There are two poles towards which a world-class chef might push pancit canton: either in the direction of the Kandinsky-inspired post-elBulli geometric compositions prevalent in the pages of the Michelin Guide, or towards the messy bowl of upgraded ingredients, familiar to the eyes but luxe to the palate.
The pancit canton at Bad Saint in Columbia Heights – the last of four savory courses with our first dinner there – tacked towards the latter direction. Its deployment of umami was masterful, salt restrained, all ingredients cooked to their perfect texture. Our server described it as our “comfort food” dish.
But this was not comfort food. It was like listening to a timeless folk song – one written for an acoustic guitar and a workhorse of living room sing-alongs – played on an arena stage, Marshall amps stacked ten high behind the kitchen and the guitar distorted through a phalanx of esoteric pedals. The melody is familiar but the performance is unsettling, sometimes transporting.
A critical take on the menu might call it incomplete: we observed that it played in the range of tastebuds that Westerners could appreciate, staying away from the more bitter or sour dishes that form the canon.
A more generous assessment of the menu would call it auteurist.
This is not a potboiler B-movie turo-turo, with bawdy plots, belly laughs, substituted American ingredients, two mains and two scoops of rice. This is so-called literary fiction, with morally dubious characters painstakingly drawn in melodious but humorless prose. This is music to dance tinikling played in the style of Mogwai, with Jay-Z flowing on top about Belgian couture and haute horologie.
This is art house Filipino food, and it almost works.
Bad Saint has been in operation since 2015, and the arc of its assimilation is beginning to manifest. Its collaborations appear more interested in highlighting its position in a fine-dining firmament – one sparsely populated by other Filipinos – than with using its platform for elevating the aesthetics of this diaspora.
I am fully aware that this is an unfair criticism: it is a common burden in this diaspora. Anybody who’s grappled with “[minority] enough” knows this tension all too well.
At the other seats along our counter, American patrons were regaled with descriptions of the food that compared dishes to western parallels: kinilaw was ceviche, bringhe was paella, lechon was pulled pork. The only obvious inversion was the ube cornbread dessert (which needed both more latik and fruit) which obviously recalled halo-halo – though in a DC heatwave, the original would’ve been preferable.
The best dish of the night was the rellenong alimasag, crab served in its shell, plated like the eye of Sauron, its pupil a neon orange dollop of roe. It didn’t taste so much like a Filipino dish but a DC dish, with a spice level tuned for palates accustomed to the Thai cooking that mediates everyday Western experiences of Southeast Asia. Still: I want this served in restaurants everywhere in the mid-Atlantic region, like Viet-Cajun crawfish in Houston. I want to see mediocre to great to weird versions of this served with a scoop of rice from roadside shacks everywhere along the beltway.
It only occurred to me after the meal that none of the dishes were served with a side of rice. This is probably a side effect of the American degustation approach, though even the $40 lechon is served with steamed buns. I wonder if the move is somehow intended to draw attention the dish’s Asian provenance, or ironically, to make it more understandable to Westerners. It’s not subtle and I wonder how much is lost by not serving it with rice.
The most surprising dish was the labanos – served with burnt coconut cream, pistachios, and honey. A riff on the French rite of spring, the effect is not dissimilar to watching an homage to Truffaut unfold in the middle of a Lav Diaz film. For all of the unfair tension about authenticity and being an artist in this diaspora, these are the rewards: marching up to the opposing drumline and playing on their heads.
It would seem that Bad Saint is for people for whom the consideration set is not necessarily “Filipino restaurants” but “21st-century high-low fine dining, preferably with an ethnic provenance.” It just so happens that the latter happens to be a type of dining experience I love. The restaurant is beautiful, but small to the point of being uncomfortable. The kitchen is meticulous. Presentation of dishes is effortless but excellent. I would eat there again, now that they offer reservations: yes, even at their price point. God, Bad Saint is even a great name.
Bad Saint was not the restaurant I wanted, but it’s a restaurant the world needs and DC is lucky to have. Whether their chefs voice it or not, this is a restaurant whose output and aesthetics are out for awards from Western power brokers; it has even garnered some of that recognition. And a kitchen run by a Filipino-American ranking among the best in the country, putting out well-made versions of a few canonincal dishes, is an amazing thing for Filipino food and its enshrinement in the American mainstream – even if what they’re serving isn’t always done the way I would want.