The Sarsá group, known for Chef JP Anglo's signature soul food cooking of Filipino and Negrense dishes, recently opened the doors of its new all-day cafe. If you're looking for playful 'namit' food for breakfast, merienda, or heartier filling fare, make your way to this little corner in Rockwell called Kafé Batwan.
Just a few months after the grand opening of Sarsa SM Mall of Asia and Legaspi Village branches, the group finally opened its cafe concept located in Joya Lofts & Tower at the space which was formerly Bistecca. Sarsá Group's Tracy Anglo-Dizon, the chef's sister, explains that as she is a cafe junkie, the concept came from her when she came back to the country after living abroad. "I said, wouldn't it be great how in Singapore there'd be kopitiams, and other places have their quintessential cafes--if here in the Philippines we could have a contemporary one? The idea really just started from there, and then I started talking to my brother."
"We're from Bacolod, so I didn't want a typical Filipino designed feature -- I didn't want banig, the typical Pinoy look. I wanted something contemporary of its place and time, Philippines and current," Tracy shares, describing the design of Kafe Batwan. And so, instead of your tired and typical kubo themed and native-filled interior, she decided to make it more cerebral -- a memory of their childhood in the province. To the unfamiliar, batwan (or batuan) is a fruit commonly used as a souring agent for Negrenses, and is an ingredient Chef JP often incorporates into his dishes at Sarsa, like the Chicharon Bulaklak Dinuguan. "We would be growing batwan in the street because we can't have enough of it," the chef's sister shares, "we use it a lot, and JP uses it a lot. So we figured it also pays homage to an ingredient in Negros, and also of childhood and comfort."
Chef JP shares that R&D for the food currently listed on the menu of Kafé Batwan took any time from 6 months to 2 days to finalize, as delicious inspiration for food can come from afar and take long to materialize, while some dishes can come speeding by and pop up on a plate effortlessly. "The shrimp, I just randomly made it up the other day," the chef shares after I exclaim it has become one of the memorable dishes that day (more on that later). "It was just random, we went to the supermarket because we ran out of munggo, then never mind, let's just make a sauce. It was a take one sort of dish, while others, twenty takes."
As most Filipino restaurants do not serve dishes cooked with batwan, Manilenyos or those who haven't tried many authentic Negense food can delight and educate their tastebuds on this Visayan ingredient at Kafé Batwan, its delicate sourness adding a little spin on common Filipino dishes. Batwan is not as readily available here in Manila as compared to the chef's hometown, and JP explains while some sell it bottled and pureed, the actual seed takes hours and hours to boil to extract its distinct flavor. "We also have a kaldereta dish here where instead of using olives, we place batwan," he says, "in our aioli, we have our batwan aioli. We also have the batwan gravy."
For all-day breakfast, the cafe lists six dishes to choose from, like a Tsokolate Tsamporado (P220), and rice dishes served with egg, such as the two meaty staples of Tapa and Adobo Flakes. The Kansi Corned Beef (P350) gives its crisp corned beef flakes just a touch of sourness from the kansi broth and is served with scrambled eggs and an aromatic garlic coconut rice so perfect in every spoonful matched with any savory ulam you order at the restaurant. If it is a filling but meatless breakfast you crave, order a healthy bowl of Granola (P330) served with fresh fruits. Granola used at the cafe is from a brand in La Union (they also sell the granola mixes in packs in store), and instead of honey, muscovado syrup to drizzle, and carabao's milk to pour. The Arroz Caldo Parcel (P250) introduces a new and delicious way to devour the Pinoy congee by deconstructing and reconstructing what we're familiar with. The rice is presented similar to Machang, wrapped with a leaf, while the toppings are laid on the plate--dilis, salted egg, spring onions, fried garlic, and chicken strips; a cup of the arroz caldo soup is served on the side. Now, the playfulness begins, as you scoop enough rice into your spoon and add each topping so that you get everything in a spoonful. After having a mouthful of that, chase it right after with a spoonful of the soup, and you now probably have discovered a new favorite way to consume an old favorite. The arroz caldo is actually listed in the 'snacks' category but from the serving size (and its comforting feel-good flavors) alone, it's worthy of being called a filling breakfast dish.
Soups include a flavor-filled Kalabasa Bisque (P220) with a layer of seafood in every sip thanks to crab meat, and the Madrid Fusion Super Batchoy (P450) poised to become Manila's answer to the popular Japanese ramen. First served by the chef at the Madrid Fusion Manila weekend, the typical batchoy recipe has been tweaked and made extra special with quality ingredients and slow-cooking which are trademarks of a good ramen. A bowl is hearty with 12-hour soup stock, kurobota charsiu with just enough fat, soft-boiled egg, and tuna skin. A salad that does not deprive one of flavors and texture is Kafé Batwan's Ensaladang Espinada (P295), hefty with toppings of grilled tomatoes, kesong puti, grilled mushroom, pili nuts, and crispy crablets; it is drizzled with a pleasantly sweet mango salted egg dressing.
Another snack item already heavy enough to be your main meal for lunch or dinner is their Pancit Palabok (P295), a classic favorite that doesn't scrimp with its toppings of crablets and sauteed squid. Mix in with the soft boiled egg and chicharon, a squeeze of the calamansi, and every forkful is equal parts nostalgia and delicious. Sarsa is known for their sensational Sizzling Kansi, while Kafé Batwan rolls up its sleeve and presents to us Kansi Corned Beef for breakfast, and the Kansi Panada (P250) for merienda. The empanada stuffed with tender shreds of kansi meat is perfect when drizzled with the Batwan Gravy, which will remind Sarsa lovers of that amazing stuff from the Sizzling Kansi. For eaters who appreciate innard beauty like the masterpiece that is Sarsa's Isaw (grilled intestine), you must order the cafe's Nose to Tail Sticks (P320). It is also a good primer for foodies not too adventurous to nibble on offal, as in one skewer you get to nibble on oxtail, tripe, and lengua that's been grilled and drizzled with an awesome tokwa't baboy glaze. It's a nose to tail sampler in one stick, and should you discover that you actually love these uplifted versions of the street food, go ahead and order more!
Kafé Batwan's soft opening menu already lists breakfast and merienda fare that's varied for many kinds of cravings, and they also have a good number of the heavier-hitting stuff--nearly a dozen mains to choose from, ranging from pork, beef, lamb, fish, and chicken (they have inasal, too!). Prepare your orders of extra rice on the side (Garlic Coconut Rice highly recommended) for the fork-tender Batchoy Beef Ribs (P550) brushed with soy muscovado sauce and served with batwan atchara, and the Grilled Kurobota Belly (P550) with sambal beans. The dish that called for even more heapings of rice is the Sautéed Prawns (P495) served with sambal beans--a recipe Chef JP winged in the kitchen just a day before our lunch. Its mixed bean sauce reminds my tastebuds of munggo but it also notices it's quite different. JP explains the sauce is a complex mix that includes red bean, talangka, and tablea.
Currently, there are only two desserts available at Kafé Batwan, and dessert lover that I am, we ask the chef why so. "I'm so bad with desserts!" JP declares. I defend him briefly ("But your Piyaya Ice Cream Sandwich at Sarsa! That one's so good!") to which he replies that he isn't much of a sweet tooth, apparently. "When I opened Sarsa, I had zero desserts! And then this Mango Jubilee dessert that I've been serving for the rest of my cooking life--that's the only dessert I can do really well and I have it at all of my restaurants," he says laughing, "I'm not a dessert person at all, you could write that down!"
While the chef confesses he isn't much into desserts, when he does have it at his restaurants, you know they sing--even if choices are limited. If Sarsa has their fantastic Piyaya ice cream sandwich, then the new cafe has a sexy pan of Sizzling Budbud (P250) -- suman with ube butter and coco pandan coffee cream. You can't ever go wrong with sizzling buttery stuff, and apparently same can be said for desserts! Already buttery, warm, and lusciously sweet, the dessert called for a coffee pairing of Americano (P110), served hot and black.
Just a few days old, Kafé Batwan is slowly but surely gaining new patrons from its pool of loyal Sarsa customers craving familiar yet playful comfort food that is distinctly Chef JP Anglo's imprint on his dishes; the new establishment is also drawing new faces into the cafe, a mix of Rockwell's residential and corporate community, as well as foodies that are social-media heavy, eagerly sharing new food finds and must-tries. Kafé Batwan is the chef's newest playground to create things that will excite the palate, so we can expect more dishes and specials to roll out soon. "It's an evolution; we'll ease in first the next few weeks. Right now, it's still a risk. We are looking, to see if this concept will work." shares Tracy. "The menu here, it's always changing, always evolving," Chef JP shares about his food. As he brings out dish after dish from the kitchen that day, he is also lining up more ideas for new items, a few already on their trial stages waiting for their turn to be printed on the menu. And yes, dessert lovers, included in his ideas are sweet treats, giving you more reasons to return to Kafé Batwan sooner than you think.
Kafé Batwan is located at 122 Joya Lofts & Tower (formerly Bistecca) in Rockwell, Makati. Currently on soft operations, the cafe is open daily from 7am to 10:30pm. Follow on Instagram: @kafebatwan.