Taste sensation

25.02.19

Filipino cuisine is hardly amongst the most well-known of gastronomic delights, and western knowledge of the food of Southeast Asia is generally restricted to Thai, Vietnamese and more recently Malay. Luke Thomas was invited to Romulo Café in London’s Kensington to see exactly why the food of the Philippines could quite possibly be the next big thing.

Nestled in a Georgian townhouse in beautiful Kensington, is one of London’s hidden treasures. Romulo Café pairs it’s homely, but chic aesthetic style with jaw-dropping plates of unexpected Filipino food.

And that’s the main aspect to consider when visiting – expect the unexpected. You could be forgiven for thinking that the cuisine of the Philippines shares it roots with much of the rest of Southeast Asia – but you would be very wrong.

Yes, there are some trademark ingredients from the region such as soy sauce, lemongrass and ginger, but the culture and cuisine of the Philippines is much deeper than that – it’s a rich combination of cultural styles including Chinese, Malay, Spanish and even American.

Romulo is owned by Rowena Romulo, and is part of the Romulo brand founded in Manila in 2009 by Rowena’s sister and brother-in-law, Sandie Romulo Squillantini and Enzo Squillantini, as a tribute to their grandfather, the late General Carlos P Romulo.

Rowena has adorned her restaurant with some fabulous images from Filipino history, many of which include her decorated grandfather, a renowned gourmand and many personalities besides, including diplomat, statesman, soldier, journalist, publisher, author and sometime president of the UN General Assembly. Not to mention the first Filipino to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Romulo Café has a lovely, welcoming vibe. It feels as if you’ve been invited into a family home. It doesn’t end there. Rowena was keen to give us a taste tour of the best of Filipino cooking, recommending a variety of dishes cooked up by executive chef Jeremy Villanueva, formerly of Le Gavroche under Michel Roux Jr, Brasserie Roux and Le Boudin Blanc in Mayfair.

Food was served tapas-style, on small plates, known as platitos. Large sharing platters were also available.

We first tried the sizzling chicken inasal sisig -  a hearty dish of traditional sizzling Pampanga-style chicken thighs marinated in annatto, ginger, green chili, garlic, and lemongrass. This rich, luxurious plate, topped with a crispy piece of chicken skin, meshed savoury and sweet yet with just enough of a citrus tang to cut perfectly through the richness.

Next on the menu was the national dish of the Philippines, adobo, which has its roots in Spanish cuisine. The version served at Romulo called Dingley Dell Pork Belly adobo is served with a trio of potatoes. The dish definitely has a hint of western influence, with the sauces’ rich and sweet flavours more akin to a rich, sticky jus. Combined with savoury, perfectly cooked pork belly with crispy fat, it makes for truly satisfying eating. The sweet potato mash included as part of the pomme de terre triumvirate was unquestionably the best I’ve ever tasted.

Segueing into the next course, we happily devoured some slow cooked beef ribs that had been dowsed in a delicious honey chili glaze and served with homemade jicama slaw. The beef was fall-off-the bone perfect, and combined with the refreshing slaw, was my personal highlight of the meal.

After such a palate of rich flavours, it was time to move onto an interval cleanser – although to suggest that the tuna ceviche was merely that would be an insult to its heady yet fresh blend of flavours. The dish was texturally magnificent with the crisp salad vegetables complimenting the soft, cured fresh tuna brilliantly.

I’m often sceptical of desserts in Asian cuisine. In my experience, they can often be overly sweet and unrefined. The starter and main courses always feel like the stars of the show. On this occasion, I can safely report that Filipino desserts are a thing of beauty.

Our first offering was the show stopping ube cheesecake – a purple yam cheesecake sprinkled with coconut and served with creamy, but light coconut ice cream. This bright purple pudding is truly striking to the eye. Its unusual and complex flavours evoke a strangely familiar, childlike emotion of eating sweet, creamy candies.

The grand finale was something of a surprise - bread and butter pudding. According to Rowena, this is a speciality of the restaurant (only served at weekends), and popular throughout the Philippines. The pudding consists of pandesal rolls (a typically sweet and light Filipino bread roll), a rich luxurious custard, chocolate chips and raisins dutifully drenched in the wonderful Don Papa rum straight from the Philippines. The result is a sweet, stick-to-your-ribs dessert with a continuously developing taste.

All in all we sampled a quite exquisite selection of what Romulo Café has to offer, but the menu really does cater for all tastes, with a robust selection of vegetarian and vegan food, including the excellent jackfruit and coconut stew.

With its complex, yet strangely familiar blend of flavours, it’s definitely time to give Filipino food a try – and where better to go than Romulo Café.

www.romulocafe.co.uk

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