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Filipino cuisine perks up London food scene

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Aug 28, 2022 5:00 am

If you need proof that the market for Filipino food in the UK is quite significant, just head to Leicester Square — the West End epicenter where all tourists flock — to see where Jollibee, the quintessential Philippine fast-food chain, stands proudly on prime real estate.

It’s actually the company’s second London branch, having opened at Earl’s Court in 2018. Ten other branches have since opened all over the country, from Edinburgh in Scotland to Cardiff in Wales, all part of its over 1,000 locations worldwide.

With around 250,000 Pinoys living in Britain, the interest in Filipino food has been growing steadily, especially in London, which is a melting pot of cultures and cuisines. Time Out, the go-to guide for the new and noteworthy, regularly features Filipino restaurants like the pioneer Josephine’s, which they said chef and restaurateur Jason Atherton of Michelin-starred Pollen Street Social would visit for its pork lechon. From its beginnings in 1985 when Josefina and Eddie Poniente opened it as a snack bar serving pancit and adobo on Charlotte Street, it grew into a proper restaurant with the demand from satisfied customers.

Jollibee flagship in Leicester Square

Another restaurant that the publication featured was Sarap Filipino Bistro, with a most amusing review by Isabelle Aaron: “Vegetarians and squeamish people look away now. The most delicious thing on the menu of this new restaurant in Mayfair is unapologetically meaty. It’s a pork trotter, okay? Deal with it!”

Chef Ferdinand “Budgie” Montoya of Sarap Filipino Bistro was born in Mindanao and grew up in Australia before settling in London.

Sarap Filipino Bistro’s Rellenong Crispy Pata

She no doubt enjoyed the crispy pata and introduced London’s foodies to hearty Philippine cuisine and culture, even alluding to kamayan as the only way to truly enjoy the delicacy. The second London eatery of chef Ferdinand Montoya, who started in Brixton, this branch is fancier and the trotters, in fact, are stuffed with pork and rice cooked in adobo sauce.

Aaron qualifies that non-meat choices abound, from a salted duck egg salad to a monkfish escabeche and she even gave kale a chance since it was made into a laing that was “really creamy and intense in flavor.”

Truffled Pork Adobo at Romulo Café and Restaurant

Ube Puto Flan at Romulo Café and Restaurant

Romulo Café and Restaurant in Kensington

After being away for some time, we were actually missing it too and couldn’t wait to go back for Manang’s home-cooked kare-kare and yes, the halo-halo with ube ice cream.

Closer to home is Romulo’s, which has its original branches in the Philippines. A winner of “Most Loved Restaurant in Kensington” at The Time Out Love London Awards, it was opened in 2016 by Rowena Romulo, granddaughter of former president of the UN General Assembly Carlos P. Romulo, to serve fine Filipino cuisine featuring the family’s heirloom recipes, as well as twists on familiar dishes like the Scottish Salmon Tamarind Sinigang and the Truffled Pork Belly Adobo, all served in elegant interiors befitting its posh location.

Pastries at Kasa and Kin

The restaurant’s success led to their opening of the more casual Kasa and Kin in Soho, where comfort food like Beef Bulalo and Lemongrass Chicken Inasal, among other barbecued delights, await you.

We dropped by one afternoon and could not resist the offerings from their bakery and patisserie. The cheesecakes were divine — mango with tiny dark chocolate pompoms, an ube with the white chocolate pompoms and the dulce de leche with nuts — all with the sauces and toppings festively unfolding as you peel the coverings that keep them together.

Lobster and Crab Ginataan at Ramo Ramen

A curious Filipino-run affair in Soho is Ramo Ramen, which you may think is Japanese but actually has Filipino fare as well. With the popularity of Japanese food in Manila, as well as the wave of Filipino workers making Japan their home, it’s no surprise to find this Filipino take on the beloved broth mixed with other classics of Philippine cuisine like kinilaw and a ginataan of lobster and crab.

Happy diners at Ramo Ramen in Soho

Ramo is part of Maginhawa, a group of six culinary-concept restaurants created by Omar Shah. Their original family restaurant, Bintang, a 35-year-old Camden institution, was Malaysian-Indonesian, but he transformed the menu into Filipino pan-Asian cuisine. Spicy adobo chicken wings, beef brisket sisig and truffled Parmesan cassava tater-tots are recommended, as are any of the silogs, which are perfect for brunch.

Longsilog, Ulek Curry and Fried Rice at Bintang

Shah’s childhood memories of living in a bahay kubo in Pampanga brought back memories of his lola’s treating him to dirty ice cream from the local sorbetero, inspiring him to open the dessert parlor Mamason. We went to the Soho branch where there was a long queue but it was worth the wait.

The halo-halo was wonderful, not too sweet with the mélange of fruit flavors and textures topped with the creamiest ube ice cream. Other ice cream flavors include queso, guyabano, calamansi, Milo, and black buko, which gets its color from the charcoal made of coconut shells.

We met a Pinay from Texas enjoying the same dessert, which she said she missed so much and there were Brits, too, as well as Asians. A group of Gen-Z girls from Singapore loved the bilog — Mamason’s signature hit — a toasted pandesal ice cream sandwich inspired by Shah’s mother, who craved it during her pregnancy.

Allan Hymers, the Cotswold Ice Cream sorbetero at Bourton on the Water

The Ube Bilog pandesal ice cream sandwich at Mamasons

We left London for the Cotswolds the next day and encountered an ice cream man with his cart speaking in an eloquent voice to promote his product to passersby. When he saw our group, he immediately peppered his spiel with “masarap,” stopping us in our tracks and prompting our five-year-old nephew to demand, “Do you have ube?” “Not today,” he answered, but with an introduction like that we just had to try his other flavors, which may not have been Filipino but were delicious in their organic creaminess. We also had a nice chat about how he met his Filipino wife in Ecuador but had been to the Philippines and was missing it.

After being away for some time, we were actually missing it too and couldn’t wait to go back for Manang’s home-cooked kare-kare and yes, the halo-halo with ube ice cream.