It’s easy to approach Tanám, the new Filipino-American restaurant at Somerville’s Bow Market, with apprehension. Boston has seen little of Filipino cuisine, which reflects the archipelago’s vast ethno-linguistic diversity and a welter of culinary influences from Asia, Europe and the Americas. You might know the food of Tagalog-speaking Manila, but what about the distinctive fare of Kapampangan-speaking Angeles City? Fortunately, Tanám, the brainchild of Filipino-American polymath/chef Ellie Tiglao, is more than a mere restaurant. It’s a cooperative focused on “narrative cuisine,” its diverse team as interested in conversations with its customers about food, culture and community as in serving them dinner. Tiglao is Tanám’s Beatrice, a gently engaging guide whose heartfelt stories help lead neophytes through one of several menu formats, depending on the night.
Table Talk: Chef Ellie Tiglao chats with guests as she serves Filipino dishes at Tanám.
With 10 seats, the place is tiny and most often requires prepaid online reservations. Upon arrival, you may order drinks at a wee counter window resplendent with fresh flowers, then perch on a white-upholstered bar stool around the one narrow communal table in an austerely lovely room shrouded in translucent draperies and lit with moody candles and groovy, color-shifting overhead lighting.
We first essayed the Aláya menu, a five-course prix fixe ($90, plus tax and tip) served twice nightly Thursday through Sunday. It’s an Instagram-worthy review of Tiglao’s influences—from her family’s home cooking in California to a research/cooking stint in the Philippines—and a tour-de-force of tropical ingredients, globe-trotting techniques and sour, savory, salty and sweet flavors. One evening featured ukoi, chunks of Maine lobster alongside a tangle of shredded kalabasa squash and green papaya garnished with mung bean sprouts over a tangy ocher sauce; lumpiang sariwa, Maine salmon fillet alongside an oak lettuce leaf dressed in fish-sauce vinaigrette, sitting atop an eggy crepe stuffed with carrots, parsnips and daikon, set alongside an artful smear of sweet peanut-garlic sauce; humba, a skin-charred duck leg-and-thigh confit crowned with crisp-fried saba (like savory green plantain) over a salty, fragrant sauce of fermented black soybeans, star anise and cinnamon; batsui, a mild, refreshing, gingery soup of slender, slippery, translucent mung bean-flour noodles, floating a thin triangle of iron-tangy, black-crimson pork blood pudding topped with chunks of braised pork shoulder, a sphere of bubbly fried pork rind, chips of fried garlic and chopped scallions; and turon, triangular fried turnovers filled with jackfruit and set between slashes of cognac caramel, saba custard and whipped cream. Tiglao was there to explain it all, share her picaresque backstory (including her shift from neuroscience to cooking) and elicit questions, reactions and similarly personal stories from guests.
More traditional, novel and casually fun is the Kamayan menu ($70, plus tax and tip) served twice on Wednesdays. The table is blanketed with banana leaves atop which a banquet-style feast is served sans utensils. Tiglao offers a lesson in Filipino fingers-only eating technique, then patrons tuck into a long winding mound of excellent Japanese medium-grained white rice picturesquely bedecked with repeating piles of vegetables and fruits, skewers of meat and mounds of seafood. It’s another sensory kaleidoscope, a dizzying array of aromas and flavors. There are lumpia, skinny, crisp-fried spring rolls filled with ground pork, fried smelts, grilled slices of Japanese eggplant, skewers of braised pork belly chunks and whole prawns, bowls of simmered mussels, quick-pickled cucumbers, crosscut mangoes, pineapple cubes and bowls of pureed kalabasa squash spiked with ginger and coconut milk, floating cunning knots of tender yardlong beans, squash strips and baby bok choy. The centerpiece is a mammoth (6-pound) steamed Maine lobster, cracked open midway through the meal. Endless variation is to be found in mixing and matching individual bites with vivid, often sour-accented condiments and dips, like a sweetened vinegar loaded with fresh garlic; lechon sauce, a thin, tangy, black-peppery pork liver puree; bagoong, a reddish-black, quite salty, mildly fermented shrimp paste; and coconut vinegar with slices of fresh hot chilies. It’s a senses-dazzling free-for-all.
Bar director Kyisha Davenport has assembled a short program of absolutely gorgeous, regionally accented cocktails ($14) like the Ube Sour of purple yam-infused genever, acerbic kalamansi juice and foamy egg white, and the Lamb Talk of lambanog (a pisco-like Filipino coconut spirit), kalamansi, coconut cream, rosewater, egg white and soda. There’s a few mild, food-friendly lagers ($7) like San Miguel from the Philippines and Haiti’s Prestige, plus a handful of idiosyncratic wines ($10-$13, by the glass; $30-$75, bottle), like the 2015 Draga Miklus Malvasia ($45), an intense golden white from Friuli Venezia softened by wood aging and given a sherry-like hint of skin contact.
The mostly late-night Bar at Tanám format finds customers standing around the now cafe-height table to accompany drinks with snacks like stuffed steamed bao ($5 each) of pork belly, chicken adobo or shiitakes, roasted chicken wings ($8) in mildly spicy coconut milk sauce and pancit canton ($12), blandly sauced egg noodles with shiitakes, snow peas and carrots. Uneven, slow service and comparatively pedestrian small plates made this our least favorite meal here. But with its ticketed dinners, Tanám delivers something unique and uncommonly moving for a restaurant experience: fascinatingly eclectic, delicious food underpinned by an extraordinary level of human connection, lending a much more profound meaning to the notion of empathetic, multicultural family-style dining. ◆
Tanám, 1 Bow Market Way, Suite 17, Somerville (617-669-2144) tanam.co; Hours: Kamayan menu, Wed., 5 and 7:30 pm; Aláya menu, Thu.-Sun., 5 and 7:30 pm; Bar at Tanám, Sat.-Sun., noon-3 pm, Wed. and Fri.-Sat., 10 pm-midnight, Thu., 4 pm-midnight; Liquor: Full; Reservations: Required with prepayment for Kamayan and Aláya menus; available but not required for Bar at Tanám menu; Parking: Limited metered and street spaces