Sarap Filipino Bistro: ‘Many of the dishes are real showstoppers’ – restaurant review – The Guardian

This new Filipino venture has much to entice you – but bring a party of six for the best dish of all
Sarap Filipino Bistro, 10 Heddon Street, London W1B 4BX (020 3488 9769; saraplondon.com). Starters £8.50-£13; mains £18-£25; desserts £5.50-£7.50; wines from £27
Eating a whole piglet is like staging an orgy; you need more than two people to get the job done. The problem is that, when I review a restaurant there are only ever two of us, and that makes both propositions very tricky. Admittedly the latter is rarely on the menu during restaurant visits; neither of us is likely to be orgy fit. But at Sarap Bistro the former most certainly was an option, and I was at least four people short of a piglet party.
Sarap belongs to the chef Ferdinand “Budgie” Montoya, and is part of his ongoing exploration of the food of the Philippines, where he was born. Key to that is the famed lechon: roast piglet, with golden, shattering skin and the tenderest, sweetest of meat. (If you are a meat eater with a taste for lamb, but still want to be absolutely livid about the consumption of young pigs, muster your arguments now.) Here, the lechon comes stuffed with lemongrass and truffled adobo rice. Sounds great doesn’t it. There’s only one problem: you have to order a whole damn piglet two days in advance, and muster a party of six to eight people to do the eating. It costs £295.
About 10 minutes after we arrive there is a cheer from the far end of the dimly lit dining room. A small crowd is gathered, cameraphones aloft. I wander down to find them recording the portioning up of their piglet, plumes of steam rising from the chopping board as Montoya works the cleaver over the meat. The legs go one way, the snout another. I take a few pictures, but end up feeling like an interloper at the celebration of a stranger’s birthday. I am not friends with these people. I cannot share their piglet. Well, in truth, I probably could have done if I’d asked nicely. I could have told them I was Grace Dent and they’d instantly have told me to fill my boots. I can rock a leopard-print wrap dress, me.
The point is that, the most diverting item on the menu here at Sarap (which means delicious) is the one I can’t order. Still, there are a bunch of other things available and by the end of the night, following the beguiling instructions of our waiter, I will have tried all but one of them. Montoya has been on a long and twisting journey to get here, both figuratively and literally. He only started cooking professionally when he arrived in the UK in 2012 from Australia. He worked at Restaurant Story, Foley’s and the Dean Street Townhouse, while all the time nurturing a desire to interrogate his family’s favourite dishes. It began with a supper club which led in turn to various pop ups, and then a casual place in Brixton Market.
Now he has taken over this spot on Heddon Street, which has become a bit of an incubator for new restaurant ventures; previously, it was home to the rugged nose-to-tail Italian Manteca, which has moved on to Shoreditch. Montoya describes what he is doing here as delivering authentic flavours “proudly inauthentically”, a thoroughly engaging term I first came across in chef Ravinder Bhogal’s Jikoni cookbook.
It’s a short menu. Our enthusiastic waiter tells us we should order three starters between the two of us. There are only three starters. The food here strikes me as a softer, often warmer version of the sharp, sweet and salty flavours I am used to from elsewhere in southeast Asia. Pearly pieces of seabass are cured in a soft sour coconut vinegar. There is a gel made from calamansi, or Philippine lemon, and for crunch there are pieces of cucumber. It’s all bright and refreshing. In the mellifluously named Ensaladang Talong it is the addition of crumbled salted duck egg which shifts a rough smoked aubergine purée and slices of tomato away from the Mediterranean. But the most compelling dish, because it nods towards the lechon, is a boned out, rice-stuffed pig’s trotter, with skin that is hinged in a remarkable place between crisp and chewy. It feels a little like a consolation prize for not being able to give the piglet a seeing to. It’s a good consolation prize.
There are four main courses. We are told we should order three. The most diverting are the hunks of roasted celeriac in a ripe, creamy peanut sauce, with the lightest waft of truffle. Poussin has been marinated in lemongrass, citrus and vinegar before being grilled over charcoal to produce the kind of savoury blackened skin which gives point to these small, often flavourless birds. Finally, there are rosy slices of beef, in a thick citrus and soy sauce. It’s very good beef indeed, though the £25 charged for four less-than-vast slices is ambitious. (Amusingly, they plated six slices of the beef for the dish prepared for the photographer who visited a few days later.) Still, we have a bowl of rice with which to absorb the gorgeous liquor.
These are I think, all meant to be showstoppers. Intriguingly, the most thrilling dish is actually a simple side of kale braised for hours in coconut milk, ginger, garlic and chilli. It is both comforting and a wake up; an intense, rich vegan stew which I wanted to lean over and focus on. At £6 it also feels like the best moment of value on the menu, for we are just off Regent Street and that is rarely a cheap place in which to be. I am amused by what feels like blatant upselling by our waiter at the start, however encouragingly done. It does mean the bill mounts. Then again, we do not finish up over fed.
Desserts are solid and sustaining rather than light and refreshing: a mildly rubbery cassava cheesecake with coconut milk; a log of sweetened glutinous rice with a coconut caramel. Those aside, I like Sarap Bistro very much. The food is unfamiliar in a good way and the execution is precise. It just seems unfortunate that lechon which, for good or ill, is the Philippine’s most famous dish, is not available to individual punters. Without a way to access that roast piglet it makes the experience feel a little like the culinary equivalent of Hamlet without the prince, or Jaws without the shark. Or maybe it’s just that it forces me to confront the fact that I don’t have enough friends; or at least not the kind of friends happy to help me demolish a piglet.
Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1

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