Naga City, called the ‘Heart of Bicol’ because it’s ensconced in the center of the Bicol Peninsula, is one of the fastest-growing cities in the Philippines with a population of 203,195 people as of 2017. People from Manila come to Naga City to leave behind the frenetic paroxysm of the capital and bask in the idyllic lifestyle of leisurely stillness to bacchanal parties of the previous century that harken us back to a sense of community and spectacle. They are greeted by grand vistas from narrow streets where the 19th century Colonial Spanish architecture is a living breathing thing, which is the primary reason Naga City is fast becoming the venue for destination weddings, corporate retreats, and parties. The present and the past are intertwined in a subtle dance that creates something magical and enriches the food culture of the city; restaurants and bistros fill rooms in structures raised at the turn of the previous century. Here young chefs informed about the rich food history and armed with modern techniques are able to strike from the city’s favored position from the center and draw upon the influence of the four corners of Bicol to create a conference and dialogue of flavors that is truly vibrant.
A definite oasis in the Naga hospitality scene is the Primus Hotel and Resort just outside Naga City Centro is just a short ride through scenic Pacol Road dotted by rice patties and Farmers’ markets. As you drive up the pale russet circular entrance welcomed by four Roman columns that lead into the large foyer that doubles as a check-in counter, you truly feel you have found something special. Unlike the rest of the city where narrow streets are par for the course, Caceres Heights Resort Subdivision offers a Hamptonesque feel with large paved streets, rolling landscapes, and a serene lack of congestion. As you walk the 2,300sqm dotted palms, fortune plants, and orchids artfully arranged in a coliseum design and the large geometric pool area you realize you are in a place truly suited for functions and events. The huge banquet hall comfortably sitting 350 guests can cater to family gatherings, corporate events, conferences, and weddings and they offer both buffets, or plated services depending on the client’s culinary exigency. This versatility is showcased in no better way than the hotel’s two flagship restaurants: Caffe Primo and Don Jaime Ristorante.
Caffe Primo has a relaxed, nonchalant, even blasé, atmosphere where the dark mahogany tables and diamond-pleated leather chairs illuminated by the amber lights accenting huge industrial bulbs give a reclaimed art deco feel to the room. The rich earth tones of browns and muted oranges accented with green lends itself to unperturbed stretches whiling away the afternoon after a conference and enjoying the cafés rich blends of arabica and robusta coffee that give a more complex flavor package than single-origin roasts of coffee. Here in this venue, you bask not in spectacle but the intimacy of the familiar where food, coffee, and restaurant create a niche package that delivers you home. Guests from weddings, functions, and events can enjoy a brunch of the café’s signature pasta: Chicken Alfredo Dionne (a sauce of perfectly sautéed chicken breast in an emulsion of pasta water, butter, and parmesan finished with a pinch of nutmeg), Carbonara (a classic sauce of cream, egg yolks, bacon, garlic, and parmesan cheese) and Pasta Sta. Ciara (a simple and refreshing blend of basil, garlic, pine nuts, and parmesan with seared shrimp). For a large party that wants a simple unpretentious sharing menu, nothing fits more beautifully than pizza, and in Caffe Primo, two pizzas cover the palate of everyone, the Primus All Meat Pizza (combines fresh-grilled chicken, beef strips, sausage chunks, sliced ham, and lardons of bacon) and the Healthy Earth (features locally sourced button mushrooms, straw mushrooms, shitake which give a meaty mouth-feel and the asparagus and tomato cleanse the palate in every bite). Caffe Primo’s seasonal events and promotional packages provide popular discounts on their signature dishes that make it the venue for casual diners in Naga City.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Don Jaime Ristorante is Primus Hotel and Resort’s answer to haute cuisine. The restaurant is a popular reception venue for destination weddings and conferences where the VIPs partake of the menu’s nouvelle cuisine. You start the epicurean experience by ordering their house-made Focaccia (a spongy, soulful Italian flatbread perfect for dips and to clean your plate of pasta sauce) with your choice of 3 dips (spinach, tomato, and chicken liver pâté) or, guests who prefer a more robust appetizer can opt for the Primus Platter a diverse and generous tasting of charcuteries (cold-cooked meats) and cheeses placed on crackers for a truly decadent bite and a party of textures. The restaurant’s famous Seafood Chowder (New England base soup with generous chunks of mussels, clams, shrimp, and squid) is a favored item for the hotel’s events and functions because of the fresh locally-sourced ingredients. For entrée, the Polo Di Arrosto’s (whole chicken stuffed with rosemary, thyme, and lemon and served with mashed potato or rice) pot roasting process allows it to retain all its juices while ensuring the skin is crisp. Lovers of the hog are astounded by the Pork Belly Confit (slow-cooked submerged in duck fat in low heat, which allows the pork to retain its juices while the skin is crisped in a skillet and garnished with mixed vegetables and served with rice or mash) and Pork Medallion (tender medallions of pork sirloin marinated in lemon and tarragon then grilled in an open flame and served with rice or mash). The piece de resistance of the restaurant’s menu is the Fillet Mignon, 1 to 2 inch thick round cuts of tenderloin cooked to medium-rare perfection, and the pan juices combined with varietal mushrooms to create a velvety buttery gravy and served vegetables and rice or mash.
The Caffe Primo and Don Jamie Ristorante truly offer something for everyone whether you are a seasoned gourmand or a road-weary traveler looking in the sites. You can enjoy a well-cooked meal in their spaces or an outdoor experience in the pool with its burnt sienna tiles, shaded seats that seat four people spaced overlooking the pool, and stage also lends itself to an aptness for large events done on bright summer days. These two gastronomical meccas provide a unique and relaxing experience and a worthwhile way to spend your Naga City escape.