Filipino food – probably one of the most under represented and under rated world cuisines. Why? We aren’t sure BUT it takes a restaurant like award winning Romulo Café and Restaurant to show us how it’s done. Romulo was the first Filipino restaurant to feature in the UK Tatler Restaurant Guide and from our dinner, we can see why.
Owned by husband and wife team Rowena and Chris, Romulo is very much a family affair with pedigree. Family patriarch, the late Carlos P. Romulo, was one the most important figures in Philippine international relations for 27 years. Walking into this Kensington establishment, Carlos Romulo is immortalised in neon, a homage to a great man with a modern twist which characterises everything about this place.
Romulo has just been reimagined with an interior and exterior overhaul by award winning agency Cada. You are welcomed by a new bar with its brushed satin champagne nickel edge, romantic window tables, comfortable banquettes and an exciting menu. Walking in, we also noticed a lot of Filipino diners – always a great sign.
It was a delight to see a wine list of new and old world along with a proper cocktail list with firm favourites and other Philippines inspired libations. We tried an Ube Martini with vodka, Malibu and of course that sweet, nutty vivid violet-purple yam. For something more theatrical and chest hair inducing, the Batangas Bad Boy arrived smoked at our table with 10 year Talisker, 10 year Laphroaig, cigar infused 23 Zacapa Rum, dry vermouth, orange bitters and an actual whole cigar. Wow. On the softer side, try a jug of Calamansi juice made from a citrus fruit similar to a lemon or lime. Like lemonade but better.
A basket of warm bread arrived called Pandesal, the quintessential bread roll of the Philippines. Chris proudly told us Pandesal is baked fresh four times a day at Romulo. A golden, crumb-coated exterior unearthed a slightly sweet taste and soft, fluffy texture. Try it with a dash of salt and butter. You can also buy them so we took a dozen home with us and they freeze very well.
Having been dazzled by Pandesal but still unfamiliar to Filipino food, charming staff are genuinely helpful and knowledgeable. The menu is tempting with small plates and larger plates that can also be sampled as smaller portions. All dishes can be shared, or not! One thing definitely not shared was a sizzling chicken sisig – All eyes were on us as a sizzling skillet arrived with chicken and touches of garlic, ginger, lemongrass, chilli and annatto.
Armed with a “must try dishes from the Philippines” guide, Adobo is the most talked about. Famed as being Kensington neighbour Meghan Markle’s favourite dish, Adobo literally means marinade/sauce which sounds simple but when you marinade quality ingredients in cane vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and black peppercorns, something magical happens. At Romulo, Adobo appears with vegetables, pork, chicken and as a cheeky mayonnaise with their KFC (Kensington fried chicken).
What struck me most was the provenance of the ingredients as Romulo take time and effort to source great British produce. The pork comes from Dingley Dell in Suffolk, a high marble welfare-friendly pork and you can really taste the difference. The owners of Dingley Dell happened to be at a table close by having dinner with the Philippine Ambassador to the UK so we followed their lead with a boneless crispy pork hock that was tender, juicy, crispy on the outside and meltingly soft inside.
Our vegetarian guest was impressed because as well as a veggie section, other dishes were easily adapted too. The favourite was a jackfruit and coconut curry, using a young jackfruit which gives it an almost meaty texture with an earthy taste. You must order the mushroom and tofu dish as these two ingredients marry well especially when tossed in garlic. From the rice, garlic fried rice (ask for extra garlic!) is unmissable as is the bagoong rice with shrimp paste which is hard to find in London.
Pudding is another highlight here so be sure to make space. We shared a Halo Halo – a moreish mash up of flavours and textures – ube ice cream, banana puree, jackfruit, leche flan, pandan jelly and coconut. Halo Halo is usually served with crushed ice and at Romulo, the crushed ice is made from milk instead of water. Yum.
If you are around on the weekend, you can experience more sweet (and savoury) treats with their new Filipino afternoon tea. Expect Pandesal (with clotted cream and yam jam of course), Filipino inspired sandwiches and sweet treats.
Overall, this is the kind of place we would return to again and again. Not just because they have a wedding licence and private karaoke room downstairs but for the knockout food, Pandesal, proper cocktails and warm, homely hospitality. Our friends at Tatler were right about this place and in our opinion, Romulo is by far the number one Filipino restaurant in London.
To book and discover more, visit: romulocafe.co.uk
By Mark Captain