Kitchen Play—Why Hapag Is On Everyone’s Radar

Kitchen Play—Why Hapag Is On Everyone’s Radar

Photo by Michael Perfecto

A clash of childhood nostalgia, a little gastronomic playfulness, and a whole lot of heritage make dining at Hapag a pursuit of Philippine flavors.

Thirdy Dolatre and Kevin Navoa are wearing exactly the same kitchen clogs. 

They’re both in those colorful, playful printed socks, too. Not that these are any particular indicators of skills or creativity—there’s just an obvious connection between the two gentlemen behind the much-lauded Hapag Manila, and it’s their connection that drives this restaurant forward into interesting territories. 

These two are the creative minds behind Hapag’s success. Recognized in 2022 by The World’s 50 Best Discovery list, the restaurant now occupies a place in the local fine dining scene—a bit of a jump from their humble beginnings. Not bad at all from these grade school buddies from La Salle Greenhills. 

It was Dolatre who was more dialed in on the path he wanted to take, jumping into culinary school straight out of high school—certainly an unorthodox choice from someone who comes from a family of dentists. Unorthodox is also a good way to describe his journey, as he entered the kitchens after a spell as a salesman for the German oven brand Rational AG. Wildflour’s Allen Buhay happened to be one of his clients, and it was Buhay who first took Dolatre in after he expressed interest in working at the back of the house. After his tour of duty, he opened his own little place called the Alley, and when that had to be put to rest, he went off to get inspiration and experience in San Francisco, staging at one of the city’s best spots, the three Michelin-starred Benu. One of SF’s bastions of dining, he immersed himself in the intricacies of contemporary Asian cooking. One can surmise this was where the seeds of what would become Hapag were planted.

Navoa, on the other hand, tasted some of the kitchen action before entering school. He spent summers at his family’s café in San Diego, California, around people who loved food and loved cooking. Making sure he had good grades so he was exempted from finals year in and year out, he would be pulled out of school early by his folks to fly to California and maximize his time there. Bitten by the cooking bug, he went to a culinary school in Malaysia and wound up working at another highly regarded restaurant called Dewakan. 

Chefs Thirdy Dolarte and Kevin Navoa of Hapag Restaurant Quezon City Manila
Chefs Thirdy Dolarte and Kevin Navoa during a busy lunch service. Photo by Michael Perfecto

While on different continents, the two kept in touch, tossing each other ideas, future plans and zeroing in on a common denominator: they wanted to do something distinctly Filipino. Why cook another culture’s cuisine, when our very own is so rich, with a kaleidoscope of cultures influencing our palates? It was time to embrace our diversity even more.

That is where the restaurant’s compass points to, a direction that drives them to scour the country for inspiration. You can taste it in the food that they make, the stories they tell, even the art on the wall. They are all about anything and everything Filipino, says Dolatre, and that was how it was from the day they started. 

Like any good food story, their tale begins on a much humbler note. As an observer (and eater) who has been fortunate to witness their origins, I remember when they were a much more casual restaurant (having evolved from private dining), serving their plays on staples like inasal. Since then, they’ve matured by leaps and bounds. Curiously, a lot of the present-day Hapag magic was developed during a time least expected: peak pandemic lockdown. 

In what was the most trying time to happen to the restaurant industry, it became a game of survival. How does one get through the crisis relatively intact? Through sheer grit, a will to thrive, and creativity. During lockdown, the staff had to be pared down, and the pair came in to cook Hapag Family Meals. These are themed set menus designed for families and for maximum enjoyment; a take-away translation, if you will, of the Hapag dining experience. They did everything by themselves, with one bartender and one dishwasher to complete the team. While it was enough to keep them afloat, it also taught them an all-important skill: how to dance better together. 

Hapag’s quezon city snackbox of regional delicacies
Hapag’s snackbox of regional delicacies. Photo by Michael Perfecto
Hapag Restaurant Quezon City Manila alimango starter
An alimango starter. Photo by Michael Perfecto

Once a trio, with chef Kevin Villarica who is now just a silent partner, the two chefs became the yin to the other’s yang. Dolatre is the stickler for details, and service, and organization, which is a reflection of his steady vibe. He wants to create the best flavors. Navoa, on the other hand, evolved into the mad scientist, becoming obsessed with all things fermentation, now a cornerstone of the flavors they produce in the kitchen. They have different strengths and weaknesses, but they fit together like a hand in a glove. 

This voyage into fine dining doesn’t mean to say that they’ve gone all Noma-esque. On the contrary, I’ve always found them to be quite playful. And that’s a good thing, because Hapag never seemed too caught up in the high-brow, tweezer-brandishing world of current global fine dining. Their ears are too close to the ground for that. 

They’ll mess with anything from pig’s ears to fish balls and kikiam. (After all, what true Pinoy can resist their allure?) Their approach to things is almost childlike. Take their fermentation obsession: the fascination stems from the fact that you never know what you’re going to get, what flavors will pull through, and how you’ll best be able to use it. The playful nature coexists with their drive: they will still push the envelope however way they can, while still achieving balance and never alienating their guests. 

The creations that make it to the tables of Hapag show their proclivities to achieving balance. Lots of flavor here, a bit of acidity there, pleasant textures and richness all around, engaging the senses. Their excellent bread basket is a seemingly simple way to get the festivities started, but when one takes time to notice the details, it makes for an exciting beginning: fragrant breads from heirloom recipes, spread with anything from a pesto of local herbs and greens, or butter with an intense local honey, or even locally made sausage. A crispy disc of pinais, resembling a tostada, hides treasures of marinated octopus—a refreshing dish that segues into the decadence of their Binondo-inspired noodle dish, studded with crispy pig and chorizo. And so it goes, taking you up and down and all around, tickling the palate in a decidedly Filipino way.

Hapag Restaurant Quezon City Manila
Photo by Michael Perfecto

Nowadays, they’d like to help the industry. Maybe, leave a legacy as well. They insist that anyone who works with them must buy into their vision; you can be a very skilled cook making French classics, or sushi, but if you can’t go all in on Filipino, then there is no point for you being there. Hence there are tight bonds in this house, a team who participates in the creative process— tossing ideas onto the table, experimenting, expressing in the constantly evolving language. 

The next chapter involves moving from the tiny space behind the bulalugaw joint along Katipunan to the polished environs of Rockwell. They will have a loft that’ll house a bar and serve small plates for the cocktail crowd. Navoa says this will allow them to evolve once again. For the dining public, it is quite an exciting prospect—as they will go further into the pursuit of the flavor of the Philippines. Though it’s been quite a tumultuous time, full of rough seas, but team Hapag held on. I think the next installment of this tale will be epic. Dolatre puts it best: they’ve learned to place value in the seemingly small things, the things that matter.  

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