On Maginhawa Street in Quezon City, the largest of the 16 cities in Metro Manila, there are restaurants for every craving and preference. There’s even one for “mood-altering food”.
“Are you open?” my friend asked the Life Server who answered the door. I heard that same question every time guests entered Van Gogh is Bipolar.
VGIB is the brainchild of “cuckoo chef” Jetro Rafael, who sought to conquer his own mental illness through food that are said to raise the levels of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine–the neurotransmitters that make people happy. Initially, Rafael cooked for friends who then spread the word and made the hidden restaurant something of an urban legend, partly because of the unpredictability of its opening times and partly because it can only seat 12 diners at a time on 4 tables. Today, the hours are announced on Facebook but reservations are not accepted, so there is still a risk of getting turned away.
As my friend and I walked in, the restaurant struck me as a cross between an escape game and the Mad Hatter’s tea party. The decor is eclectic, filled from floor to ceiling with trinkets, artwork and ephemera collected from Rafael’s travels. The lights are low and come in different colours. There is a costume shop atmosphere, too, as diners are encouraged to wear hats, wigs or crowns of their choice from the restaurant’s collection.
The interiors change every two weeks, but what I saw suited me just fine. Our tabletop had currencies from all over the world under a glass cover. The legs of the table were from a sewing machine. A portrait of Van Gogh wearing spectacles, painted on newpapers, stared at me from an opposite wall, beside a projection of a giant clock telling the wrong time. The ambient music sounded like a gypsy dance from Central Europe, but the title on the iPod suggested something Nordic.
Our Life Server (not a waiter, but close) informed us that they only had set menus that night and also explained the procedure for ordering.
I poured myself some house tea, a wonderful concoction of ginger and orange in a glass kettle. Around it were beakers, more hats and antiques. Behind these, handpainted in cursive script, were the instructions for a ritual, The Art of Self-Healing.
Aside from indulging in the house tea, guests are encouraged to make their own mood tea using caffeine-free organic tea leaves sourced from the Rafael family farm. Each of the six suggested recipes is named after a great mind, from Plato’s Tea (extra calming) to Mozart’s Tea (extra upper). After choosing from dozens of teapots, I prepared Picasso’s Tea with mango leaves and a shot of honey for a “chill happy” mood.
Rafael recently opened a mood-healing tea sanctuary just outside the restaurant, where the public is invited to have a cup of tea or read a book in a quiet garden before the restaurant’s opening hours. I think that’s a sweet advocacy.
The restaurant is largely self-service, which meant I had to work for my dinner. Whenever my name was called, I stood up to collect my food from the kitchen window.
The starter, a creamy mushroom soup served in a glass candy jar, seemed fairly standard, except for the unusual addition of nuts and basil leaves.
“It’s different every time,” said my friend about the food. It was his third time at VGIB. They must be doing something right–all the other parties when we were there had a repeat guest bringing a first-timer.
Our beverage was a punch-like juice with slices of orange and apple, served in corked oil flasks. It was sweet with a familiar sourness that evaded description, like a word stuck at the tip of my tongue. My friend later identified the flavour as tamarind.
I had indicated fish for mains on the order form, while my friend opted for meat. We both received red rice, a sprinkling of dried plantain chips and some uncut greens. The difference was that mine came with a generous portion of salmon belly, while his had beef ribs in a brown sauce somewhere in between teriyaki and barbecue. It was unlike any combination I’ve ever had. Not quite a gourmet dish with fancy plating, but more organic, as if every ingredient joined the dish by chance. It made me see food more for the individual components than for the sum of its parts. And that was strangely refreshing.
The dessert selection was a toss-up between Wholesome and Sinful. Of course, I allowed myself to be tempted by Sinful. Our Life Server came out for the first time since he opened the door to announce that the dessert was 100% dark chocolate and herb liqueur, and that we had to say “Cheers!” in a foreign language. That night it was Russian, so I imitated him after he said “vashe zrodovye”. He lit up a shot of clear liquid, which burst into blue flames. I drank it as a shooter and had a spoonful of chocolate as chaser.
My friend and I left our payment inside a large glass jar, got our change from an old charcoal iron stocked with coins and signed the guestbook, indicating the amount we paid.
As I took my shoes from the refrigerator, the red glow from within it made me smile. That night, I was Alice and I had just come back from Wonderland. Never have I been so excited to tell someone about my dinner.
Van Gogh is Bipolar is located at the inner courtyard of 154 H. Maginhawa Street, Sikatuna Village, Quezon City, Philippines. Closed on Tuesdays. For opening times, visit www.facebook.com/vgibipolar.