The first thing you need to remember when you are looking up Romulo Café (as I am sure you will after reading this review) is to completely ignore the “cafe restaurant” misnomer. The fairly inconspicuous front of the house may look like a cafe but there all similarities end.
Romulo Café is, in fact, a very stylish, Kensington High Street-based, somewhat cavernous in depth establishment that offers an exceptional culinary experience, even by cosmopolitan London standards. In fact, it trumps many a super trendy London eatery manifold for the outstanding quality of its food and personal service.
This is a Filipino restaurant through and through (if, like me, you are well-travelled, but haven’t tried Filipino food, you are in for a treat). It is named after the owner’s grand-father, Carlos Romulo, a former statesman and diplomat of great stature, whose pictures (some with the Kennedys, some with the Pope, among various other dignitaries) decorate the walls liberally. Diners are welcome by the husband of Carlos Romulo’s grand-daughter.
It is family-owned and although one of three, it is at the time of writing the only one outside of the Philippines, although plans are afoot to open a second London eaterie.
The food is based on “grand-mother’s” family recipes and given a fresh twist by a Filipino chef, formerly of Gavroche.
There were four of us and the selection of starters (platitos) and mains (platos) was presented to share.
Romulo Café has a list of house cocktails that are a must, including an “Imelda’s High Heels”, presented in a high heel shoe (made of china, not an actual shoe), a signature Ube Martini, a Tita’s Margarita and a Batangas Bad Boy made with a 10 year Talisker, 10 year Laphroaig, Cigar infused 23 Zacapa Rum, dry vermouth and orange bitters served under the clouds/i.e. fizzling when poured on the ice cubes and accompanied by a cigar on the side.
We tried all of the above and loved them all for different reasons, but the Ube based one was heavenly – as are all ube based dishes.
Ube is a tuber, more precisely, a purple yam with sweet potato consistency, but much more complex in flavour, sweetness and versatility that make it a highly prized culinary product.
Below is a description of everything we had on the night, each dish of outstanding quality and presentation:
Platitos & Platos
The bread basket: Pandesal, an artisanal Filipino bread (small batches baked 4 times daily for perfect freshness).
Kalamansi Cured Tuna Ceviche (Kilawin)
Filipino style ceviche with native lime, ginger, chilli, red onion and beetroot.
I am not normally a fan of ceviche, but the tangy dressing and the good size raw tuna chunks, as well as the perfect combination of ingredients and seasoning won me over completely at first scent and sight.
Milfish (Bangus) Al Ajillo
Popular seafood dish with traditional butter, parsley and garlic jus.
Now here is an interesting dish that you won’t see often: a fish variety native to the Pacific and Indian oceans, popular in the Philippines and Indonesia, this arrived in a cast iron frying pan, liberally doused in various seasonings and tasting mild and buttery. We tried likening it to a European variety and failed.
Scottish Salmon Tamarind “Sinigang” Stew
Salmon fillet with morning glory, okra, daikon and aubergine in a savoury tart tamarind flavoured stew.
Two of us raved about this dish which is really a very tangy broth, similar but far superior to the Thai counterpart, Tom Yum. The rather tart broth is balanced to absolute perfection by an entire salmon fillet and a delicate slice of aubergine. If you don’t try anything else on the menu, do have this – it is a satisfying meal on its own!
Chilli King Prawns (Sugpo Sa Aligue)
Sauteed in coconut milk and lobster coulis served with Chinese cabbage and topped with green chillies.
The chef’s signature dish, this is about the coulis as much as about the large prawns, served with the head on but shell removed. The coulis is made from the dark flesh of the lobster (the eggs) and tastes divine.
Dingley Dell Pork Belly Adobo (Adobong Baboy)
Slow cooked in soy sauce, garlic and cane vinegar.
The traditional Filipino dish, Adobo, made with pork belly is not for the faint hearted or weight conscious, but is a must try in a Filipino restaurant for the exceptional balancing act between meat fat and tanginess of the sauce.
Char Grilled Stuffed Squid (Rellenong Pusit)
Squid stuffed with tomato, cheese and onion flavoured with garlic and annatto oil served on a bed of squid ink rice.
We had two servings of this dish. It looks so good, one hesitates to bespoil the perfectly curled squid atop the black ink rice bed, but of course, we did and couldn’t get enough of it. Every now and again, you go a restaurant and think, “there is no way I could ever reproduce this at home, no matter how hard a try, what recipe I read or how amazing the ingredients”. This is that kind of dish. Be sure not to miss it on your visit to Romulo.
Sizzling Chicken “Inasal Sisig“
Jack Brand diced chicken thighs marinated in annatto, ginger, green chili, garlic, and lemongrass.
One of my personal favourites, it arrived in a small iron cast dish, sizzling, just as the name promises. Annatto is a condiment made from the seeds of the achiote tree. It adds a complex yet subtle flavouring to the marinated chicken and together with the other marinade ingredients transforms it into an incredibly tasteful dish. Another MUST TRY!
Smoked Fish (Tinapa) Sring Roll
Shredded smoked fish with red eggs and tomatoes in a spring roll wrapper served with pinakurat (spiced) vinegar.
The spring rolls are a variation of the straightforward and quintessential Asian dish, again smoked and tangy flavours making it almost a different type of dish to what you’d normally expect.
Young Jackfruit and Coconut Stew (Ginataang Langka)
Tropical jackfruit flesh, chilli, ginger stewed in coconut cream and drizzled with annatto oil.
Jackfruit, I am told, is becoming increasingly popular in Europe. This was my first encounter with it. At first bite, I thought it tasted somewhat like artichoke heart. Not a fan of coconut milk sauces generally, I left it alone, but kept going back for another bite – and another, until it was all gone. When we tallied the favourites, it came on top of the list for us all.
Traditional Garlic Fried Rice
Refried rice with a hint of garlic and the taste of home.
The hint of garlic in this is more than a hint – expect all the satisfaction of refried rice with the unusual olfactory addition of the healthy clove. If garlic is your thing, you’d love it.
We had Filipino beer with our meal. The Red Horse beer is an extra strong lager with a great, almost buttery smoothness that balances its considerable alcohol content.
Unrivalled modern Filipino dessert made with dulce de leche buttercream, cashews, chewy and sweet meringue.
Purple yam cheesecake topped with sweet young coconut.
The dessert list is a tour de force in its own right and when visiting Romulo, you simply MUST leave space for these – or just go for an all pudding meal. The Sans Rival is as delicious and rich as the description suggests and we scraped every crumb off the plate it arrived in. However, the special mention should go to the Ube Cheesecake which is quite indescribable.
Dear Reader, you must experience this for yourself! Suffice to say that, when we deliberated whether to take a portion each home, one of us said, the dessert is so addictive, I wouldn’t.
So there you have it: one of the best dinging experiences all round and one of the best restaurants in London. The credit is clearly the chef’s, but also the owners’ who make everyone exceptionally welcome, there to explain the provenance of each dish, but respecting diners’ privacy at all times.
Romulo Café is a foodies’ heaven.
343 Kensington High St,