Early Review: Sunnies Cafe Is All About the Brand, Less About FlavorSeptember 6, 2016
The idea of multifaceted lifestyle brands is hardly new. Consider sneaker champ Sketchers and its annual dance battles, or energy drink Red Bull’s close ties with extreme sports. Now an eyewear empire has their sights on our ever-lusting stomachs. Word on the street is, their milkshakes are better than yours. Sunnies Cafe had a good start. The co-owners teased for months, with little more than a then-cryptic wall and hints on their social media accounts, before finally dropping the bomb. And boy was it hyped, the geotag appearing on many an Instagram feed, thanks in part to an early promo that promised free dessert on their opening week. It was the place to be seen (and snapped), with sightings of famous personalities, fellow “it girls”, and even a line to get in.
It’s not hard to see why, with the owners’ huge fanbase and the success of the eponymous eyewear line. It more importantly appeared to be the perfect pairing of the food and fashion world, the former taken care of by no less than restaurant powerhouse Foodee Global Concepts group (also behind Tim Ho Wan, Pound, and the Todd English Food Hall, among others). The cafe’s own feed boasts of beautifully composed dishes and stunning interiors that reflect the Sunnies brand—hip but mellow, with hushed pastels and teals, seemingly influenced by the SoCal aesthetic. Clearly, they’re aimed at the fashion-forward, Instagram-savvy youth, the “millenials” of on-fleek brows and thirst for everything and anything that’s #feedgoals.
Ever the cynic, I am immediately wary, because the cafe pretty much ticks all the boxes of the aesthetic-driven, ultimately superficial establishments that continue to plague the city’s dining scene. A few later reviews (as well as firsthand accounts from a few close friends) seemed to confirm my suspicions. Complaints ran abound of plates that hardly resembled their promotional pictures, food that was badly cooked or simply lackluster, portions unjust in relation to the price, and an inefficient seating system—all of which made me rather hesitant to drop by, at least while it was new.
There was no queue on the weekday of our first visit—a number of tables were unoccupied in fact—and the crowd is diverse enough that you wouldn’t feel left out for being of an older generation. Servers are more than eager to please, generally attentive and quick to respond to any queries. The menu is certainly eclectic, akin to a condensed Todd English Food Hall for the younger set (and with more brunch options). They offer plenty of creative spins on all-time favourites, putting familiar flavors in different forms, with the occasional appearance of ingredients from other parts of the world (sriracha, ponzu) as well as food trend superstars (Kale! Quinoa!) – overall approachable, but inventive enough to cater to the discerning diner.
Some of their innovations are actually pretty dope, with combinations that are well-thought out. Their picture-perfect crispy tacos are a textural triumph, with a crisp parmesan ‘shell’ and rightfully juicy chunks of steak. A saccharine cilantro cream underneath hardly carries any of the herb’s zing, and some acidity would’ve taken these to new heights, but this nevertheless was one tasty plate. Also successful is their eggs benny, with a crisp potato nest and poached eggs that pass the runny yolk test. Torched hollandaise on top hardly makes an impact, but there’s enough bacon to provide a salty punch, and it’s one happy party once the components mingle with each other.
I will also commend them for having a good handle on their meat, keeping them moist and juicy consistently across our dishes. Their Butcher’s Steak for instance is served at a perfect medium rare—cooked sous-vide, this results in a silky tenderness that brings out the best of the lean cut. But the tangy-sweet gravy it comes doused with is odd, like a poor attempt at a bordelaise with an extra dose of sugar—great on siopao, not so much on steak. And truth be told it can be done without, as the hanger cut is naturally flavorful in itself, though if anything it could use a sprinkling of salt.
It is in basic flavor, as a matter of fact, where Sunnies tends to fall flat. We repeatedly found our orders in need of salt, whether for the overall balance of tastes or out of plain old blandness. In most cases this is easily fixed by requesting for a shaker on the table (pro tip for those who order the steak). But this shortcoming makes their battered offerings suffer tremendously, with the most insipid of breadings on what would’ve been some well-cooked proteins. It’s a shame considering they’re actually served light and crisp, seemingly hot off the fryer.
Take, for instance, the calamari atop the Baked Squid Ink Lasagna. Squid underneath are kept supple alright, but the final bite tastes even duller than flour. Perhaps it’s meant to give way to the pasta, but I’ve had two friends report similar experiences with its ala carte, supposedly “spicy” counterpart. The lasagna underneath hardly fares better anyway, with mushy squid ink pasta sheets that literally clump together into a solid block. Considering the calamari topping softens as it sits, it’s altogether a starchy, goopy mess. To be fair, the cheese layer and tomato “jam” (which I honestly cannot differentiate from any other marinara) are serviceable enough that the dish is not unpleasant, producing an overall mix of flavors that is good and familiar (if not overly so). But this is certainly not a lasagna worth the P360 price tag.
Another problem is that their dishes overall lean toward being far too sweet. The main culprit consistently seems to be their sauces, which quite frankly taste cheap and devoid of soul, coupled with the lack of salt or acid to balance it out. This is especially true in the case of their chicken wings, which come fully blanketed with a similar flavorless breading. A sweet glaze underneath hardly helps when coupled with the even sweeter, so-called “aioli” that instead resembles store-bought sandwich spread. Sweetness on a savory dish is not necessarily a bad thing, especially where the Filipino palate is concerned, but past a certain threshold it just overpowers everything that the dish approaches dessert territory.
Perhaps, we joke, this would put their actual desserts at an advantage? We opt for the Funfetti, probably the most popular of the bunch, having been the freebie on their opening week. Before anything, I will say it succeeds in what it aspires to be: a whimsical ode to a childhood favorite. Cubes of milk-moistened funfetti cake deliver the distinct boxed ‘birthday cake’ flavor so genuinely that I’m fairly convinced might be a doctored-up mix. It’s the ice cream on the side that’s questionable—an airy scoop of generic sweet “vanilla” with an icy consistency that screams the cheap supermarket-bought stuff. Which does match the nostalgic theme I suppose, but is a far cry from the supposed “vanilla bourbon” claim on the menu, and at P290 you’d expect they at least go premium.
Sure they’re not perfect—and what restaurant is? They do good on matters involving the stove, frying faultlessly and cooking properly as far as doneness is concerned. They also ace the assembly, because the plating sure is on point. Yet these all go to waste with their poor sense of seasoning, paired with fixins that only add insult to injury. The resulting plates are okay at best, but a travesty for how much they’re being peddled, at worst. Prices, while standard for its location, are still steep enough that you’d expect a certain level of quality – whether in the ingredients they use, the execution, or even just the portion size. The last one is debatable, but the first two are a miss, which hardly does justice to what sounded so good on paper.
So what gives? It could be that food was just never the priority, instead a means to a different set of ends. Consider its latent function; for better or worse, it’s a given that these kinds of places—if not restaurants in general—exist more than just to fill stomachs. They also serve a social role—as an avenue to partake in a particular culture for example, and to live out the habits and the values it promotes. The cafe succeeds in that respect; it’s essentially an extension of the lifestyle that the Sunnies brand sells. The sort of establishment for which one dresses up, rounds up the squad, and basks in the life that is goals af, smartphone in one hand and (mock)tail in the other. Beyond the surface however, the success of a lifestyle brand lies in creating deeper emotional connections with people. Beginning with honest-to-goodness, good food that offers value for money and stays true to its promise. Mediocrity should no longer be the standard; it’s 2016, and diners deserve better. Stripped of its branding, Sunnies Cafe fails to impress.
For something with so clear a vision, even the manpower to back it up, it’s sad that they falter on execution. But it’s far from irreparable – that is, if they can shift their focus back to what really matters the most.