This is a leafy corner of the capital. It’s not a neighbourhood of steel and glass. This is the preserve of people who actually live here and those who choose to visit this end of Kensington High Street to seek out a little charm and calm.
Now there is a new draw along this high-end thoroughfare. Romulo Café London has arrived and it has a celebrated pedigree. There are other Romulos, but they are in Manila in the Philippines. The name was already known, however, before it became associated with culinary excellence.
Carlos P. Romulo served as the President of the Fourth Session of United Nations General Assembly from 1949–1950, and as chairman of the United Nations Security Council. He had served with General Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific, and under eight Philippine presidents, from Manuel L. Quezon to Ferdinand Marcos, as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines.
He was a man able to represent his own country but he was admired internationally and recognised with awards from other nations such as Grand Cross of the Order of the Phoenix from the Greek Government and Grand Cross of the Order of Carlos Manuel do Cespedes from the Republic of Cuba, and he was the first and to date the only Filipino winner of the Pulitzer Prize! He was a respected writer, statesman, soldier and historian and even co-founded the Philippines Boy Scouts. A true man for all seasons.
We have pubs called ‘The Shakespeare Arms’ even though neither the Bard nor his descendants have ever crossed the threshold. There are other hostelries named ‘The Queen Victoria’ even though we can guess that royalty never pulled a pint within. But there truly is a family association at the Romulo Café, and it couldn’t be stronger. Sandie Romulo, granddaughter of Carlos P. Romulo, and her husband Enzo Squillantini are at the helm of the Philippines establishment and Sandie’s sister Rowena Romulo and her fellow manager Chris Joseph now head this new London venture. The Executive Chef, Lorenzo Maderas, also comes from the Philippines so one can be guaranteed an authentic experience at this restaurant.
Rowena Romulo, a former senior banker and now restaurateur, persuaded her family that Romulo Café would be a well-received addition to London’s vibrant international gastronomic scene. This is, as yet, a little known culinary tradition. Not many of us know much about Filipino food but in fact it ticks all the popular epicurean profile boxes. We in the UK love Indian food with its complex flavours. Filipino cuisine offers those flavours but the palate is perhaps more subtle. Spanish food in London has long been popular; Filipino cuisine offers hints of its historic Spanish connections and heritage. We enjoy Chinese and Malaysian food with their exotic combination of ingredients. Filipino cuisine also has truly unique ingredients but nothing to excite fear in the diner – one is first curious and then becomes appreciative of these new dishes.
Romulo Café is found in a converted Georgian town house and it does retain the charm of a home. Its main ground floor dining room, aptly called the Diplomat’s Dining Room, can seat up to 40 people and is welcoming and intimate. The ‘at home’ theme continues with the Romulo family photographs giving a sense that this is more than just an anonymous business project. The name Romulo is writ large over everything and that must surely elicit expectations of excellence and attention to detail.
Bangus Paté – Smoked milkfish spread with orange segments, orange purée, caviar and crostini – was the first of my starters. This beautifully presented preparation was delicately flavoured and moreish. A must-try here. Tuna Kilawin – Tuna ceviche marinated with cane vinegar with red onions, cucumbers, peppers and radish – is another signature appetiser. This was far better balanced than some other ceviches I have tasted elsewhere. It’s difficult to take advantage of the indispensable acid without finishing up with a dish that is mouth-puckering. Congratulations to Chef Lorenzo for developing a recipe which offers a less harsh cure.
The first of the main courses was Deboned Crispy Pork Leg (Binagoongan Boneless Crispy Pata). This is an absolute winner. It can be made from either fresh pork or, as in this case, a ham. The pepper seasoning added so much to the roast and the crackling is just about as good as you will find in any restaurant of any culinary hue. The fat, which for me is the prize portion, was melting and the meat tender.
Filipino friends have waxed lyrical about oxtail. It’s an old-fashioned attitude which we all once had, and to which we should all be returning. We should be using every part of the animals we rear for food. Those less trendy cuts are actually the most tender when cooked correctly. In the case of this stew, Tito Greg’s Kare-Kare, the oxtail gives its flavourful meat and also marrow from its bones. The comforting dish is served with steamed vegetables and a shrimp paste for which to die!
I had, I admit, never tried taro before. This is called gabi in the Philippines and is widely available throughout the islands. Sautéed taro leaves in coconut milk topped with crispy leeks is an outstanding side dish. It’s creamy and would convert even the most sceptical to the worth of green veggies. Don’t miss this one.
Sans Rival is truly sans rival. This is described as a modern Filipino dessert and it does seem contemporary and reflecting of the diversity of the Philippines. It’s made with dulce de leche, again a nod to Spain, with buttercream, cashew nuts and meringue, and served with vanilla ice cream. This is a new one on me but I’ll be ordering it again.
There is a well-priced wine list here with a good selection of wines by the glass. The cocktails are also very reasonably priced and they have some unique ones with striking presentations. Smokey and Stormy is served in a whisky flask in, as the name might suggest, a smoked glass. Woodford Reserve is one of Kentucky’s oldest and smallest distilleries and provides the base for this dramatic cocktail, which also includes St. Germain made from elderflowers, and Grand Marnier.
Romulo Café in London demands more than one visit. I enjoyed my meal immensely but I also noticed the rest of the menu and that held temptations for the future; and I assume they will be just as delicious, just as exciting and just as authentically Filipino. It’s a journey of discovery and I am taking my first mouth-watering steps.
Romulo Café London
343 Kensington High Street
London W8 6NW
Phone: 020 3141 6390