It is rare to find a restaurant that exceeds one’s expectations. Equally rare is finding a place where one is greeted by the owner in a casual yet conscientious manner amidst the corporatised chains of restaurants and so-called members clubs with absentee hosts. But Romulo Café in London’s Kensington neighbourhood is neither a corporate chain, nor a pretentious over-priced club. It is a family owned restaurant run by former banker Rowena Romulo, grand-daughter of former Foreign Secretary of the Philippines and President of the General Assembly Carlos P. Romulo, after whom the restaurant is named, and whose image is encapsulated in countless photographs on the walls, including a wonderful painting of him.
The photographs are fascinating, and show the great statesman and polymath with a number of high profile International figures including John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Harold Macmillan, the Pope etc, as well as some touching photographs presenting a peek into his private family life. The interior is effortless, stylish and so cosy you really would have to visit to get the feeling.
Rowena while duly patrician in manner, is also unassuming and playful and does not hesitate to come to our table several times to make sure we are happy. Her General Manager, Trinidad, a sharp & coquettish lady with an old-fashioned charm is equally helpful and attentive and we end up discussing the state of affairs in the Philippines. All the while our Margarita and Mai Tai cocktails arrive quickly, delicious and neatly served. Then we are offered traditional Filipino bread rolls that they make themselves in the restaurant called Pandesal. At first bite, it reminds me a little bit of French brioche, but on second bite, it is less sweet, less buttery yet full of flavour and far too moreish for my figure. The texture is fluffy yet squishy and full of flavour. I strongly recommend this unique Filipino delicacy and with a hint of salted butter, there’s nothing quite like it. Then I had the Tuna Kilawin, marinated fresh tuna ceviche, lightly spiced with onions, radish, cucumbers and peppers which was so fresh and refreshing I could have had a large bowl of it easily. Finally I had a dish called Pansit Bihon Guisado, thin rice noodles with vegetables, chicken and shrimps that was not too light but not too heavy, and neither dry nor soggy, it was just right with a delicate taste, not too overwhelming and an equally wonderful after taste. I do not eat pork, but my companion had a pork belly dish called Adobo Romulo Style with garlic and soy sauce, glazed shallots and sweet potato mash the was so mouth-watering and tender it might have made the most devout of religious peoples think twice about stealing a bite!
Filipino cuisine is a combination of indigenous flavours combined with European, specifically Spanish, Malaysian and Chinese characteristics. This mélange of flavours offers a uniquely delicious culinary experience, because it not only works well, but it leaves a particularly good after taste which for me is very important. American “food” is also available in the Philippines though I am pleased to say Romulo Café steers clear of that!
I decided to ask Rowena Romulo herself a few questions to describe in her own words what the Romulo Café is all about and what we can expect next:
NB: Your grandfather Carlos P. Romulo was a towering figure in 20th century politics both in the Philippines and the wider world. Is your restaurant a tribute to his legacy?
RR: Yes, the restaurant is a tribute to my grandparents, Carlos P. Romulo and Virginia Llamas-Romulo. When we decided to open the restaurant, we thought of sharing aspects of his multifaceted life through photographs and other memorabilia to recall his career highlights and offer a peak into his personal life. This is our way of paying him tribute while also perpetuating his legacy.
Our menu offers many dishes based on heirloom recipes so loved by my grandparents that my sister, cousins and I enjoyed while growing in our family compound in Manila.
NB: Do you feel that the political overtones of your business have helped get non-Filipinos curious about the Philippines, its culture and history?
RR: I think first and foremost, non-Filipinos have come to the restaurant because they are curious about Filipino cuisine and want to try something new. They don’t really know what to expect when they come to the restaurant and what it is really all about. The photos of my grandfather are really just an added bonus for the diners. They also get a sneak peek into some Philippine history and culture and yes, there are some guests that become more interested in the country as a whole.
NB: What was it like building and opening your restaurant named after a famed political figure from the ground up? Was it a fun experience, or a daunting one, or a bit of both?
RR: It has been challenging, tiring, exciting but fun! I have learned so many new things which is great but at the same time I discovered that the training, skill-set and disciplines I acquired during my banking career have helped me manage the day-today operations of the company.
NB: I understand your family runs a few restaurants also named after Carlos P. Romulo in the Philippines. How are they different from the one in London? Also, are there plans to open further restaurants either in the Philippines or elsewhere?
RR: Yes, the idea of the restaurant was conceptualized by my sister Sandie and my brother-in-law, Enzo in 2009. I would say there are 2 main differences: restaurant Interiors and menu/presentation of food.
The interiors, by Karen Soriano-Hristov, who is Filipina, are a departure from the black and white/monochrome formula of our restaurants back home. There is also a bit of quirkiness, as you would find in any real home whilst its spirit belongs to the legacy left by my grandfather, Carlos P. Romulo through the photographs and mementos that adorn the restaurant. The outcome is an appealing space that bridges Filipino culture with the locality, revealing a rich sense of personal and
Our menu is not as extensive as the restaurants in the Philippines largely due to some ingredients not being available in London. In addition, we changed the presentation of some of the dishes to ensure that it was attractive ( a dish not only needs to taste good but look good) to Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike given the broader customer base in London. The London branch is our first attempt at opening outside the Philippines and we hope won’t be the last.
NB: What do you miss most about the Philippines?
RR: First and foremost I miss my family! Secondly, I miss our beautiful beaches in the Philippines.