Hey Handsome: Peranakan and Northern Thai Flavors Make up One of 2016’s Best New RestaurantsAugust 10, 2016
Nicco Santos is a very different man from when we last met. I sat down with him almost two years ago, when his sophomore effort, Your Local, was barely six months old. He was known more then as one of Esquire’s go-to photographers, capturing women at their most sensual—his work in the kitchen was acknowledged, but came postscript to the general public after his stint behind the lens developed from hobby to career. Today, in his latest venture Hey Handsome, it seems as if this career has faded largely out of view, but Santos seems more at ease than ever. He is accompanied with a different sort of maturity that might be attributed to his new role as father, but also to his growth in the kitchen. “This is our best project to date”, Santos says. “And I am a bit more fulfilled, as I get to work with an awesome team.”
Hey Handsome is, essentially, a fine study in just how much collaboration can yield better results than ego. Santos is a man with a vision, an innate proclivity for beautiful, congruous flavors, with both the culinary and cultural history to back it up, but he brings all this to work with the same amount of humility. Everything at the restaurant is the work of Santos with one of the minds on his young team, mostly adopted and bred from his previous effort. Their grasp on the chef’s love for Southeast Asian cuisine makes it seem as if this has been their subject for years, creating flavors that fuse together with delicious ease.
The restaurant is cheekily named after what peddlers at hawker centers in Singapore would call out to customers in order to get them into their lines, and a nod to what kind of food the team might be churning out. It is mostly Peranakan by influence, but there are fragments of Northern Thai, Malay, Indonesian, and Japanese traditions too. A Bebek Penyet has duck pounded with spices then deep fried, yielding a leg that calls for the visceral use of your hands until you are almost elbows-deep into the thick, sticky sauce it is liberally doused in. The sweetness is offset by a brilliantly acidic achar, and a deeply grassy nasi ulam with ribbons of herbs folded into the soft grains.
A vegetarian beetroot paneer is a clear charmer of a dish, with a rose-hued curry that is tinged with sweetness, complemented by pearls of quinoa tabbouleh, and a tart yogurt which keeps things balanced. There is a Nam Tok which is Thai and Laotian by origin, but a little more updated here, with short ribs braised until they are slightly short of fall-of-the-bone consistency, accompanied by khao man, and a subtly sour and pungent som tam or green papaya salad.
Best yet is an incredibly Peranakan version of Nasi Lemak, the work of protege Queenie Villar and Santos. Otah, also known as otak-otak, is a ground fish cake flattened then grilled inside banana leaf, rendering the fish indiscernible, but here, the integrity of the seabass is very much intact. It is tender and slathered in a gravy that still lets its soft meat shine, then is served with a peanut brittle, an ache of funky, gently spiced sambal, and crisped-up anchovies. Drinks are not an afterthought either, with plans of a full bar underway; meanwhile, a thick lassi that has a whisper of lemongrass and ginger is made even richer with whole lobes of butter peeking from underneath its frothy surface. Dessert is still very much in flux, but there is also joy to be had in a cup of homemade yogurt with a surprise of black sesame paste underneath.
At Hey Handsome, Santos is as much the student as he is the teacher, bringing a keen, receptive eye to what every member of his team puts forth. This is why while each dish on the menu has common threads weaving them into a seamless whole, they all manage to feel incredibly singular and extremely precise, creating a fine catalog with hardly any lesser plates. I am never too keen on hyperbolic statements or premature claims, but I will put my stake into what Santos and his colleagues have achieved here. He has created a place full of soul in a neighborhood that is hard to please, and has truly found himself at his best here. The interior is hip, but not painfully so, and the food, a grounded, but otherworldly extension of his body of work. Along with Toyo Eatery, this is one of 2016’s finest new establishments to date.
Nicco Santos of Your Local fame opens a Southeast Asian restaurant in Bonifacio Global City