Sensei’s Bruce Ricketts Opens New Restaurant Mecha UmaSeptember 28, 2014
Bruce Ricketts is one of the most talented chefs working in Manila today. It might be a premature statement, but his food at Sensei Sushi, hole-in-the-wall turned modern classic, showed off the skills and creativity of a chef with experience way beyond his years. His tasting menus were legendary, flying in ingredients as crazy as cod milt for his experiments, and prices that were more than a steal. At 25, Ricketts is creating food that has won him accolades both here and abroad, and has easily won him a loyal following.
Finally moving out of the tiny, mostly DIY kitchen where he made his name, Ricketts is now heading Mecha Uma in the Fort’s BGC. It is a more grown-up place, outfitted for the new clientele it will attract. The space is all concrete, intimate but not cold, with 10 seats for tasting, and 18 for a la carte. The seats at the bar directly in front of the open kitchen are the best ones in the house, if you don’t mind the heat and are interested in seeing what the chefs are up to. Ricketts was known for his incredible tasting menus at Sensei, which showed him experimenting with crazy ingredients from anago to cod milt. This means that the tables for the omakase at Mecha Uma are often booked days in advance, but the a la carte menu here sounds just as enticing, with specials according to what stuff Ricketts can get his hands on next.
A lot of the stuff here at Mecha Uma has predecessors in Sensei, making it hard to judge them on their merits, without comparing them to the other. There are some cases, when the similarity works. The Mechaviche for example, is a more adult version of his well-known Sensei dish. The creamy acidity is subtle, still leaving the shrimp and scallop rare, rather than cooking it like a kinilaw or sinuglaw would. However, there are other cases when comparisons don’t do them any favors. The tuna dish with its biscuit, mousse, and pineapple, had an almost identical twin in Sensei. Alone, this thing is a beauty, even just on technique. It is texturally complex, with each bite delivering a different experience every time. But in comparison to the version I remember from Sensei, I remember tasting the foie gras mousse more, with the sweetness more well-balanced.
Everywhere else, the menu has touches of Ricketts that are instantly recognizable. His cuisine is undefinable, predominantly Japanese, but still borrowing influences from across the globe. You would be hard-pressed to find food this well-composed anywhere else in the city. Plates are incredibly well thought-out, hitting all the right notes on one’s palate. The jidori is an excellent example of this, achieving umami with the combination of mushrooms, mustard tare, and the slight charring of the chicken on charcoal. It needed something, a little kick of heat, but the kitchen knew that already, serving it with freshly grated wasabi. There is a lot of careful thought that comes into play, and Ricketts has slowly mastered this.
However, that being said, some of Mecha Uma’s dishes don’t deliver the same punch that Sensei did. A friend of mine called the food shy, which was an apt description for our meal that night. Another said that while Ricketts had definitely grown up and was showing more technique, it wasn’t as playful as their previous meals by the chef, whose insane culinary experiments showed that he was one to beat. The food is delicious when matched against any other establishment, but some of it felt a little safe. Maybe we should not be comparing, but when I ate at Sensei, some of Ricketts’ dishes were incredibly memorable, even life-changing, like scallops in XO butter, or a cod milt that made me forget for an instant that foie gras existed. The oyster with aerated polenta at Mecha Uma for example, didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the food we ate, and the lamb and barley could have delivered more complex flavors, but was just a little flat.
I have heard so many different views on the new place, but they all seem to be very similar; those who try the a la carte say there is a lot left to be desired, but those who have the omakase at Mecha Uma say that it is better than anything Ricketts has done before, and his talent is even more evident. While more technically precise here than at his previous home, Mecha Uma’s flavors on the a la carte fall a little short. If that’s the case, hopefully he adjusts the a la carte menu to meet the quality of his tasting menu. I am eager to come back.