London is often described as a melting pot for different cultures and influences, but one flavour often left out of the mix is Filipino; Romulo Café, rich in history and culture, offers Londoners an authentic taste of the Philippines.
Amid a street of luxurious Kensington restaurants, Romulo sits invitingly in the middle.
Having never tried Filipino food before, I was unsure of what to expect. Upon entering I spotted my guest, C, at the back of the restaurant. “The bread is really good,” she said excitedly. “I think it’s sweet.”
Normally I avoid bread before a meal in case I fill up, but I was intrigued. The bread looked freshly baked and soft, and butter of just the right consistency was beautifully presented on a sharp black board; I cut myself a small slice and was not disappointed. It tasted homemade and sweet, but subtly so. Thankfully, one of the owners came over to ask about drinks before I could scoff any more. I later noticed that the bread is available to buy apart – something I may well do.
With such an array of choice on the menu, and eager to sample Filipino staples, we asked for a few recommendations and were advised to share a range of platitos to get a taste of different dishes.
Trying to convince ourselves we were in a tropical climate, we both ordered cocktails which were stylishly presented with tropical flowers and flames, adding to the illusion.
“Obviously we’re not in a jungle, but we use the same ingredients as we would in the Philippines, just in a different way” Chris, the co-owner explained.
And it works. Annatto oil is, apparently, the secret ingredient to a lot of our platitos. I watch in excitement as it is added gracefully to my sizzling Pampanga style chicken which is the highlight main for both myself and C. It is the first time I have eaten meat in a long time, and it was definitely worth it. C, who broke her veganism on this occasion, later admits to me the calibre of the chicken worried her slightly. The chicken, which had been marinated in lemongrass, ginger, chilli and garlic, went wonderfully with the pandan infused rice – and brought the flavours to the fore in just the right amount.
Filipino cuisine is not homogenous, and that’s what makes it so great. It allows one to sample a variety of flavours which don’t seem out of place together; we tried the freshness of South American ceviche alongside creamy coconut jackfruit curry and duck bao. The latter dish was a quirky twist on a standard duck wrap: the duck was soft, the home-made bao warming, and the freshly cut cucumber and sweet plum sauce added a needed tinge of comforting sweetness. The bun was also cleverly served in bao holders, adding flair to a classic dish.
The restaurant combines the best of both worlds: an elegant but enjoyable dining experience with that of a comfortable family meal. The décor is unique. While clearly a high-end place given its location and almost regal green colour scheme, the lanterns have almost a wicker-look to them, and there are florals on display everywhere from the vases of flowers on each table, the flowers in the wallpaper to the edible flowers on each dish; there is definitely a tropical touch to the surroundings. Groups of old friends revelling in good conversation and good food were enjoying their night in a comfortable environment. I feel this is something that so many high-end restaurants lack – the ability to make their clientele feel at home – and it is an art that Romulo has mastered. There is a genuine sense that the owners really do care about who walks through their doors; there was a birthday at the neighbouring table and both owners came over to sing and wish them happy birthday.
After indulging in a variety of dishes, one could imagine that there was no room left for dessert. As the old adage goes, there is always room for dessert. There are a variety of tropical and flavourful teas on offer which, we are told, have been paired for taste with puddings.
As I was visiting prior to embarking upon a night shift, I was eager to get my caffeine fix. Chris suggested I try an ube latte, not being entirely sure what an ube latte was, I agreed given the calibre of his suggestions thus far. This was my first introduction to the magical realm of ube – essentially a purple sweet potato – and what an introduction it was: what arrived would not be out of place in several of the hipster coffee shops across London as a vibrant purple flower was drawn out on top of the delicious coconut coffee. And best of all it was all natural. The latte captivated C for the rest of the meal as she stirred the ube in and out of the coffee, watching it melt in amazement. “I can’t believe it’s natural,” she exclaimed.
Our first-choice dessert the Sans Rival appeared crumbly in its consistency, and I was not convinced it lived up to its ‘unrivalled’ description on the menu. I was quick to (literally) eat my words as the meringue melted lightly into the dulce de leche buttercream and vanilla ice cream.
We also tried the ube cheesecake which is unassumingly listed in penultimate place on the pudding menu. This is and must be the case if you visit Romulo, because it would be a sin to visit and not try it. What it lacks in menu placement, it makes up for in everything else: try it.
Family is clearly a prevalent theme in the restaurant’s ethos as all the dishes are inspired by family recipes. Owner Rowena Romulo’s grandfather is the former president of the UN General Assembly and black and white pictures with revered figures adorn the walls of the restaurant, adding to the sense that you are in someone’s home. This is the fourth Romulo Café to open worldwide, but it is the first UK branch and really does offer an authentic taste of the Philippines at an affordable price for generous and quality portions. I would recommend maybe coming with a few friends, so you get the option to sample a few dishes.
We left Romulo Café full, content, and planning our return for the ube cheesecake.
Romulo Café London, 323 Kensington High Street, Kensington, London, W8 6NW, England.
Tel: +44 (0)20 3141 6390
The restaurant is a 10-minute walk from High Street Kensington, and 15-minute walk from Earls Court. It is open from 12:00pm to 9:30pm Monday to Sunday.
Type of Restaurant: Filipino Restaurant
Price Band: Medium
Insider Tip: If it’s your first taste of Filipino cuisine definitely take some of the owner’s recommendations – and try the ube cheesecake.
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10
Maighna Nanu is a London based freelance journalist.
Photographs courtesy of Romula Café London