February 2, 2017
As is doubtlessly the case for many Filipinos, there is nothing like Mom’s lumpia, and for this reason, Cleary flies in a fresh batch every day, handmade by her mother in Texas.
— Only at Purple Patch Restaurant in Washington, D.C.
More than ever before, Washingtonians have quite a vast and heterogeneous range of dining options before them. Yet and still, cuisine from the Philippines may be unfamiliar, even to some of the more experienced eaters in the region. At least that was true before the 2015 opening of Purple Patch, a stylish but unpretentious Filipino restaurant, hidden away in the relatively quiet neighborhood of Mount Pleasant, close to the busier Columbia Heights.
Owner and chef Patrice Cleary is the ideal person to provide many locals with an accessible introduction to the food she grew up with. Born in the Philippines to a Filipino mother and an American father, Cleary possesses an understanding of both of her homelands that comes through in the menu. The restaurant takes its name from an Australian expression (perhaps suggested by Cleary’s husband, a native Australian himself), used to mean “a place of success or good luck.”
With its reliance on noodles, rice dishes, and stir-fries, Filipino cooking bears an obvious resemblance to Thai and other Southeast Asian cuisines. But it tends to use seasonings often associated with Latin cooking – like Adobo, a blend of paprika, cumin, black pepper and other pungent spices. As a result, the dishes on the menu may feel like some sort of new fusion cuisine (not unlike the Asian-Latin hybrids on the menu at Richard Sandoval’s Zengo). Filipino dishes have their own rich identity though. To most westerners, the most famous item on the menu might be Lumpia ($7), spring rolls filled with beef and pork. As is doubtlessly the case for many Filipinos, there is nothing like Mom’s lumpia, and for this reason, Cleary flies in a fresh batch every day, handmade by her mother in Texas. Served with a dish of sweet and tangy banana ketchup for dipping, an order of five rolls is quality comfort food indeed.
Sizzling Sisig ($18) is another crowd-pleaser: a skillet of chopped pork belly, onions, and rice, with an egg on top, which arrives at the table in a crackling cloud of steam, not unlike Mexican fajitas. Purple Patch’s version is decidedly geared more towards western palates than the traditional version of the dish, which is often made with pigs’ ears and jowls, but it retains its complex flavors. Sisig, whose name literally means “to snack on something sour,” is not as sour as the name indicates, but it has a spiciness that starts out subtly and slowly grows with each bite.
A worthy centerpiece to a Filipino feast is the Escabeche ($23), a whole fried red snapper, complete with head and fins, glazed in a sweet and tangy ginger soy sauce. A group of friends is likely to find themselves fighting over the carcass, to retrieve those last morsels of white, flaky meat. (The best bits are in the neck and cheeks.) A flavorful Chicken Adobo ($14) is pleasingly brown and tender, as are the Grilled Miso Chicken Wings ($8). For creatures of habit, the menu also offers a serviceable Burger ($10) and Ribeye Steak ($24).
The drink menu offers a small but satisfying selection of beer (including the Philippines’ own San Miguel), wine, and cocktails. The bar likes to incorporate calamansi, a citrus fruit halfway between a Mandarin orange and kumquat, into standard cocktails; it’s a good way to add a little extra something to an Old Fashioned, for example.
Truthfully, the dishes at Purple Patch may not be exactly what you might find in the dining rooms of Manila. (The cooking at Kalye, a tiny pop-up in Petworth, stays slightly more faithful to the original recipes.) But the restaurant’s cool and comfortable décor, its lively but unobtrusive atmosphere and its hearty, generously portioned dishes, give it mass appeal. And not for nothing, but it’s reportedly a favorite of staffers at the Filipino Embassy. The fact that it passes their test should be enough to give Purple Patch some street cred in the eyes of everyone else.