Restaurant Review: At Naks, a Filipino Feast to Eat with Your Hands

But the joyousness and sense of humor in the food felt at odds with the pageantry surrounding it. After Valdez’s return to the kitchen, each course was announced to the room by one of a rotating Greek chorus of servers, who recounted the absent chef’s own memories (“Our next dish reminds Chef of how naughty he used to be as a child”), often in stilted or superficial ways. (For a skewer of chicken skin cooked over charcoal: “Grilled food always reminds Chef Eric of summertime.”) After each announcement, a pause hung in the room—should we applaud?—as runners brought out the courses in question. Service captains circulated to add final flourishes like a shaving of asín tibuok, a rare salt made by filtering seawater through ashes, over duck stock served in eggshells, a broth-only riff on balut, the famous Filipino dish of cooked fertilized egg. They offered suggestions for the most efficient way to eat each course sans utensils: a slurp, a scoop-and-suck, a three-finger pinch with an assist from the thumb. It was engaging, lively, and fun—kamayan is a meal that wants to be fun—but every time the energy started to grow, and the mood began to coalesce, another classroom-style call for attention would ring out from the service end of the room, and everything would get a little bit weird again.

Banana leaves are a key element of Filipino cuisine; at Naks, they’re used throughout the meal.

A far chiller and more seamless experience is available in the restaurant’s front room, through which one passes to get to the kamayan sanctuary in the back. Here, an à-la-carte menu, closely packed tables, and a cheerful L-shaped bar lend the proceedings a freewheeling friendliness. “Oh, my God, that looks fantastic,” a woman at the table next to mine said, on one visit, leaning forward to get a better look at a platter of wenge-dark fried duck that had just been placed before me. I told her that it was, in fact, fantastic—is anything in the world better than fried duck? The one at Naks nails the whole crispy-melty ecstasy of the dish perfectly. She pointed back at her own table. “Did you get the soup?”

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Of course I got the soup. Plenty of ink has already been spilled over the titillating Soup No. 5, a small tureen of thick brown broth, heavily spiced with sibot (a smoky-tangy blend of Chinese herbs), in which float bits of bull testicles and penis. A bowl is salty and savory, warming and rich; the soup is traditionally consumed as a hangover cure, perhaps owing to the virility of its star ingredients. (One is spongy, the other chewy; I won’t spoil which is which.) I’m not sure if I’d order it on a return visit, though—I’ll save room, instead, for grilled morsels of pork jowl brushed with glossy-sweet barbecue sauce made with banana ketchup, or sticky skewers of eel glazed in lemon-lime soda and ginger. The K.F.C. (Kanto fried chicken), little popcorn nuggets of tender dark meat, arrives with a bowl of dipping sauce that’s so fiery hot, so puckery with fish sauce, that it made me feel wildly alive. Insistent, punchy flavors like these feel of a piece with the other restaurants under the Unapologetic Foods umbrella, and they support the same thesis. But Valdez also knows how and when to pull back and exert pointed restraint. “This is so good,” the woman next to me cried, taking a bite of an egg-yolk and caramel flan, wobbly and divine. My friend and I, running a few minutes ahead of our neighbor, had just finished luxuriating in the same dessert. “This is so good!” ♦

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