Utan clan: the family-run restaurant giving Filipino food a more contemporary twist

By Stefan Chomka contact

- Last updated on GMT

Rowena Romulo is giving Filipino food a more contemporary twist with London restaurant Kasa and Kin Soho

Related tags: Romulo Cafe, Rowena Romulo, Filipino cuisine, Restaurant, Casual dining, Kasa and Kin

With Romulo Café, Rowena Romulo brought traditional Filipino food to the capital. Now, with her latest launch Kasa and Kin, she’s introducing a more contemporary spin on her country’s cuisine

You don’t need to speak Filipino to get the gist of what Kasa and Kin, the new restaurant from Romulo Café owners Rowena Romulo and partner Chris Joseph, means; a rudimentary grasp of Spanish and English will lead you to ascertain it’s about ‘home and family’. Neither will you need to know much about Filipino food to get the essence of what the Soho restaurant is all about - with their new baby, Romulo and Joseph are serving up the food of the southeast Asian island in a way they hope will see it cross from the still relatively unknown in the capital to the mainstream.

As is the now all too familiar tale in a Covid world, this was not the initial intention when Romulo, having run her eponymous restaurant in Kensington for almost six years, set upon the idea of opening a second. Back in 2019 when the idea was germinating, the plan was to replicate the success of the original restaurant, serving traditional Filipino food such as sizzling chicken inasal sisig marinated in annatto - an orange-red ingredient from the seeds of the achiote tree; beef and oxtail kare-kare; and pork belly adobo, in a smart-yet-homely dining room. Two years on and the dial has shifted: the glamourous family portraits are out, with a bright modern interior the look of choice and an Insta-friendly faster-casual food menu being served.

“It all started pre pandemic,” says Romulo as we meet over plates of sizzling chicken; a lobster-heavy seafood medley with noodles; and grilled aubergine sautéed adobo style among other things at her Kensington restaurant.  “After five years it was time to look at a second site and open a Romulo number two in central London. That was the original idea. But when the pandemic hit, we thought we should maybe do more grab-and-go and have a bakery. During the pandemic we baked a lot, so our line of bakery products was developed.”

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A meal for all occasions

Located on the site famous for once being home to the first YO! Sushi on Soho’s Poland Street (it was more recently a branch of Le Comptoir Libonais), Kasa and Kin is a multi-faceted operation partly by virtue of its size. Too big to be just a bakery or even a grab-and-go concept combined, it was decided that it would have a more serious dining element as well. By day (11.30-3pm) Kasa and Kin operates a casual dining offer before switching to a more traditional restaurant in the evening (5.30-10.30pm).

“We were looking at sites to do a bakery and grab-and-go and stumbled across the site,” says Romulo. “It was too big so we thought ‘OK, what else can we do?’ Kasa and Kin is supposed to be contemporary and help Filipino cuisine in the UK become more mainstream. Being in Soho we needed to do something that was more fun and vibrant because [Romulo Café] is very classic.”

Michelin-starred chef and consultant Pat McDonald, whose CV includes The Savoy, and executive chef Jeremy Villanueva are behind the more contemporary menu. Lunchtime options include a selection of hot broths – chicken tinola, beef bulalo, jackfruit and green vegetable utan (a Filipino vegetable soup) – as well as kilaw marinated style bowls in chilli chicken, spiced shrimp, and jackfruit and avocado options; and chilled rice paper spring rolls.

There’s also hot main meals of beef kare kare; sticky BBQ pork; crispy chilli chicken; and grilled aubergine and a hot pandesub sandwich made with pandesal Filipino bread filled with marinated sliced rib-eye with cheese and onion humorously called the Fili cheese steak. Dishes range from £4.50 for the broths to £12 for the hot meals and can be eaten in or taken away.

"Kasa and Kin is supposed to be
contemporary and help Filipino cuisine
in the UK become more mainstream"

For those looking to try a range of dishes the restaurant at lunchtimes also serves an ‘imbento box’ with a choice of spring rolls, hot broth, rice, noodle or salad base and hot topping for £19.75.

Dinner, by contrast, is a slower affair that taps into the current resurgence in popularity of the robata grill in the capital. The lights are dimmed, and the not insignificant cocktail menu comes out – calamansi, a Philippine lime features heavily – as a precursor to yakitori-style sticks of bbq pork belly; baby squid; five spice duck; red chilli prawn; butternut squash; and chorizo de cebu.

Prices are competitive for Soho, with sticks around the £4 to £7 mark and sides of garlic fried rice, stir-fried back choy and potato wedges around £4.50. That said, a ‘de-lux’ menu of items such as fresh lobster in the shell; Iberico pork loin; wagyu beef; and scallops sees prices rise considerably - topping out at £28 – and shows Romulo’s intention for Kasa and Kin to be regarded as something elevated beyond casual dining.

 

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Serving Filipino food in Kensington

With its expansive menu and multi-faceted approach Kasa and Kin is a statement of intent for Romulo. It’s also a natural progression for an ambitious restaurateur responsible for helping put Filipino cuisine on the London map.

A former banker whose CV includes JP Morgan and Citi, Romulo quit her career in finance of 32 years to follow in the footsteps of her sister, who ran a number Romulo Café’s in Manila in the Philippines. Having travelled the world but now settled in London she and partner Chris opened Romulo Café in Kensington in May 2016, a restaurant serving dishes passed down by her grandmother.

Once the location of the Filipino Embassy and close to the Filipino supermarkets of nearby Earl’s Court, the affluent west London location was an obvious choice. Romulo also describes it as having the neighbourhood feel she wanted for her family-friendly restaurant.

Since launch, the restaurant has achieved exactly what was intended of it – to provide a taste of home to London’s Filipino community but also attract a cohort of foodies interested in expanding their culinary repertoire. On a weekend the 60-cover restaurant can do 150-200 covers a day with 60% of customers hailing from the Philippines.

Romulo Café serves traditional family dishes. “I never use the word authentic because who really knows what’s authentic? Particularly in the Philippines where food is based a lot on our history. We were a colony of Spain and then the Americans came; our neighbours are Chinese and Malaysian, so you’ll see fusion in our food.”

“We offer the more classic dishes because that’s what Filipinos living in London are craving. It is not adventurous it is the food they miss - they want that taste of home. To non-Filipinos they can get used to our textures and flavours.”

Adobo, a meat, seafood or vegetable stew cooked using vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, black pepper, is one of the country’s national dishes, but every family has their own recipe and own method of cooking, says Romulo. “Mine is my grandmother’s.”

The restaurant pays homage to Romulo grandparents in the décor as well as the food. Pictures of her grandmother adorn the walls while one area is dedicated to the impressive life of her grandfather Carlos P. Romulo, who was a general in the US and the Philippine armies, president of the UN General Assembly, Ambassador to the United States, Philippines’ Secretary of Foreign Affairs and recipient of a Pulitzer Prize in Correspondence.

“When you come to my restaurants it’s like me inviting you into my home,” she says. “The restaurant is in my grandfather and grandmother’s honour.”

 

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A restaurant for the social generation

No family portraits hang in Kasa and Kin and the bright orange and green colour palette and industrial style décor is worlds apart from the homely feeling of the Kensington restaurant. Although very different, Romulo has tried to keep the essence of the original restaurant with the creation of what she describes as an ‘interactive’ mural that reflects the four ‘fs’ of Filipino hospitality - family, friends, fiesta and flavours.

The more modern design has a sense of place, she insists. “After five years Soho is ready for contemporary Filipino flavours in a contemporary restaurant.

“It has always been my dream to open in Soho. We know the Soho crowd is different; we are not presenting the classic dishes but something that we believe they will enjoy and appreciate.”

Sohoites will soon be spoilt for choice in this regard: you wait for one Filipino restaurant to open and then two come along with chef Ferdinand Montoya opening Sarap Filipino Bistro at 10 Heddon Street later this month, an evolution of his more casual Brixton restaurant Sarap BAon.

Kasa and Kin’s bakery and dessert range in particular looks to have had one eye on the younger Instagram crowd that would likely not have stepped foot in Romulo Café. Its brightly coloured shaved iced iskrambol dishes – one purple thanks to the use of the ube purple yam – comes topped with mini marshmallows and candyfloss while an equally striking black-coloured charcoal pandesal is shown in video being ripped open to reveal a white macapuno cream filling.

“It has always been
my dream to open in Soho"

Other desserts such as the tsunami and ube cheesecakes are prepared so that once ‘unwrapped’ their fillings ooze out in impressive fashion and then there’s the purple ube martini, all providing visual fodder for the social media age.

This appeal to a younger audience and a more widespread appeal means that Kasa and Kin might eventually move beyond the capital and even the UK’s borders. 

“When we created the brand, it was the one we wanted to export internationally,” says Romulo. “Romulo Café is hard to replicate because the family wants someone to run and there’s not many of us who want to be in the restaurant business – it’s just it’s me and my sister. So, we thought ‘why don’t we spin off to something different that is easy to replicate?’”

If successful, Romulo sees no reason why her sister, who runs three restaurants in the Philippines, can’t open a Kasa and Kin there. The business has even been approached by someone who wants to open one in Madrid, but “let us open the London one first,” she says.

“We now have three different models; we can just open a bakery and patisserie so if a site is more suited to us doing that then we can take it, or we could just do the robata grill or even just grab and go. This multi-functional model is more suited to this ongoing pandemic because you never know what’s going to come next.”

 

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Related topics: Business Profile, Casual Dining

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