343 Kensington High Street London, W8 6NW www.romulocafe.co.uk
How often have you heard someone say, ‘I know, let’s go out for a Filipino? Probably about as often as you’ve heard someone say ‘I fancy a bit of German food tonight.’
Filipino food is, let’s be honest, not a cuisine that has had much exposure. You’re more likely to find a chef from the Ukraine on Saturday Kitchen than one from the Philippines.
So Romulo Cafe is intriguing. It’s a branch of a small group, there’s also a Romulo Café in Quezon City, Makati and Alabang in the Philippines.
Located in a rather unprepossessing part of West Ken, next to one of those all-night grocers that has everything anyone from any culture could ever want, it’s actually a lot nicer inside than you might expect. Cosy, even.
And this lunchtime it is full of people who I assume are Filipinos. That’s not me being racist but I can’t always be sure of people’s origin just by their appearance.
It’s got a nice feel, the walls are covered in photos and paintings of a certain General Carlos P Romulo – who did stints as a diplomat, statesman, soldier, journalist, publisher, author and even, for one presumably heady period, president of the UN General Assembly. He is also the grandfather of one of the owners.
So that explains that and why, if you thought you’d see pictures of the Philippine’s famous shoe aficionado, you’d be disappointed.
It’s a big menu. Filipino food is eclectic (or confused, depending on your outlook) because so many cultures have contributed – Pacific Rim, Malaysia, China, South American and Spanish to name but a few.
We gaze long and hard at the menu but are unsure. So, we ask the waitress, which is by far the best idea. She recommends a few things, we tweak it a bit and sit back. Dishes are all for sharing, so that makes it easy.
First to arrive is ‘sizzling’ chicken inasal sisig and it certainly is hot, the juice bubbling like lava. It’s a dish that’s apparently usually made with pig face, so this version is rather better for us more sensitive types.
The diced chicken thighs have been marinated in annatto, ginger, green chili, garlic, and lemongrass. It’s an instant hit with both of us. Easy to fork up and full of flavours as well with a creaminess almost of mayonnaise on top. I scrape the now cooled down platter for scraps.
Coconut chilli king prawns (sugpo sa aligue) lands while we’re still paddling about in the chicken. Super large prawns sautéed and coated in coconut milk and crab roe on top of some Pak Choi and topped with a sprinkling of green chilies.
The chillis could have been fierier, but l learned later that, in general, Filipinos don’t go a bundle on hot food, but the prawns didn’t really need it. Their soft sweetness went well with the soft sauce. A bit of white rice helped capture even more of the sauce.
The next dish was a bit of an eye popper. A huge squid tube stuffed with tomato, cheese, onion, garlic and annatto oil, served on a bed of squid ink rice. Around it colourful pieces of fruit.I didn’t go a bundle on this presentation, I found it to be trying rather too hard – like a provincial hotel that had watched MasterChef.
However, the squid was perfectly cooked and the stuffing worked despite the cheese – I would have reckoned cheese was a no no, but no – and the black rice was a major forkful. A strong, dusty, flavour from the ink, which is how I like it.
More delicate was Filipino style tuna ceviche with native lime, ginger, chilli, red onion and Beetroot chips. The tuna came in chunks, but had still been ‘cooked’ by the lime correctly.This was a zinger taste wise, the beetroot chips being an unusual addition but not an unwelcome one as it turned out. This was more like what I was, perhaps rather naively, expecting from Filipino food.
For dessert, we shared the platter of dessert tasters – ube (purple yam) ice cream, banana puree, jackfruit, leche flan, pandan jelly, milk granite and coconut.Joyfully colourful and exuberant it made an uplifting end, the leche flan particularly enjoyable.
We left though feeling we’d only really scratched the surface of Filipino cuisine and Romulo’s menu. Even five visits might not be enough to really try all the dishes that sounded good.
The cafe has anticipated this with set sharing menus at a reasonable £35 a head and overall none of the dishes seemed expensive, especially as they use proper meat such as Dingley Dell pork and Red Tractor chicken.
It’s a long way to the Philippines, but just a short ride to the wilds of West Ken. A trip well worth making.