The Milkfish is found in the Indian and Pacific oceans, commonly near coastal and island reefs. It is popular in the Philippines, where it goes by the name “Bangus,” and in Indonesia, where it's commonly called “Bandeng.” It has been farmed for around 800 years in the Philippines, and has white, mild-tasting flesh. It also has a lot of bones, which makes it somewhat difficult to prepare and eat.
You could learn all of that by entering “milkfish” into a search engine – Wikipedia and several commercial fishmongers have instructive websites – but I'm mentioning it because “Milkfish” is also the name of a Filipino restaurant doing the pop-up thing on Sundays at A Mano that's absolutely worth checking out.
I don't exactly have a broad frame of reference for Filipino food. During one of my Southeast Asian phases, I read a bunch of recipes, and I've cooked a few dishes, but it's not like there have been a lot of Filipino restaurants in the area, and it's a country I've never visited.
The older I get, the less important “exotic” has become on the list of reasons I visit a restaurant. I still like novelty, don't get me wrong, just not for its own sake. Still, it's nice to taste food that presents very different flavor profiles from the stuff to which you've become accustomed, and Filipino food generally does that.
We went with the appetizer sampler to start, with an extra order of lumpia shanghai, because having had the tiny fried spring rolls before, I knew those were going to be a hit. They're basically ground pork seasoned with onion, garlic and carrot, wrapped in a thin egg/flour crepe, then fried. They're generally served with a slightly spicy soy or tomato-based sauce. They are addictive. They also come in a larger version at Milkfish, and both come with the appetizer sampler, along with a couple of other items depending on when you go. I got to sample fried pork belly, pig's foot and a sweet-savory sausage. The pork belly was pretty good, the foot was so dry and tough as to be inedible, and the sausage was tender, juicy and delicious.
The dish I most associate with Filipino cuisine is adobo, in which chicken or pork is stewed in vinegar with garlic, onion, bay leaf and pepper. It's on the menu in both varieties at Milkfish, and both were excellent. The chicken – dark meat, which is always better in a stew – was tender, as was the pork, and both were tart, slightly spicy and fragrant with bay and black pepper. The beef stew called mechado was, if anything, a bit more tart, but again the meat was tender. Diced red potato was par-cooked to the point where it retained a bit of crunch. Ordinarily I'd label that “undercooked,” but it actually worked. The stews came with rice, and in the case of the mechado it was cooked with coconut milk.
We didn't get to try the milkfish or the noodle dishes, and I'm definitely looking to go back for Pinkabet (pork and shrimp cooked with bitter melon, eggplant, okra, longbeans, bok choy, daikon radish and fermented shrimp paste) and Kare-kare (oxtail stewed in peanut butter, eggplant, bok choy and string beans served over garlic rice).
Milkfish is open from noon until 10 p.m. on Sundays at A Mano, which is located at 870 Tchoupitoulas St.; chef Cristina Quackenbush told me she intends to open her own place in that general vicinity by the end of the year. In the interim, dial (504) 327-0635 to confirm the hours and menu, or to order takeout.