Residing in London, one of the worlds gastronomic hubs, one would never think of Filipino cuisine as an initial option when deciding where to eat. With all the new restaurants, pop-ups and foods fads that have emerged from late 2015 to 2016 (from the ceviche sushi hybrid restaurants in the city, Bao Buns at your favorite ramen joint in Soho to the rainbow bagels in East London), there are many more trends that have eclipsed the mom-and-pop Filipino shops that were once the standard.
Romulo Café was initially conceptualized by Sandie Romulo Squillantini and husband Enzo Squillantini in 2009. It pays homage to General Carlos P. Romulo (CRP) an advocate of the Philippines, as well as a Nobel Prize nominee. With 3 successful restaurants located in Alabang, Makati and Quezon City under their belts, Romulo Café London seemed like the perfect venture for former banker now turned full time restaurateur Rowena Romulo.
Whilst paying homage to the General, the Romulo Cafés have been heavily influenced by family dining. Acquiring the assistance of David Collins Studio’s project designer, Karen Soriano, they pulled inspiration from General Carlos P. Romulo himself as well as from the Romulo family compound in Philippines known as Kasiyahan, which means happiness in Filipino. The various titas, titos and pinsans all lived within the compound, designed with only one kitchen/dining area better known as the “Big House”. They’d all gather together to share a meal prepared by their late grandmother and former beauty queen, Dona Virginia Llamas Romulo.
With Karen’s design expertise, Rowena was able to conceptualize a space that could have been the residence of her late grandfather, should he have lived in in the heart of Kensington. The outcome is an elegant space that bridges Filipino culture with the locality, revealing a rich sense of personal and family history.
The space is divided discretely into 4 dining areas: the General’s Bar where you can enjoy traditional homemade cocktails (of which the rum based Amor de Familia, was a favorite, made with Don Papa Rum, enhanced by the freshness and sweetness of strawberries and pomegranate finished off with the tanginess of lime). There is also the Ambassador’s Lounge, the Diplomat’s Dining Room, and a space located below the main dining area for private dining or parties in the CPR Library.
Meeting with Rowena along with managing partner Chris Joseph in the dimly lit private dining area known as the CPR Library, we learned more about her family heritage and the obstacles they needed to overcome in order to bring the restaurant to London. This required both passion and commitment, all of which you can see in every little detail that has been put into every inch of the restaurant, down to her carefully selected staff.
Stepping away from the Romulo Café’s traditional black and white modern yet minimal interiors with green, red and yellow undertones, the London branch has focused on being something akin to a cool younger sibling. There is a pink neon portrait of CPR in the General’s Bar and entrance, the banig light fixtures, golden pineapple salt and pepper shakers amongst all the other niche items.
Romulo Café London has transported flavorful Filipino cuisine and combined it with the culinary traditions of the Spanish, American, Malaysian and Chinese. Chef Lorenzo, a Westminster Kingsway graduate, will be providing the diner not just with traditional or authentic Filipino meals but by combining light to robust flavors with both homestyle and innovative techniques which all complement the restaurant’s high quality and chic dining atmosphere.
Sisig has been a dish I have had hankering for since I relocated back to London in 2013, and their Pork Sisig, chopped seared pork belly served cold topped with fried egg with pickled apples and caramelized shallots, provide a different, fresh dimension to the often heavy plate. Bangus Paté on its own was a delight, but pairing it with their freshly-made warm pandesal and a cold Red Horse just sets one on a journey of nostalgia.
Moving on to the mains we opted to go for the more traditional; a twice cooked pork belly and chicken “Adobo Romulo Style” was served with pickled onions and an extremely smooth sweet potato mash. Binagoongang Boneless Crispy Pata, was paired excellently with Bagoong Rice and Ginataang Sigarillas With Tinapa. Each bite was truly satisfying, with each component from the various plates a perfect fit to the other, filled with freshness and flavor as intended by Chef Lorenzo.
We ended our meal sharing a plate of their version of halo-halo, with all of its varied layers made in house. This particular take was light and refreshing, and surprisingly harmonious.
Romulo Café provides an exciting new direction for Filipino food in London. The cuisine has taken a backseat to emerging trends, and more often than not, was banished to areas frequented by our migrants, in restaurants only visited by natives. With this modern, exciting space, Romulo is bringing our food to the urban populace of one of the world’s biggest cities, and introducing them to the complexities that make up our flavor profiles. This is only the beginning.