Kabalikat, are you a tourist or a traveler?
Well, you might say that they are one and the same. Honestly, I beg to differ. I define a tourist as one who goes on a trip and take on the usual route listed on those commercial travel books. They are those who are willing to shell out some hard-earned cash to view those so-called tourist spots. A traveler, on the other hand, is one who goes on a journey and braves out onto the off-beaten tracks. They are those who are never afraid to wander in unfamiliar grounds, get lost, and eventually make new discoveries along the way. They are those people who are able to unlock some of the best-kept secrets hidden in their destination.
Years back, when Tagaytay City was not yet developed into the commercial tourist hub that it is today, the trips down south would usually be consisted of these activities: lunch at Picnic Grove, a drive up the People’s Park (called Palace in the Sky during its glory days), horseback-riding, and photo-op with the Taal Volcano as their backdrop. Predictable as it may sound, that has been the traditional family’s routine — until their travel grapevines intervened that led them to discover a “hidden treasure” this side of the town.
Rumors were going around the metro of a restaurant which serves wonderful country cuisine in a lush garden setting. However, it was so exclusive that it requires one to have a direct affinity with the restaurant owner to be able to sample her food offerings. Now, the owner (who goes by the name of Sonya) is one privy lady, and getting hold of her number is no easy feat. Not one to be easily turned down (especially in matters of gastronomy), my aunt finally got hooked up with Sonya via the friend of a friend of her friend.
Finding the place was a tough one, as it is within one of the smaller barangays of Tagaytay (even though I was originally from there), tucked between rolling hills. Back then, a small rusty “Sonya’s” signage was your only landmark if you are coming from the national highway, so it is better to be on the lookout for the bigger “Barangay Buck Estate” welcome arc. A seemingly never-ending drive commenced once we entered through this arc (okay, I was exaggerating but hey I was already extremely hungry then), but the hills of neatly lined up pineapple plants along the side of that narrow road kept us entertained for a while.
Once you get there — lo and behold — you would never believe such a place could exist in that part of our country. A vast English garden exploding with vibrant colors greets guests upon entry. (We later found out that each shrub here was laboriously and lovingly planted by Sonya herself.) As you walk past these bushes of flowers of every imaginable kind, they give off a natural fragrance that beckons you to leave all your worldly concerns behind and be at that moment. Canopied rest stops can be found throughout the garden, with little trinkets giving the whole place its country charm.
The dining area is set in what seems like gigantic greenhouses, adorned with ferns and plants. Wooden pieces of furniture fill the space, while tabletops of excellent embroidery and dishes served in vintage chinaware finishes off the details for a rustic ambience.
Food here is uncomplicated; simple yet gratifying. The menu is composed of Sonya’s culinary repertoire, no-frills country cuisine with Asian and European influences. One is assured that every food item is freshly prepared in their kitchen, with most of their ingredients grown and handpicked from their organic garden.
Proof of this is their salad, a bevy of greens plus the occasional edible flowers, tossed in with fresh fruits, broad beans and parmesan cheese, and perfectly orchestrated with Sonya’s secret dressing (a concoction that is tangy and sweet) or Balsamic Vinegar.
This is followed by a serving of wheat bread, freshly baked from their in-house panaderia, accompanied by a variety of dips and toppings that include pesto, white cheese, anchovies, bruschetta tomato, mushroom pate, black olive tapinade and fresh green peppercorn in olive oil.
Main course comprised pasta with a choice of two sauces: the traditional red sauce (made from sun dried tomatoes sans the meat), or white (cream-based with chicken bits and mango base). This is served with toppings of ratatouille, salmon belly, shiitake mushrooms, black olives, capers, peppercorns and grated parmesan cheese.
Freshly squeezed dalandan juice aids in cleansing the palate for this play of flavors, while a serving of their tarragon helps to digest all this food intake.
By this time, you should still have room for their well-loved desserts, comprised of banana fritters, glazed camote and their decadent chocolate cake.
This set menu of Sonya’s remains constant; this is the same kind of gourmet fare she has been serving since word got out of her secret hideaway. Surprisingly, loyal patrons keep coming back, and each time they bring in new ‘recruits’. What started out as a private paradise for Sonya has now become a ‘home’ for many: balikbayans, honeymooners, urbanites seeking refuge from their daily routine — or a wandering traveler, who is ever ready to unlock a new secret in his journey.
(Note: At present, Sonya’s Garden is a secret no more. In fact, she has maximized the area to include a panaderia and country store, where food items such as her secret salad dressing, broad beans, and assorted breads that were in the restaurant can be bought and brought home, alongside various knick-knacks and curios. There is also a spa, where one can choose from among a variety of massages and services for that well-deserved pampering. The Sonya’s Signature Massage, a full body massage that is done with long flowing strokes, comes highly recommended. Finally, there is the Bed and Breakfast — perfect for those people who cannot get enough of the Sonya’s Garden experience in a day. An overnight stay here comes with free activities on the “art of doing nothing,” a philosophy that Sonya herself lives by. This could be lessons on flower arranging, basic gardening, and cooking with herbs.)