Sans Rival. The name is a whispered hosanna on every Filipino’s lips. Filipinos love to eat, especially sweets, so the walls of Sans Rival, a purveyor of desserts, are nearly as hallowed as the Catholic church that sits proudly in the middle of Dumaguete.
Sans Rival. A French name for a Filipino bakery that was established in 1977, it means “without rival”. It is a statement, a promise, a challenge.
Tony and I, we haven’t been all that impressed with Filipino baking thus far. We haven’t eaten that many, but we did pick up some doughnuts and scone-esque treats prior to our snorkeling expedition in Bohol and wound up with a bunch of dry baked goods that crumbled to dust upon first bite and sucked all moisture from our mouths. So, on the one hand, the bar has been set fairly low going into our first visit to Sans Rival. But then again, this place has been seriously hyped (if Filipinos are serious about one thing, it seems to be about how awesome Sans Rival is), which inches the bar just the teensiest bit higher.
By all accounts, our first trip to Sans Rival should have been a slam dunk, seeing how we visited after overimbibing during our Mexican feastesta, and the liquor coursing through us had given us a serious case of the munchies. We sidled up to the counter at Sans Rival and stared dumbfounded for a moment at the rows upon rows of petit fours and other bitesized morsels in the cold case. With so many choices before us and the happy glow of overindulgence making us bold, we opted to try three little sweets, united in the culinary theme of “must have chocolate NOW”, and each one costing less than $1USD.
Alas, perhaps as punishment for our gluttony, none of the treats was very good—certainly not worthy of the mellifluous praise that is heaped upon this bakery, and definitely not living up to the Sans Rival name. For me the biggest disappointment was that even to my liquor-soaked palate, none of the desserts tasted very fresh: they had the distinct flavor of something that has been left overnight in the refrigerator without proper storage leading to the pervasive taste of “fridge” in every bite.
We left disappointed, but not completely undeterred. Although the name Sans Rival has considerable clout in the Philippines, it is predominantly known for one one dessert in particular: silvanas.
To me, silvanas are Sans Rival’s spin on the classic French confection, the macaron. Sweet buttercream filling is sandwiched between two flat discs made of cashew meringue and then rolled in cookie crumbs. They are best served cold, straight from the icebox.
Tired of the omnipresent grilled chicken & rice joints that grow in the Philippines like weeds, we decided to give Sans Rival another chance, this time deciding to have a well-balanced meal where the much-touted silvanas featured as dessert rather than our entire meal. I ordered a slab of lasagna and Tony had a club sandwich (complete with pickled green tomatoes!). Not highbrow fare by any means, but yummy nonetheless and an excellent rally on Sans Rival’s part. Though the bakery’s non-dessert offerings are somewhat limited, these were solid enough that we’d definitely recommend having at least one meal here if you’re ever in Dumaguete.
But of course, we were there for the silvanas, and a meal that does not end with a shining dessert will always be something of a disappointment. We ordered two chocolate and two original silvanas, and took our first bite.
Immediately it was clear why Sans Rival’s fame rests on its silvanas. These little cookies are dessert gold! They are a textural wonder with the crispness of the meringue perfectly complemented by the buttery softness of the creamy filling. The flavors were subtle but rich, not overpowering, and not excessively sweet (no small feat in the Philippines). After polishing off the four we had ordered, we considered buying a box of 12 for the road, but without a fridge to store them, we knew that would only end in tears.
So, instead we settled on dropping by Sans Rival every day for the remainder of our stay in Dumaguete for a glass of freshly squeezed calamansi juice and a silvana on the side. The other desserts may be lackluster, but that’s little worry, since if you visit Sans Rival, surely it will be for the silvanas. And at around 30 cents a pop, they truly are without rival and certainly make their snooty French counterparts at 2 EUROS per piece a little more difficult to stomach, non?