Filipino food virgin or veteran? Whichever end of the spectrum you sit, says Zoë Perrett, your tastebuds’ll do a tango here
Beneath a black-and-white striped awning, a gorgeously garish pink neon sign announces tonight’s dinner destination. Despite that 80s Miami aesthetic, we’re in Kensington not Florida and, just to mess with our minds a little more, we’re here to eat Filipino food – a bombastic blend of native and foreign influences including Spanish, East Asian and Malaysian.
Romulo Café’s moniker comes from the surname of the family who founded the venue in memory of General Carlos P. Romulo – the Philippines’ longest-serving Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and the first and only Filipino to win a Pulitzer Prize. This branch is the well-loved Manila chain’s first London outpost, and it’s a little bit of a corker.
Sepia-tinged family photographs lend the black-and-white wallpapered, forest green-painted dining room the feel of a family home; an impression only reinforced by hospitality that’s correctly yet wholly inadequately described as ‘warm’.
Cocktails deliver on flavour and frivolity. A berry-laden number named for notorious Filipino shoe-hoarder Imelda Marcos is served in a stiletto; the ‘Batangus Bad Boy’ is poured from smoking bottle to tumbler. We sip as we nibble at ‘The General’s Combo Platter’ – a generous agglomeration of pork and chicken skewers, fish spring rolls, tempura prawns, and a duck-stuffed steamed bun.
As the table is cleared to make way for mains, LB refuses to give up the accompanying dish of spiced dipping vinegar. It’s an excellent decision – dunking chunks of the crispest pork I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering into the fierce, fabulous liquid is a highlight in a meal where the sole disappointment is that we can’t eat everything on the menu.
Despite vast portions, we make admirable inroads into honey-and-chilli-glazed beef shortribs that manage to be at once sweet and super-savoury, and the rice-noodle-and-mixed-seafood pancit palabok that our waitress describes at the Philippines’ answer to spag bol.
Desserts are largely unfamiliar (as well as just plain large). The multi-coloured, -flavoured and -textured halo halo looks like viewing an Eton mess whilst high on hallucinogenic substances. A slab of coconut pudding is studded with parmesan crisps, served with cheese and sweetcorn ice cream. We suspend our disbelief, dive in, and emerge convinced – if a shade over-full.
Showcasing a cuisine that’s the perfect blend of the familiar and the exotic, attracting the firm fan and the uninitiated alike, this Manila thriller deserves a lot of love from London.
Make it happen
Where: 343 Kensington High Street, London W8 6NW
Find out more: To visit the website, click here