‘A taste of the Philippines in the heart of Kensington. We serve fine Filipino food 7 days a week.
When it comes to fiendishly good Philippine cuisine, Romulo Café is London’s answer to Manila’s fashionable restaurant and food scene. From a converted Georgian townhouse near the Design Museum, we’re telling the world the story of fine Filipino food. Food that’s made with the best seasonal ingredients and British produce. All the classics are here. Binagoongan Crispy Pata, Chicken Relleno. Beef and Seafood Kare-Kare. Pork adobo, pandesal and purple yam. All served in generously portioned sharing plates or smaller size ‘platitos’.
Our inspiration may be the Philippines’ greatest ever statesman, but to owner Rowena Romulo, Carlos P. Romulo was simply a brilliant Lolo, or grandfather. Romulo Café brings his generous spirit back to life, in our food and impeccable service.
We’ve based our menus on heirloom family recipes. But we know Filipino cuisine is an evolving phenomenon. So we support Chef Jeremy Villanueva whenever he wants to strike out with innovative new creations, twisting the Philippine culinary template of Malay, Chinese, Spanish and American influences into something uniquely Filipino.
See you in Kensington?’
Located at the Holland Park end of Kensington High St, on the ground and basement floors of an elegant Georgian townhouse, Romulo’s narrow-fronted exterior gives little clue as to what lies within. The first thing we see as we enter the Tardis-like ground floor restaurant is the fun, pink neon-lit ‘General’s Bar’, serving premium Filipino spirits and beers.
The charming, friendly and professional husband and wife proprietors, Chris and Rowena, give us a fabulous warm welcome, ushering us to the best table at the back of the ‘Diplomat’s Dining Room’, asking how much we know about Filipino cooking (very little) and offering cocktail menus as soon as we’ve sat down. The décor is lovely, reminiscent of the tropics – jungly monochrome wallpaper framed by forest green wooden panelling, wicker lampshades, black and white photos of Manila in the 50s and 60s, a couple of oil paintings of a man in military garb and his supremely stylish wife.
When we ask our hosts who these distinguished individuals are, they say they’re Rowena’s grandparents. Cool, we think, not giving the matter much thought until we look at the website a few days later and realise that the grandfather was actually one of the 20th century’s greatest Filipino statesmen and first Asian president of the UN, Carlos P. Romulo. Shame on us for not doing our homework, and kudos to Rowena (a chic and sophisticated former banker) for not mentioning it.
Later, chatting after dinner, we learn that all the meat is local and sustainable (the couple regularly visits the farm of its provenance) and that the restaurant is in partnership with the charity Wonder Foundation, which ‘gives women and girls access to high quality, relevant education and helps them into work and out of poverty’. What this means in practice is that part-time waiting staff are invited over from Manila, while also having college fees subsidised. Good stuff.
Due to delays on the bloody District Line we were late even for our 9pm booking, so it was difficult to observe on a Thursday night when the kitchen had just about closed. But Rowena was more than happy to fill us in.
Although it’s mainly London-based Filipinos – a real home from home – and discerning RBCK locals, the restaurant has to turn punters away when there are events at Olympia, with queues around the block. Downstairs, there’s a large private dining room, complete with bar and karaoke machine, that’s licensed for both marriages and civil ceremonies. It’s also hosted a large number of gay parties, which must have been just fabulous, even before you get to…
… which was a revelation. South East Asian meets Latin American, which makes sense given the Philippines’ location and Spanish colonial history. On Chris’s recommendation, we went for a selection of the chef’s special platitos, kicking off with a sublime tuna ceviche: meaty chunks of fish, fresh and zesty with red onion, radish, red pepper and lime.
Next was the best course, ‘sizzling chicken’, finely chopped morsels of savoury, spicy bird marinated in annatto, ginger, green chili, garlic and lemongrass – so yummy that I didn’t even touch my post-cocktail wine until I’d gobbled the lot up. This is practically unheard of for me. It was the fine choppery, as well as the excellent seasoning, that made this so delicious. Textures are as important as flavours, here.
Chris then mentioned jackfruit, which I’d only heard of as some ghastly ersatz vegan substitute for pulled pork. No, he said, he hates vegan substitutes (we’re liking this couple more and more) and that jackfruit is delicious in its own right. We trusted him, and the trust was well-founded. It had a fantastic texture that I’m loathe to call meaty – somewhere between tender and firm – and was flavoured with wild green chilli, ginger and coconut milk.
Dingley Dell pork belly adobo was properly rich and fatty, slow cooked with soy, garlic and rice vinegar, accompanied by mashed potato to soak up the dark, unctuous juices. Chargrilled stuffed squid was presented as the piece de resistance, like hasselback potatoes over a mound of squid ink rice, surrounded by mango salsa and stuffed with tomato, onion and cheese. A curious flavour combination one might think, but it worked.
We didn’t think we had room for pudding, but Rowena persuaded us that we had to try her grandmother’s special recipe, the wonderfully-named Sans Rival. And boy were we glad we did. Dulce de leche buttercream, cashews and meringue amount, basically, to pudding heaven. Purple yam cheesecake sprinkled with coconut served with coconut ice cream, another Filipino speciality, was also seriously good and beautiful to boot, a fabulous shade of mauve.
From the extensive cocktail menu we started with a Mojito Mango (Havana Club 7 yr old rum, mango puree, lime, mint and soda water) and an Ube Martini (Stolichnaya vodka, Malibu, cranberry juice, ube puree and coconut cream) which was the same gorgeous hue as the cheesecake, ube being the Filipino word for purple yam, decorated with a velvety orange pansy. It slipped down almost too smoothly, the tartness of the cranberry juice tempering the coconut’s natural sweetness. We followed with a bottle of a crisp, dry white recommended by Chris, which did its job admirably.
Romulo does private catering and deliveries too, so you can try a taste of the Philippines at home. But why would you want to when the experience of eating here is as enjoyable as this? We had a fantastic time, and can’t wait to go back.
343 Kensington High St, Kensington, London W8 6NW; 020 3141 6390; romulocafe.co.uk