For the love of food, Sydney, it is time to bring Filipino cuisine out of the shadows. In a city where Asian restaurants reign, the singular flavours of The Philippines have been, until now, largely absent. "Born out of frustration", Cafe Manila is executive chef Ricky Ocampo's passionate response to Sydney's underrepresented Filipino food scene.
This small, romantic bistro sits in an unassuming wooden house across from Milsons Point Station. The location is close to Ocampo's heart, as he has been running Ricky’s Cafe Under the Bridge in Kirribilli since the mid-1990s. The terracotta tiling and floor-to-ceiling windows are reminiscent of a colonial-style house in The Philippines, but the head chef has otherwise moved away from cliched Filipino decorations. The interior is instead quite minimalist, with "Spartan tables" that bring all focus to the food — this is the reason for a visit, after all.
Cafe Manila may be a family affair, co-owned by Ricky and his sister Luisa, but the menu is not the food from their youth. The siblings move away from the heavy starch dishes that Filipino food is known for; instead, they focus on a lighter menu, re-envisioning typical Filipino dishes into restaurant-quality affairs.
True to their intent, it is the bright seafood and meat salads that define the new spring menu. The inventive dishes blend Filipino flavours with Australian ingredients, most notably in the singkamas ($14.50), a delicate yam bean salad with edible Australian flowers. For more unusual dishes, look to the seafood: the kuhol at kabute ($20.50), a salad of tender snails and various mushrooms, and the itlog na maalat ($12.50), with salted duck eggs and sour yet nutty green mangos, are both brilliantly conceived and executed.
A few Filipino classics sit on the menu as well, like the garlicky chicken adobo ($26.50), which is a true representation of sour yet salty and slightly sweet Filipino flavours. The lechon ($24.50), a typically heavy dish of crispy skin pork belly, is gracefully placed over a finely dressed Filipino vinaigrette salad and topped with a mild pork liver sauce.
A second stomach will be needed for dessert. Filipino aficionados may be surprised to see palitaw, a street food dish, on the menu. Recreated for Sydney's restaurant goers, these gnocchi-type logs are rolled in grated coconut, drizzled with white sugar and topped with toasted black and white sesame seeds. Served with a side of homemade coconut jelly and jam, this lavish dessert is certainly not something you'd expect to find on the street.