By CJ Juntereal
The guys behind Rambla, Tomatito, and Las Flores are having fun with their new restaurant. Sergei Rostoll, Dani Aliaga, and Uri Singla have been in the Philippines for 12 years now, building a pretty successful restaurant business, starting with Barcino, arguably the city’s first successful wine bar concept (which they eventually sold), and then Rambla, Las Flores, and Tomatito—that took the traditional Spanish food beloved by Filipinos, and gave it a twist.
Their new baby, BCN by Rambla is located in Bolanos Street in Makati, one of those small streets in Legaspi Village that basically services the back entrances of the buildings that line it. Rostoll, who was the first of the trio to arrive in Manila all those years ago, says that BCN is smaller than their other restaurants, and is committed to using premium ingredients. While each of the restaurants they have built has a small piece of their hearts, this one probably has a little bit more. BCN, he explains, is named after the airport code of their home city, Barcelona. They modeled the restaurant after the types of places they would frequent—not the restaurants visited by tourists, but restaurants the locals go to. “The places you go to if you live in Barcelona, or if you are already visiting for the third or fourth time,” Rostoll said.
BCN by Rambla is longer than it is wide, with a casual, friendly atmosphere, and comfortable chairs and tables. There’s a small second floor that is dominated by a temperature-controlled wine room, and on the ground floor, empty bottles line one of the walls all the way to the ceiling. The guys love their wines. Part of the reason they opened BCN is because they wanted a place to build their wine collection. They currently carry about 100 labels, many of them not the usual labels you would find in a restaurant. And that is what makes their wine list so interesting, the chance to be pleasantly surprised by a label you have never heard of before.
“We know most of the winemakers personally,” Rostoll said. “In fact, we brought most of them into the country.” Rostoll and Singla curated the wines, each contributing 50 percent of the wines on the list. Singla also created the signature cocktails. There are five of them. At perhaps R800 to R900, a bit more expensive than the price of a regular cocktail, but each one is layered with flavor, balanced, and packs quite a punch. They’re also served in glasses that match their names.
Watson, named after literature’s most famous Watson, is built around Talisker 10 Years single malt whisky and Calvados with other liqueurs added to pick up various flavor notes. It is sipped through a pipe-shaped glass, and even I have to admit that it makes for great photos. Thor arrives tongue-in-cheek in a horn-shaped glass. Based on Tio Pepe Sherry and cava, its flavor profile is on the herbal side. The cocktails all have a slightly bitter note, which builds complexity and is key in keeping a drink from becoming too cloying. The drinks menu also has a page for classic cocktails, including a Mint Julep, which I have never had before and plan to order on my next visit.
The open kitchen that dominates the ground floor is the domain of Spanish chef Alfredo Rodriguez Sangrado. Inside the kitchen is a Josper Grill, which I recently learned was developed in Spain, a contraption with chain pulleys and grills. Chef Sangrado explained that it was a parilla, an open fire/grill setup used in Argentina. The pulleys adjust the distance of the grill from the flame, and are used to control cooking. The one being used in BCN was made locally, to the chef’s specifications. Many of the dishes served in BCN are cooked on the Josper or the parilla, which gives me a lot of respect for the chef because it isn’t easy to be precise when working with open flame.
One of my early favorites from the menu is Pulpo Gallego a la Brasa con sus Patatitas. The octopus is from Spain, perfectly tender but with enough of a bite that it wasn’t mushy. In fact, it tasted quite meaty, maybe because it had been grilled where the meats are cooked. Served simply with confited potatoes, and a garlic and paprika-scented oil, it was one of the best I have eaten in a while. Chef Sangrado said that the oil was called Ajada, and is typical in Galicia. A splash of wine vinegar keeps the Ajada from being overwhelming.
Another favorite is Presa Iberico con Miso. Presa is pork shoulder, often a tougher cut, but this was Iberian pork that the chef cooked sous vide before brushing it with miso butter and grilling it. Surprisingly, it was served rare in the center. We’re not used to eating pork rare, so there was an argument over whether we were eating beef or pork. Served with a Tio Pepe Sherry demi-glace, it was very good, and worth overcoming dietary habits of not eating rare pork. Iberico pork is also used in the chef’s interpretation of barbecued pork ribs. Slathered with a tangy sauce, and tasting just a little bit like chorizo, the pork ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender. Rostoll says that it is one of his favorite dishes, and is in fact the first time that he has liked barbecued ribs.
Other dishes to try are a salmon tartare that has been drizzled with white truffle oil, and Arroz Bogavante, a wet style of rice with intense shellfish flavors that is topped with grilled Boston lobster. The dish is cooked in the Josper Grill, giving it smoky, meaty flavors.
For dessert you can’t go wrong with Torrija, brioche bread that has been soaked in milk until it is soft and custardy, and finished off with a caramelized sugar crust. Homemade tiramisu ice cream is served on the side. And then there is apple tart served with vanilla and citrus flavored custard sauce. In Spain, both Chef Sangrado and Rostoll told me, the sauce is called Natilla. It is so good that sometimes they just spoon it into their mouths. I did the same.
There is more to explore in BCN by Rambla’s short and sweet menu, and if their soft opening is anything to go by, I look forward to many happy hours at this new neighborhood place. Because if the owners are having fun, it will be a great place to visit.
This article was first published in Manila Bulletin Lifestyle.