Let’s get things straight here—I’m not the biggest fan of vegan or vegetarian food in Manila. As an avid carnivore, I know it’s difficult for me to be entirely objective about vegetarian cuisine, but I do know I’ve had some really delicious, entirely plant-based dishes. This proves to me that vegan food doesn’t mean things shouldn’t taste good, and sometimes, it can even be more satisfying flavor-wise than a greasy, oil-laden dish. That being said, in Manila, I’ve yet to find vegetarian or vegan food that has blown my socks off enough—yes there are staples, but the recent crop hasn’t just been cutting it.
Enter Bianca Mabanta, a serious vegan who means serious business. Bianca has a very singular vision, and coming from a family of seasoned restaurateurs, it’s no surprise. Father Dixie is responsible for some of our most beloved chains like Mexicali and Cafe Mediterranean, and revived Burgos with El Chupacabra. Brother Jaco is the brains behind Señor Pollo, now enjoying tons of visitors all after their chicken and the fun, laidback atmosphere that comes with it. With people like this around her, it’s inevitable that Bianca has the same amount of drive when pursuing her personal project—creating an entirely vegan, gluten-free restaurant, that, to put it plainly, doesn’t suck.
Susi has been a long time in the making, and in spite of all the mishaps, is turning out to be a formidable little place. “You see the chairs you’re sitting on? I only bought those a few days ago!” Bianca laughs as she recounts every little obstacle she encountered. From an interior designer who just didn’t show up, to a chair supplier that ran away with her money, Bianca’s grievances show exactly how much Susi was a labor of love. Eventually, she had to make the tough decision to soldier through, and at the end of it all, is a brilliant little space in Burgos Circle that transports you elsewhere. It is fitted out in the trendy, reclaimed wood look that has permeated Manila’s restaurant scene, but it feels entirely different all at once. It seems personal. A former design student, Bianca designed everything from the look and the layout of the place, to the logo which adorns the store and the merchandise at the little shop by the entrance. The menu is all her too, down to the quirky names she gives her dishes, like The Emerson, named after her cat.
The food is Susi’s star. I’m not entirely converted yet, but I am convinced. The fare never feels like it is trying too hard to substitute for the meat you’re meant to be missing, instead, it is upfront about being entirely vegan and gluten-free. A salad was light, but with elements that were of note: mushroom that was dehydrated provided the punch of salt bacon normally would give, candied beets and sweet potato just punctuating with sweetness, and braised lentils that rounded off the entire thing with gritty earthiness.
A beetroot burger might have been one of the best veggie burgers I’ve ever had, just because it was so deliciously marinated, then cooked to perfection. It had a burnt, crispy exterior, and a beautifully soft middle. It played up the taste of beets, rather than attempting to hide it by seasoning it like you would meat, and pairing it with a citrusy chimichurri. The texture however, mimicked a steak or tuna tartare, but was all the better for it. The ‘bread’ was a winner too, and we were surprised that this had no wheat flour whatsoever, and instead came from sorghum, a type of grain, and brown rice that they pound in the kitchen themselves. It was fluffy, never dense, and held up to the hummus slathered on it. Desserts come in the forms of strawberry-coconut tart for those who love ending on a lighter note, but their dense, chocolate cake is the stuff that anyone on this planet would enjoy. You won’t miss the eggs.
I don’t know what it is, but this place just works. It’s never preachy, and doesn’t feel forced. Bianca told me a story about her upstairs neighbour, an eccentric, senescent writer who visits Susi in the mornings to drop off a book. “He told me this place has a heartbeat,” she says, and I’m inclined to agree.
What’s your favorite vegetarian restaurant in the city? What’s your take on the healthy eating scene in Manila? Let us know below!
Address: Burgos Circle, Taguig
Number: (02) 833 7874