Restaurants That Were Ahead of Their Time
There are many reasons a restaurant doesn't work. Sometimes overheads are just too much. Sometimes the venue's just wrong. Sometimes there's a pandemic. Sometimes there are personal reasons. Sometimes the food is just bad. Sometimes it's the timing.
Metro Manila has seen it's fair share of that: amazing restaurants that were just a little too early in the game, be it in concept or innovation or even pricing. These places may not have lasted, but we can all agree that they were light years ahead of everyone else. And just like Van Gogh, they weren't appreciated in their own time.
Struan and Tang's
Before milk tea ever became essential, there was Struan and Tang's, a chain of specialty iced tea stores in the early naughties that put us off powdered iced teas and introduced us to the high-end, freshly brewed kind that most of us prefer today. Owners Andres James Masigan and Sandee Siytangco sourced their teas from tea hotspots around the world: China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, developing creative tea concoctions like Sakura Blossoms and Traquili-tea. It shut down just before the first milk tea wave in 2009, but we can imagine what they could have done with it now.
Chef Mark Tan would later open Allium then Hibana, but he got into every foodie's radar because of Studio Kitchen, a bare-bones restaurant in the South where the lines between food and art blurred. Despite its stark surroundings, Tan introduced high-concept cuisine, like foie gras terrine, Laiskonis egg, and a steak that's so perfect, it didn't even need anything much. Just like the setting, the food looked deceptively simple, but the chef employed the most incredible modern techniques to bring out unforgettable flavors. Studio Kitchen would pave way for Allium.
Chef Him Uy de Baron has always been a sort of trendsetter in the culinary scene. Nomama opened in 2011, during the advent of Metro Manila's restaurant explosion. The premise was ramen, but in flavors beyond beef and chicken. The interior design was a Japanese-inspired eclectic mix of rustic and industrial. The menu was the same. The highlight was the ramen, but Uy de Baron took his liberties, using Japanese traditions to inspire incredible culinary creations.
Uy de Baron would later create more groundbreaking restaurant concepts such as I Am Kim, a do-it-yourself bibimbap bar, and Ping Pong Diplomacy, which flaunted modern Chinese flavors.
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Speaking of modern Chinese, there was also Chow Fun, an unassuming nook in San Juan that tried to shake up the city's traditional Chinese food scene with more novel ideas. One of the bestsellers was the Sour Caramel Pork, which is a candied alternative to the usual patatim or even crispy pata. There was fried duck rice that made your everyday yang chow feel a little sad and the chicken fry dressed in a snappy peppery seasoning. Most unforgettable was the chocolate buchi, which Chow Fun had years before other Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants in the metro started offering them.
Da.u.de Tea Lounge
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Da.u.de resumed operations as a stall when Mega Food Hall launched a few years ago, but it was a shadow of its former self. Back in 2012, it was a stunning Bonifacio Global City cafe with black and white walls and gray chevron floors. Owner Renee Sebastian is a tea master and she developed the restaurant's own blends and tea recipes. Right at the cusp of the first milk tea wave, Da.u.de set itself apart with its artisan brews paired with the most incredible food.
Bread and Botany
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Was it the sandwiches? Because there are numerous sandwich shops that have withstood the test of time. Was it the location? Because the South has produced some iconic restaurants. Maybe it was the ambition. In a country happy with any sweet filling, the owners' determination to make everything from scratch (seriously, around 90 percent of the menu was made in-house and designed to fit the architecture of every dish). You won't find a run-of-the-mill PBJ here. It has a version of an Egg McMuffin, beautiful banh mis, giant tori sandos.
Sunshine Puey's little dessert shop was the stuff of Instagram dreams. Unfortunately, Instagram was only in its infancy in the Philippines. This beautiful Parisian-inspired corner shop featured displays of mouthwatering eclairs, tarts, and tortes wrapped in equally exquisite packaging. The price was also a little steep for 2012, but had it waited a couple of years later and it would have been a home run.
Yet another dessert destination just across Gourmandise Patisserie, Karen Yang's sweets emporium boasted the most amazing macarons and puddings in dainty little jars. Does anyone remember that delicious Earl Grey pudding? There were cookies. There were sweet drinks. There were homemade marshmallows. Chez Karine also began catering, designing delicious dessert spreads for parties.
Before Sensei Sushi and Mecha Uma, a 21-year-old Bruce Ricketts was flexing his muscles at Robot, a Japanese fusion restaurant on Makati Avenue. The place itself was ultra-modern: lights, chrome, glass, and leather coming together to create the ultimate night out. Chef Bruce would use Japanese ingredients with French techniques or Italian ingredients with Japanese cuisine. Everything on the menu was something you've never seen before. Back then, people settled into old habits, creating menus that are easy to love and maintain and would have a sustainable fan base. But Ricketts never settled. He opted for seasonal ingredients and constant innovation.
Pepato, named after "pepper" and Margarita Forés' paternal grandfather, was a physical and visual showcase of the celebrated chef's culinary skills. When she opened Pepato in Greenbelt, she was already a famous chef, running CIBO and Cafe Bola. While her two earlier exploits were modern, it was Pepato that pushed her skills to the edge, with creations like flambés in a Parmigiano wheel, a frozen concoction made with peppers, and a beer-flavored gelato. The menu was borderless and the ideas became grander and grander.
One of Elbert Cuenca's earlier ventures, Restaurant 12 lasted a mere two years, like a fleeting but brilliant culinary comet. The project was especially ambitious. It held a huge space in Greenbelt and hosted guest chefs, some for months at a time. The initial concept was intriguing and the first year was a success. The next year was harder but it managed. In 2004, however, through no fault of his own, the restaurant was shut down for violations. It could never recover after that. Cuenca would open Steakroom three years later.