I spent the last week in the Philippines on an incredible trip to discover the world of Don Papa Rum, something you’ll be very aware of if you follow me on social media. It was a week filled with absolute insanity, too many daiquiris, a lot of laughs, a sprinkling of deranged behaviour, and, most importantly, some incredible food. If you’re a regular reader of this column you might see where this is going – yep, we’re about to dive into London’s best Filipino restaurants.
It’s an interesting cuisine, something I had already figured out while hitting up a few of London’s Filipino joints. Shaped by its geography – essentially, The Philippines as a country is a collection of 7,641 islands – alongside a long history of colonisation that ties in a few hundred years under Spanish rule before the Americans rolled in, plus its proximity to China, it's safe to say Filipino food has developed under a unique set of circumstances. But what’s central to it all is an affinity for bold, powerful flavours. As one of the lovely locals we met on our trip said to me, “Whatever it is – sweet, salty, acidic – Filipinos like it dialled up by 100”.
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The obvious first port of call in London is Sarap, Budgie Montoya’s vibrant restaurant just off Regent Street. After a series of successful residencies and a first outpost in Brixton, Montoya’s Sarap opened at 10 Heddon Street – an incubator space that previously played host to Manteca and Fallow before they found their permanent homes. It’s a restaurant that serves up bright, joyous dishes and, if you’re finding yourself in the extremely niche situation of being nostalgic for a very fun trip to the country with a specific rum brand, they happen to mix Don Papa into a fair few of their cocktails (just try not to drink 1,000 daiquiris and give yourself acid reflux).
Pretty much everything you order will be delicious, but you cannot visit without getting the renellong crispy pata – fried pork trotter stuffed with adobo rice and served with an acidic, delicately spicy sauce that perfectly balances the meaty trotter (try not to laugh while saying trotter). The crispy chicken skin is an absolute flavour bomb of a snack that is almost compulsory to order and, if you’re visiting in the evening, I say go full little piggy and opt for the lechon menu, where a whole, deboned pig will be delivered to your table. Thank me later.
Further west sits Romulo Cafe and Restaurant on Kensington High Street. Opened by Rowena Romulo, a banker who emigrated to London but whose family has strong culinary ties, operating four successful restaurants in Manila, it quickly became a hotspot for the Filipino diaspora in London, drawn in by both the gravitas of her family name, but also the incredible cooking that transported them home, even if momentarily. Definitely order the sisig – a dish traditionally made from a mixture of meat and offal, usually pork or pork and chicken – which here is made from Gressingham corn fed chicken, and arrives sizzling on the hot plate. Chicken adobo, meanwhile, is sweet, rich, salty, and absolutely falling apart – order a hefty side order of garlic rice to soak up all the juices.
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While we were in the Philippines, the team were telling me about Ramo – a ramen restaurant in Camden and Soho which boldly combines Japanese techniques with Filipino flavours. This sees itself imagined in dishes like roasted scallops with bagoong butter and calamansi, or ramen with pulled chicken adobo. You’d think it wouldn’t quite work, but the overlap in bold flavours and satisfying textural elements is a match made in culinary heaven.
There are others I’m yet to try. Kasa and Kin, for example, the second outpost from the Romulos family, and Bintang, which draws on slightly wider South-East Asian influences, and serves up its pandesal sliders with toyomansi – my favourite condiment, and one that got me through many a hangover after too much rum on our trip. Consisting of soy sauce, calamansi juice and crushed chillies, it’s salty, sour, spicy and, when liberally doused over a healthy serving of garlic fried rice, is a very effective fog lifter.
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While as a cuisine in London, Filipino food isn’t as awash as some of its neighbouring counterparts, discovering how Manila locals are reimagining their cuisine through a modern lens was fascinating. Our first night in the city we headed to Lampara, a bistro-style restaurant in the Poblacion area of Makati. Sitting upstairs in an industrial space full of grey tones and mood lighting, a procession of modern dishes that took classic cuisine to another level gave more insight into what it means to eat in Manila than any guidebook could. Take the soft tofu, with black vinegar, pulled pork and pork floss – I’ve literally never eaten anything like it, and I’ve put an inordinate amount of food in my mouth over the years. It took elements of traditional Filipino flavours and reworked them into this incredible, surprising, entirely wonderful dish that wouldn’t look out of place on menus around the world.
On our final evening, we dined at Toyo, a tasting menu restaurant that currently holds position 94 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Chef Jordy Navarra trained at, among other places, The Fat Duck, and his vision of Filipino food through this fine-dining approach speaks to both immense culinary skill, but also an understanding of what it means to live and work in the country as a forward-thinking creative at the moment.
All of this is to say that, if its home country is anything to go off – and Sarap is already heralding the beginnings of this on our shores – we could be seeing Filipino food through a whole new light pretty soon. In the meantime, in a desperate attempt to recapture the ridiculous fun we had in that beautiful country, I'll be kidnapping all my friends and forcing them to join me on an adobo and lechon tour of the city.