Andy Mossack reviews Kensington’s Romulo Café & Restaurant, bringing the taste of home-inspired Filipino cuisine from Manilla to London.
It may be tucked away in an unflamboyant terrace on Kensington High Street but make no mistake, the Romulo Café & Restaurant may well be the epicentre of London’s Filipino community food scene. Not only is the food excellent, but there’s an authentic family back story to savour too.
Filipino food is surprisingly thin on the ground in London but talk to anyone who has visited this charming island nation, and I include myself, they’ll speak very highly of it. Like most nations, it’s a reflection of its neighbours and previous owners; an exotic blend of Malay, Chinese and Spanish and even a smattering of American too, after all, they were there for over 40 years.
So, I mentioned the backstory. As they say, it’s a family business but with a remarkable twist. It begins with grandparents Carlos and Virginia Romulo; he a legendary Pulitzer prize-winning Philippine diplomat and former President of the United Nations General Assembly and she the beauty queen and perfect ambassadorial wife, hosting lavish dinners using her own signature recipes to impress guests. In the family home in Manilla, ten grandchildren are brought up on Virginia’s culinary skills and two of them, Sandie and Rowena end up creating Romulo restaurants based on Virginia’s recipes. Sandie opening three in The Philippines from 2009 and Rowena with her husband Chris opening a London version in Kensington in 2014.
While the origins are borne from the pomp and splendour of diplomacy, there is nothing pompous about the Romulo Café & Restaurant. It’s simply a neighbourhood eatery that’s as comfortable as your favourite pair of slippers but serving knockout authentic Filipino food and a collection of ace cocktails and wines.
Even re-opening under full Covid safety guidelines has not diminished its charm. A welcoming glass of a Don Papa Filipino rum cocktail more than compensates. And more is promised, as, throughout this October, the partnership with Don Papa commemorates the 76th year of the liberation of the Visayan Islands from the Japanese with a special three-course Sugarland menu. My dining partner takes one look at it and grabs it with both hands. Three courses and two rum cocktails for £35. I, on the other hand, take a more studious view choosing a la carte.
Our starters arrive and from my first mouthful, I know this is going to be a journey of flavours. My partner’s Sugarlandia starter; lime-scented poached prawns kinilaw (a sort of Filipino ceviche) in coconut milk with sweetcorn fritters Maruya-style. My partner, a life-long prawn taster of some distinction is instantly won over. “Amazing” was all she could utter between mouthfuls. Fresh tasting meaty prawns nestling on a bed of lettuce and radish topped with crunchy corn fritters.
On Chris’s recommendation, I choose sizzling chicken Inasal Sisig (£8.75); a piping hot skillet of diced chicken thighs marinated in annatto, ginger, green chilli, garlic, and lemongrass. It is all-the-more sizzling when my Covid-safe masked and gloved server drizzles honey over it. The flavours are exceptional, no standouts just a sensational harmonious blend of taste.
We have another starter to share, a lumpiang sariwa (£8) which is a fresh spring roll-style crêpe filled with romaine lettuce, palm hearts, bean sprouts, sweet potato, bamboo shoots and carrots, topped with roasted peanuts in a peanut sauce. A surprise here as it’s a cold dish. It’s cold but it’s heart-warming. This is simply wonderfully fresh and an absolute delight.
As I’m glancing at our dining neighbours, a Filipino family who seem to be thoroughly enjoying their tastes of home, our mains arrive. My partner’s Sugarlandia main is another absolute belter; rolled pork belly Lechon stuffed with turmeric-infused sticky rice, topped with a Visayan Island Humba sauce and served with grilled sweet potatoes. The crispy Humba topping literally crackled through the soft perfectly roasted pork and who doesn’t like grilled sweet potato.
I had many possibilities for my main course but plump in the end for rib-eye steak Tagalog (£19.75) thin slices of steak marinated in soy sauce and calamansi (a citrus fruit that Filipinos make lemonade with) topped with caramelised onions and served with roasted sweet potatoes
But the showstopper for me is a vegetable side that simply screams flavour. Laing (£5) is from the Bicol region of the Philippines and takes the leaves of the taro root and sautés them in spicy coconut milk. No wonder it’s popular, it is divine.
My own memories of The Philippines are front and centre now and here, among so many regulars, I almost feel a local myself. Of course, it helps when my second rum cocktail materialises – Buko Pandan is another Don Papa rum with pandan, coconut, chocolate and sea salt.
As we’re now feeling like guests in Rowena and Chris’ home, we can’t resist the desserts. The Sugarlandia menu dessert is a ginger-infused pineapple slice on a Cebu island otap cookie with rum and raisin ice cream. Completely indulgent and a perfect way to refresh the palate.
On the other hand, I had an immensely colourful ube cheesecake (£8) which translates as purple yam. So purple it screams take my picture! Decked with coconut flakes and served with an ube ice cream it was a very decadent way to end a highly memorable culinary tour of Filipino islands.
The Romulo Café & Restaurant is not just a local neighbourhood restaurant for me, it’s a glorious celebration of Filipino cuisine and a recognition of a family heritage that must have been special to be a part of.
I think Carlos and Virginia would be very proud indeed.
All interior images (C) Andy Mossack
Tell me more about The Romulo Café & Restaurant
The Romulo Café and Restaurant, 343 Kensington High Street, Kensington, London W8 6NW
T: 020 3141 6390 E: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tue – Thu 5:00PM – 9:30PM Kitchen closes at 9:00 pm
Fri – Sun 12PM – 10:30PM Kitchen closes at 9:00 pm
Currently, Tuesday to Thursday is Double Bubble night with up to £10 off per person.