Sonya’s No Longer Secret (lunch at Sonya’s Garden in Alfonso, Batangas)

The first time that I had been to this place was exactly a decade ago, some time in the year 2000. I had just graduated from college, and very recently joined that company that I’m working for until now.

First time around.

Back then it was still pretty much unheard of, or so I thought, and only a privileged few knew about it. Nestled on the gentle mountain slopes of Alfonso, Batangas…just a few minutes away from the boundary with the city of Tagaytay…is a cozy place that served lunch in a quaint old wooden house, in the middle of a garden.

This was before the era of the boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts and fancy dining establishments. Places like Antonio’s in nearby Tagaytay and Laya in Antipolo were still non-existent, and I guess one could say the establishment pioneered this “genre” of dining.

I remember being “awe-struck” by my first dining experience there. The place was incredibly “homey”, and was very cool and airy, as if we were dining in a cabin in the middle of a forest.  The entrance to the property was very discreet, as if it did not want to be discovered, and the wooden house that served as the dining hall blended very well with its surroundings.

We were made to sit on old, mis-matched tables and chairs that looked like they had seen better days, which actually added more to the “cabin in the forest” appeal. The china for each guest was brightly colored, and again, beautifully mismatched, encouraging the dinner to “feel at home”. The place, after all, is about relaxed, leisurely dining…and the whole place did make lunch as relaxed and leisurely as any meal can get.

The place doesn’t have a menu for guests to choose from. Instead, they serve a single full-course meal to each diner, which starts with the salad, highlights with pasta, and ends with dessert.

As we sat down, we were served bread and a selection of spreads such as Kesong Puti (“White Cheese” in direct English translation. It’s a local type of cheese), and a pate made of Tawilis (a fish species indigenous to the nearby Taal Lake), among others. Along with the bread they served delicious fresh dalandan juice. It was a hot day, and nothing could be more refreshing.

What was most memorable for me though was the salad, a big bowl full of fresh greens sprinkled with red rose petals. Yes, actual fresh rose petals, and the sight of those petals on our salad did catch us by surprise. Some of us started picking up the petals and putting them aside, dismissing those as fancy decorations, until the proprietress herself saw us. She was at the dining area directing the wait staff, and upon seeing what we were doing, she approached and politely informed us that those petals are indeed edible. The idea of eating roses was so “alien” to all of us, that her remark came as a bit of a shock, but shock soon turned into fascination and in no time at all, people started eating rose petals and bragging about it. The salad came with a wonderful dressing that is quite unique, I haven’t come across any other dressing that tasted close to it yet. Now I no longer remember how the rose petals taste like, but I certainly do remember the dressing.

They served pasta for the main course, a big bowl of freshly cooked fettuccini, “al dente” of course, along with two types of sauces, one white  and the other red. Just like the dressing, the sauces are also quite unique. They also served other ingredients like olives, capers and fried salmon belly, to go with the pasta sauce. The guest is free to mix and match the ingredients with the sauce, and can even combine the two sauces to make a pink(?) sauce (pink is a mixture of red and white, right?).

After the pasta came dessert, and too bad for me, I could no longer remember what dessert we had that time. I guess I was too full with the pasta to bother remembering what dessert was.

There’s always a second time.

It took several years before I was able to go back for the second time. By then it was already popular, with numerous people from Manila travelling the 70 odd kilometers to savor their fresh offerings. The bread, salad and pasta were still irresistible, like before, however something went missing. Gone was the old, wooden “cabin in the forest” house (well, it was still there, but it was no longer the dining area). Instead, people now dined in a large, newly constructed pavillion which, though it made an attempt to blend with the garden, was no subsitute for the old wooden house. The seating capacity was multiplied, and naturally the “homey” feel was gone, in part due to the noise from all the talk, and the clinking of stainless steel and porcelain, from the numerous diners. It meant good business for them of course, but I felt like 50% of what I liked about the place was gone. It was not quite what I had expected, given the impression the place left on me after my first visit.

Third time’s a charm.

It took years again, before I was able to go back. I was back the third time, to celebrate my wife’s birthday.

By now fancy, secluded, out-of-the-way (and expensive) dining places have become sort of a fad anywhere within a driving distance from Manila. The place though was by no means relegated to just a page in history. The name itself still evokes thoughts of laid back and casual yet elegant dining to the “lowlanders” in Manila, and it continues to be destination in the slopes of barangay Buck Estate, in Alfonso (even the name of the barangay and the town is enough to ring bells…sounding as if it’s somewhere between California and Spain).

This time I had expected an experience similar to my second visit, but again, things changed. One of the first things I noticed was that the place was no longer “jam-packed” like on my second visit. I guess the hype was over, and though we still dined on the big pavillion, the sense of serenity was back…it was a leisurely lunch once again. The bread, salad and pasta were still incomparable, as always, and it felt like we were eating lunch on a garden again. It seems I get something unexpected, on my every visit.

They serve food slowly here, one course after the other on a very relaxed pace, and so this is not for those looking for a quick lunch. What it guarantees though is that those who are willing to spend time, will have enough of it to savor every bite. It’s for those few times when you leave all the care in the world, and just eat to your heart’s contect (their food isn’t bad for the heart too).

The place used to be called “Sonya’s Secret Garden”, but by now I guess it already ranks as among the worlds worst kept secrets, so it’s simply known now as “Sonya’s Garden”. I would like to be back in there again, maybe after another few years, and who know what suprise I might come across again by then.

Dressing and condiments
The garden style dining
The fresh bread
The selection of spreads
Fresh greens
Mix your own salad
Fresh pasta
Mix your own sauce
...and sweetened camote, for dessert

*all photos taken with Olympus E-420 and Zuiko 50mm f2.0.

*This lunch was taken December, 2010


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