Spanish with a Twist of Fun: An Interview with the Owners of Rambla and Las FloresJune 16, 2014
It was Sergei Rostoll who started it all. With fond memories of the few years he spent as a young boy in Asia, especially when he vacationed with his family in the Philippines, he decided to try opening a restaurant in Manila as his Tourism and Hotel Management thesis back in 2006. He got his friend and neighbor (who used to wait tables with him in restaurants in Barcelona), Dani Aliaga, to come along for that “crazy idea”. They set up a wine bar in Ortigas, the first, Rostoll claims. They were both twenty-two years old.
“We were a little crazy back then, you know.”
“We were a little crazy back then, you know,” Rostoll explains warmly. We talk with him, Aliaga, and Uri Singla at Rambla, their newest project, on Joya Drive, Rockwell. “When you’re young you say, ‘Let’s do something, let’s get out of here, let’s go to [the] Philippines, do market research, do all of that. We saw the opportunity for business, put together some investors, and got things moving.” Rostoll wasted no time in getting to work.
For Aliaga, he started working the minute he set foot in the Philippines, “I went straight to SM Megamall.” He recalls, “I had to help Sergei because there was a Spanish fair to show Spanish goods. Sergei was good enough to pick me up from the airport, then he sent me straight to work.”
Serving “Spanish food that’s a little fun,” Aliaga handles the marketing and PR, Singla handles the business itself, while Rostoll travels to learn more about food and help conceptualize the menu.
From there, the little thesis became Barcino, which now boasts several branches across Metro Manila. The third in their group, Uri Singla, would follow their misadventures three years later in 2009. “I did not speak much English then,” Singla remembers. But like his friends, diving into work helped with that.
They have since let go of Barcino to focus on two restaurants, Las Flores in Bonifacio Global City, and Rambla in Rockwell. Both are drawing in crowds, and earning raves for serving Spanish food with a slight twist. Rostoll describes what they generally serve as “Spanish food that’s a little fun.” While all three of them have even footing in running both restaurants, Aliaga handles the marketing and PR, Singla handles the business itself, while Rostoll travels to learn more about food and help conceptualize the menu, especially the restaurants’ drinks lists.
“I think what was nice about our experience was that we came in at the same time as the city was growing, and opening up to other kinds of cuisines, trends, and other kinds of restaurant concepts.”
What’s Spanish food like in the Philippines to three Spanish men? To Aliaga, while the ingredients used, and the methods of cooking are slightly different from their home country, “But the essence is the same. ”For Rostoll, “It [Spanish cuisine in the Philippines] is traditional cooking. Like how Grandma would make it, the way it’s slow-cooked.”When asked about the challenges of running a restaurant here, far from the country they call home, Aliaga says: “It was not always easy, but it was always a lot of fun. I think what was nice about our experience was that we came in at the same time as the city was growing, and opening up to other kinds of cuisines, trends, and other kinds of restaurant concepts. I think because of that, it was perfect timing for us.”
On a personal level, there is comfort in being in the Philippines. “In other countries, you feel like a foreigner. But here in the Philippines, you feel like [sic] home.” says Rostoll.
“If you want to relate it to some region,” Aliaga continues, “I would relate it more to the center of Spain, in the heavy winter where you have pochero and adobos and lenguas, and all these heavy meals and sausages. But more than regional, I relate it to an era or a time, to our grandmas, our elders.”
On a personal level, there is comfort in being in the Philippines. “In other countries, you feel like a foreigner. But here in the Philippines, you feel like home.”
“Also, in Spain,” Rostoll explains, “in the last fifteen years [cuisine] has changed a lot. There have been many famous chefs from Spain, and also a worldwide culinary scene.” It’s also what influences the twist in the ambience, and food of Las Flores and Rambla.
“Las Flores is not so traditional, but it’s Spanish tapas.” says Singla, “In Rambla, we work around the open kitchen concept. It’s also very casual. We use some new techniques [with the food] as well- for example we slow cook, we do foams, or even the molecular techniques.” He emphasizes, “Quality food. Casual ambience.”
“We try to do high-quality food here, [so customers can] see how we cook it in a casual atmosphere,” Rostoll continues, “We serve the dishes, the menu- there is no tablecloth. We believe [with] Rambla, with restaurants now, the open kitchen is very important because the experience improves a lot.”
“(During the storm Gener) No one from the other restaurants opened. So people were saying who were the crazy ones that opened? It was an amazing day because we had to manage with no staff, thank God the kitchen staff was there.”
Las Flores was a dream realized for them. After running Barcino for a few years, they wanted to do something different, on their own. They sold Barcino, then took a year to draft the business plan, and travel around Spain while they conceptualized the restaurant that would eventually be Las Flores. The restaurant would finally open in 2012, during signal number one storm Gener.There were laughs and smiles around the table as they remembered it, “It was very picturesque,” says Aliaga, “because there were chairs flying, then tables, it was pretty amazing actually. We were inside the restaurant and we were like, ‘Wow. Those are chairs.’ Then, the second best thing that happened, was that no one showed up to work, only the kitchen [staff]. No one [else] was able to leave the house. It was an amazing day because we had to manage with no staff, thank God the kitchen staff was there.”
“Obviously, no one [from the other restaurants] opened. So [people were saying] who were the crazy ones that opened?” Aliaga gives a knowing smile. Las Flores was packed, with hungry customers willing to wait, to stay dry from the rains.
Rambla opened on Dani Aliaga’s Birthday. “I think that’s the magic, and the beauty of an opening, you know that you somehow get the thrill of everything going in full blast, with people having fun, and the kitchen is having a nightmare, but that is when you say we’re ok. That’s the perfect formula. When you see the kitchen is quiet, problem.”
On Rambla, which opened a year after Las Flores, Aliaga was excited to talk about opening day, “That was a fantastic experience. On the day it opened, it was my birthday. It was a great disaster. It was a great mess, everyone was happy, everyone was having fun, enjoying.”
“Except the kitchen,” Singla reminds him with a laugh.
“Except the kitchen, of course! The kitchen was extremely overloaded. But I think that’s the magic, and the beauty of an opening, you know that you somehow get the thrill of everything going in full blast, with people having fun, and the kitchen is having a nightmare, but that is when you say we’re ok. That’s the perfect formula. When you see the kitchen is quiet, problem.”
The fun has come a long way. We are near the corner table where Chef Heston Blumenthal sat that one Sunday evening last May. Blumenthal is an English celebrity chef, whose restaurant, The Fat Duck in Berkshire, Britain is one of four restaurants in the country with three Michelin stars. They weren’t expecting him to visit Rambla.
“Heston Blumenthal went inside, we were thinking if it was him or not. We were shocked.”
“He [went] inside, we were thinking if it was him or not. We were shocked.” Singla recalls. He says that Blumenthal ordered the paella negra, air baguette with jamon, crispy suckling pig, and the wanton dish. He called the chef [Pepe Lopez], he wanted to tell him he enjoyed his meal. He was on his way to Australia, he just passed by [in the country] to see a friend.”
Even with the occasional celebrity sighting, the group wishes not to make too big a deal out of it. “When we have [celebrity] personalities here, we want them to feel at home. We don’t want to overwhelm them,” Rostoll says, “He was the one who called the chef. We asked him if he was enjoying himself, he said yes, he loved the experience, he loved the concept, so we took a group picture. It makes us happy, these kinds of things.”
“When we have celebrities here, we want them to feel at home. We don’t want to overwhelm them.”
So far, they are generally happy with how things are going. Rambla and Las Flores have just launched, and reworked new menus, and even more exciting things are in store for the two restaurants. “But of course, we have some new projects,” Singla says, “We are young and we want [more things]. Let’s see at the end of the year, no?”