Photo by M.C.S.
Much has been said and written about Ka Lui in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, as the top of the list of the Must Visit Restaurants in the city. It is right on Rizal Avenue, making it a convenient dining place for all tourists and locals alike.
This was the first restaurant Rene took us to when we first visited Puerto in May 2009. We went for dinner and did not know what to expect. Upon entering the gate, we followed a pebbled walk and stepped into the foyer. Shoe drawers and shoe baskets greeted us. Guests have to remove their shoes and everyone goes barefoot, even the waiters. The whole place had a yellow glow accented with a lot of red, orange and green. Elise and I immediately fell in love with the wood and bamboo structure. She quickly explored every section. Each was different from the rest. We have gone back several times over the past four months.
photo by M.C.S.
The bamboo and wooden floors are always very clean and shiny. The tables are set with bamboo placemats, bright table napkins and flickering candlelight.
Usually, a charming achuete fruit centerpiece that looked like strawberries accents the table.
A small bowl of clear and gingery clam soup always arrives to warm the stomach.
Photo by M.C.S.
Then, a saucer of Lato, or seaweed, comes next, sitting on seasoned vinegar with half of a calamansi. Sprinkle the drops of calamansi on the lato and add a dash of soy sauce. Eat it slowly.... and be pleasantly surprised at how FRESH it is. It is a bit salty, a bit sour - almost surprisingly sweet!
We ordered Escabecheng Lapu Lapu that was crispy on the outside and so soft and flaky on the inside. The unexpectedly light sauce was slightly sour and slightly sweet, without the sharp tangy zing of the usual restaurant sweet and sour concoctions. The fish was butterfly cut and good for two.
Other dishes that we tried were garlic prawns and pan fried tuna, which were not really spectacular as the aroma raised expectations that the taste was not able to fulfill. We also tried their kinilaw, which was good, but can be missed.
I also had some wheatgrass iced tea with Palawan honey that tasted, well, uh, different. But by the time my glass was almost empty, the unique flavor had grown on me and I wanted to order another one.
Photo by M.C.S.
For dessert, I always look forward to the fresh fruits and kalamay on half a buko shell. Sadly, usually the shell only has watermelon, pineapple and banana slices. The kalamay was only there once. Sayang, it would have added some nice texture to the fruits.
Photo by M.C.S.
It is always a relaxing dinner, with the cool breeze blowing through the restaurant. The place has no walls, and the floor is raised a few feet from the ground, like a true nipa hut. What is striking about it is its authentic beauty and true Filipino ambiance. The music playing while we were there were instrumental folk songs like the Visayan Dandansoy and some Zarsuela.
The last time we were in Ka Lui, the waiters were wearing native batik shirts and had bandanas on. These days, they wear knit polo shirts with an embroidered logo on the left breast. They look neat and are easily identifiable from the guests. But the island feel has diminished and they look like they came from Gerry's Grill or Dencio's or one of those Manila grill spots.
At the far end of the restaurant is a gift shop. They sell native ladies' bags for about P500 apiece. They also have colorful shawls and some capiz and ceramic chimes.
Between the restaurant and the gift shop is an art gallery of sculptures and paintings made by local artists, which are also available for sale.
This ingeniously carved table was on a mat from which I could not take my eyes off. It was both functional and charming..
A closer look at the beautiful mat that I will have one of these days...
I sat on this pretty bench with capiz shells hanging on the backrest while viewing the paintings.
A closer look at the capiz shells...
There are two pocket gardens on either side of the pebbled walkway leading to the gate. On one garden, stern looking statues stand against the wall.
On the other one, a cozy little bench and table are set up against a backdrop sign that says, "Palawander, Outdoor Lover"... for diners who want to lounge around before leaving, and perhaps take some souvenir photos.
Ka Lui accepts diners only in three time slots: 11:30A.M., 6:30P.M. and 8:30P.M. Reservations are required. They are very efficient this way. They already know how many people are coming in, and are not worried about table turns. They also recommend their set menus, so there is less a la carte to worry about.
All seats will probably be taken, be it a weekday or a weekend. So, do not attempt to go there at 7:30pm, as you would be asked to join the 8:30pm batch if there are still vacant tables.
Yes, the dishes are overrated. There are other restaurants here that serve tastier meals.
The service is prompt, and even in the rare case that it isn't, the diners are not in a hurry. I have yet to see a waiter smile or exude warmth in the few times I have been there. They are like robots taking orders, bringing orders, and cleaning up.
But, yes, we shall be back because the place is beautiful.