/coffee and cake) is probably the best use of Tamis – at least until they get a liquor license – which I’m told is in process. For now, they close at 7pm on weeknights – fine for an early, tee totalling dinner, but not much good for a proper evening meal. So I’ve only been for two lunches, both simple, homey and satisfying. Service is chatty and charming.
Filipino cuisine is a mash of influences: Chinese, Spanish, Indian, American and Malay styles of cooking and ingredients have all left their mark. Pork features in many dishes, as do sausages, beef and noodle dishes, fish and hearty soups, their flavours particularly attentive to acid and the sugar: dishes tend to be tangy, sweet and sour.
Sweets are important in the Philippines, and Tamis Café’s dessert case is filled with traditional pastries, tarts, cakes and flan, its counter with cookies and Filipino candies. My first lunch came from that case: Liza’s empanada, the pastry impressive, slightly sweet, dusted with paprika and filled with chicken curry.
From the blackboard menu, Mechado was braised beef with tomato, the meat very tender, the sauce studded with peppercorns and slightly sweet with fine strands of slow simmered onion. It came with a timbale of perfectly cooked rice, glazed carrots (too sweet for my taste) and buttered asparagus. Pancit was a super simple (and wildly generous) stir fry of noodles with garlic, ginger and vegetables, in a sweet and garlicky soy sauce broth. My favourite dish was the Beef Pares, served with soup and garlic rice. The cubes of meat were supple and yielding in a dark gravy scented with star anise and ginger. It came with rice, anointed with garlic butter, a stir fry of crisp vegetables sprinkled with sesame seeds, and a bowl of beef broth with bok choy, tasting powerfully of roasted and simmered beef bones. For the vegetarian, there’s lumpia, a Filipino style crepe stuffed with vegetables and served with peanut sauce.
You see purple in the dessert case (from sweet purple yam), green (from pandan), and the dark brown of a Tsokolate tablea chocolate cake, the cocoa beans sourced from the Philippines. I didn’t try the halo-halo, a traditional “mix-mix” of beans, shaved ice, custard, and fruit, or the Brazo de Mercedes of meringue rolled around a custard filling, jelly-roll style, but did indulge in a cassava square, with a lovely scorched top, and a coconut macaron, warm from the oven, with a cup of tea. I brought home a vibrant purple ube square with a streusel top for later. There’s a large selection of loose leaf teas and well-made coffees.