‘Catch the 49 bus outside High Street Kensington tube station’, the friend I was meeting told me, ‘and get off at Warwick Gardens – three stops’.
She was right. I got off the bus and found myself right outside no 343 Kensington High St and the Romulo Café; a Filipino restaurant gaining a serious reputation for good cooking.
I had learnt a little about the food of the Philippines from a Filipino cook book of mine: how it had been influenced over the centuries by the diversity of the nationalities that had made the Philippines their home – and by the climates and terrains of the islands (over 7500 of them) that make up the archipelago. I wanted to experience those flavours.
Less of a café, more of a restaurant
From the street it did look something like a cafe, but having pushed open the door and walked in, I realised this was no ordinary café. One look at the elegant black tables and chairs with their gleaming glassware and cutlery in the rear room was enough to convince me of that.
Yet, for all its stylish appearance and the formal pictures on the dark green painted walls with their panels of leafy wallpaper, it has a welcoming relaxed atmosphere.
Imelda Marcos and her shoes
I was the first to arrive and was quickly and efficiently shown to our table. Without being asked a carafe of water appeared, followed a few minutes later by some of the restaurant’s delicious soft and fluffy pandesal – Filipino bread rolls. I asked our server about the pictures on the wall. ‘They are pictures of some of the family’s Manilla connections ’, she told me.
I’m not good at celerity spotting but one of the pictures looked incredibly like Imelda Marcos. Rather to our amusement a couple sitting close by were sipping ‘Imelda’s High Heels’ – the cocktails served in ‘high heeled shoes’.
Grandfather’s distinguished career in Manilla
There are three Romulo Cafés in Manilla (part of the same family) and now thank goodness there is one in London thanks to owners Chris Joseph and his wife Rowena Romula.
Chris was on duty that day and only too happy to explain the menu and tell us more about Filipino cuisine, and a little of the story behind the Romulo Cafés.
Recipes adapted from Grandma’s recipes
Rowena Romulo, it transpired is the grand-daughter of General Carlos P Romulo and his wife Virginia. The General had a distinguished career including being a Pulitzer prize-winner, a diplomat, and president of the UN General Assembly.
Entertaining foreign dignitaries in Manilla was part of their life style and some of the recipes used today in the restaurants are based on recipes that Lola (Grandma) Virginia and her chef served to their guests.
The attractively presented food is delicious –wonderful subtle, but definite, flavours and blends of annatto, ginger, coconut and lemon grass, hints of chili and garlic.
We shared a selection of dishes
We shared a selection of dishes, starting with the fresh tasting Filipino-style tuna ceviche salad with lime, ginger, chilli, red onion and beetroot chips £11.50.
This was followed by a traditional dish of sizzling Chicken Inasal Sisig – diced chicken thighs marinated in annatto, ginger, green chili, garlic, and lemongrass cooked and topped with shards of crispy chicken skin for texture £8; plus Char Grilled Stuffed Squid (Rellenong Pusit) Squid stuffed with tomato, cheese, onion, garlic and annatto oil served on a bed of squid ink rice, rich and delicious £9.
I had read about pork adobo in the cook book and was keen to try it. Chris recommended the Pork Belly Adobo – slow cooked in soy, garlic and rice vinegar, served with a trio of potatoes. £8.50.
Neither of us had tried Jackfruit before and we both loved the Young Jackfruit and Coconut Stew (Ginataang Langka) made from jackfruit with chilli and ginger and stewed in coconut cream and a drizzle of annatto oil. £8.50.
We also shared a bowl of Pandan rice, and we each had a glass of Sauvignon Blanc £7.50.
So pretty we had to have dessert
Fellow diners were a mix of English and Filipino –a Filipino family were celebrating a birthday. A mini Roman candle firework on top of one of the desserts caught our eye it looked so pretty. We had to have a dessert.
They might not have had a sparkler but they were both seriously yummy and as my friend said ridiculously pretty in a contemporary way with the intense purple of the cheesecake adding an additional Wow factor.
Chris recommended a slice of Ube Cheesecake – a purple yam cheesecake sprinkled with coconut served with coconut ice cream £7.50 and the Sans Rival a modern Filipino dessert made with dulce de leche buttercream, cashews and meringue served with vanilla ice cream £8.00.
Jeremy a talented chef from the Philippines
We asked if the chefs were Filipino – ‘oh yes’ said Chris – our Executive Chef is Jeremy Villanueva. Jeremy has a seriously impressive CV having worked not only for Holland America cruises but also for many famous London restaurants including Le Gavroche, Brasserie Roux and Le Boudin Blanc before joining Romulo in 2018.
A great introduction to Filipino food
Romulo Café is obviously a much loved and cared for family business – even the stairs down to the toilets have been decorated with flair. The only thing that we felt a little out of keeping was the entrance way and bar, but plans for this, we understand, are in hand.
Romulo Café proved to be a great introduction to Filipino food. We loved both the tasty cuisine and the restaurant, giving it 8.5 out of 10 – and that will rise to at least a 9 when the entrance area/bar has been sorted out. Can’t wait to go back.
For afternoon tea aficionados Romulo Café offer a special Fillipino Afternoon Tea. The restaurant also has several special menu options. Lunch only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Romulo Café 343 Kensington High Street, London W8 6NW. https://www.romulocafe.co.uk/