Food & Drink

5 Chef-Driven Eateries in Manila

Young chefs in the Philippine capital are whipping the local food scene into a frenzy with their cool restaurants.

By Stephanie Zubiri
Photographed by Magic Liwanag

Jul 17, 2017

FOOD PORN HAS TAKEN Manila’s social-media scene by storm. A new generation of adventurous gourmands are willing to trek beyond the obvious to the city’s gentrifying districts just to try the latest photogenic eats. Lower rents in these neighborhoods mean it is easier for up-and-coming talents to set up shop. It’s in this scene that hot young chefs are firing up Manila, serving their creative energy and youthful enthusiasm on well-adorned plates. Meet a roster of culinary wunderkinds who are funneling international inspiration, classic training and innovative techniques into building new and distinctive dining concepts.

1. Made Nice Supper Club

Type of cuisine: Intercontinental
Head Chef: Jack Flores

The sparse interiors match the pared-down Continental menu with only a handful of appetizers, mains and desserts. The initial panic of not having enough choices quickly vanishes as you realize you want to order everything on offer, including the grilled octopus with tonnato sauce; roasted carrots with quinoa; sweet-corn agnolotti pasta; and roast lamb shoulder. Their simplest dish, the taglioni, exemplifies their philosophy, cooked to perfection, tossed in a silky duck-egg-yolk sabayon and topped with generous parmesan shavings. Add a pinch of fresh cracked pepper and you are in pasta heaven. This mix of high-end ingredients and on-point technique is de rigeur for this restaurant that specializes in the simple, well-executed and delicious. “Our cuisine is a hodgepodge of ideas we got from our travels, experiences and even some from imagination alone,” sous-chef and partner Raul Fores says. “We try to tailor these dishes to the local palate which has, hopefully, given them an identity of their own.”

The more cooks here, the merrier. There are six active partners, all in their twenties, behind Made Nice Supper Club, four of whom are chefs. They’ve all lived abroad at some point in their lives and experienced the pang of Filipino homesickness, most commonly manifested in rice cravings. This shows up in their lamb and roast pork belly, pairing the meaty mains with black paella-style rice. Pastry chef Gabbi Ramos Flores is to thank for the hefty desserts; order the Milk Chocolate, a dense chocolate cake with malt ice cream topped with crunchy, crumbled honeycomb. 

109 Esteban Street, Legazpi Village, Makati; +63 99 5017 2482; mains P395–P1,210.


Type of cuisine: Mexican
Head chef: Bruce Ricketts

At the tender age of 27, chef Bruce Ricketts is already a veteran of the Manila dining scene, with several establishments, including Sensei Sushi, Ooma, and the much-lauded omakase fine-dining concept Mecha Uma under his belt. Building on that momentum, he and his fiancée Jae Pickrell opened La Chinesca, named after the Chinatown in Mexicali. Hole-in-the-wall is an understatement for this signless tiny taqueria, so on weekends look out for the line stretching down Aguirre Avenue. Here you’ll find an assortment of juicy tacos that range from pop icons like carnitas and carne asada, to lesser-known traditional recipes like tripitas, a dish highlighting cow intestines. “It’s the kind of food I grew up eating,” Ricketts says about his time spent in California, “and the type that I crave after a long day of work. It is simple and always hits the spot.” Before La Chinesca opened, Ricketts would regularly organize pop-ups of the concept during Mecha Uma’s off hours and would tease the public with his Instagram posts of their staff meals. But the real test of a killer taco isn’t how well it photographs. “The making of a proper tortilla is always the most important thing as well as the timing of the salsas,” Ricketts says. Each tortilla is made from a secret ratio of water and hand-ground corn from Oaxaca, and the salsas are made fresh every few hours to keep the flavor vibrant. While the bulk of the menu brims with classic Mexican classics, a few Asian influences sneak on board as well. Pinipig (dried toasted rice) and Chinese chorizo complement the heady Mexican dried chilies in the guisada de res and camaroncito. For another dream-team of tastes, wash down the tuna tostadas with a gin-based La Fresa, the chef’s refreshing take on an agua fresca with cucumber water, aloe vera and lime.

248 Aguirre Avenue, BF Homes, Parañaque; +63 2 738 072; tacos and tostadas P90–P180.

3. Hey Handsome!

Type of cuisine: Southeast Asian
Head chef: Nicco Santos

As you walk through the doors, a chorus of wait staff will greet you, “Hey handsome!” It is the friendly refrain that Singaporean and Malaysian hawkers use to hail passersby to their stalls, and chef Nicco Santos has appropriated the salutation. “I wanted a brand that makes my team and my guests feel good,” Santos says, “so what better name than Hey Handsome?”

And if you think the flattery gives you a boost, wait until you try the food. “The menu is inspired by flavors that I have learned to love from the homes of my friends around Southeast Asia,” Santos says, but he gives each dish his own twist, like the paneer with oyster mushrooms, tossed in bright violet beet curry, served with a tangy homemade yogurt sphere, papadums and a quinoa tabbouleh salad. These dishes represent new flavor combinations that are borderline risky for the finicky local palate, and yet, they are among the restaurant’s bestsellers. In the beginning he worried that the Filipino market would be reluctant in accepting the complex layering of spices and herbs from neighboring cultures. “Now I have learned to let go of this fear,” Santos says, “and cook with the idea of creating familiar flavors with slightly stronger foreign notes.” The craft cocktails are as exotic as the menu, with standouts like the Thai chili smash with Sipsmith gin. 

Courtesy of Hey Handsome! (2)

G/F Net Park building, Fifth Avenue, BGC, Taguig; +63 2 946 3815; mains P490–P1,330.

4. The Test Kitchen

Type of cuisine: Contemporary
Head chef: Josh Boutwood

It was a classic case of golden handcuffs, or in this case, hand mixers. During chef Josh Boutwood‘s five years as the corporate chef of Bistro Group, responsible for American-style casual-dining concepts like TGIFriday’s and Denny’s, he didn’t have much opportunity for artistic expression. In January 2016, a month after his 30th birthday, he opened The Test Kitchen. This 22-seat eatery serves as his blank canvas to finally unleash his creativity. “I see those five years as an intricate learning path,” Boutwood says. “It gave me time to refine who I am as a cook.” His vision for his restaurant is a reflection of his multi-cultural upbringing. Born to a Filipino mother and British father, he spent his childhood bouncing between Boracay, Spain, the U.K and Scandinavia before finally settling in Manila where he built a solid career, earning more than 20 medals at different culinary competitions.

The menu highlights produce-driven cuisine and changes daily, which he says suits his limited attention span. “We only use three ingredients per dish but we use different cooking methods and procedures to transform them,” Boutwood explains of his method, which leans heavily on dry-aging, curing and smoking. His 40-day dry-aged beef, for example, is grilled medium rare, and served with a celery root mash and glazed onions. Nestled between auto shops and dive bars in a grittier area of Makati, the restaurant itself is a sleek, warmly lit industrial space. It’s also one of the few places in town that offers wine-pairing menu. Reservations are a must as those limited seats are coveted real estate.

Courtesy of the Test Kitchen (2)

9780 B&C Kamagong Street, San Antonio Village, Makati; +63 91 7304 1570; six-course tasting menu P1,900, wine-pairing menu P1,500.

5. Workshop Baker at Le Petit Soufflé

Type of cuisine: Desserts
Head chef: Miko Aspiras

Pastry chef Miko Aspiras is the madcap genius behind craft cookies at Scout’s Honor and the Technicolor ice cream confections at Freezerburn. At his latest venture, Workshop Bakery, you’ll find sweet treats like purple-yam-filled croissants and matcha canelés that bring together French pastry techniques, an American sense of glut and an Australian irreverence. “I get my inspiration from everywhere,” Aspiras says. “I do not want to define it as one distinct style. I am open-minded and love to try new things every time.” Aspiras also picks up tricks at international culinary competitions. He says just the act of competing keeps him sharp: “It pushes me to my boundaries and forces me to learn more and see what’s happening in the dessert world out there.”

Recent products of his global research include the garam masala donut that uses Indian spices, and the hazelnut mousse, inspired by a trip to Melbourne, where an Italian lady at Queen Victoria Market shared her Nutella hot-chocolate recipe. “I applied the idea to a mousse and added sea salt to bring out the flavor,” Aspiras says. “I love trying a new take on a classic.” 

2F SM Mega Mall, Mega Fashion Hall Ortigas; +63 2 944 6541; desserts P100–P700.

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