Alqueria Restaurante Y Chocolateria is the newest restaurant of the SumoSam Group of companies, and their foray into Spanish cuisine. Alquería means 'farmhouse' in Spanish. Typical alquerias in the olden times, we were told, were in far-flung places away from the city, with structures resembling small castles and were called homes by many. In present time, an alqueria has become a venue for social events, and this is what Alqueria Restaurante Y Chocolateria wants to achieve — to be a go-to for hungry mallgoers seeking a place for traditional, authentic Spanish fare.
'This is our very first Spanish restaurant, and of course, we' d like to open more Spanish restaurants,' shares Marvin Agustin at the press launch of Alqueria in Mega Fashion Hall, fast becoming a bustling food hub of different cuisines to cater to any kind of craving by the mall crowd. 'This is a family kind of Spanish restaurant. We serve the best cochinillo, the best chocolateria,' he says proudly. 'For the best churros, we use Valor chocolate, the best hot chocolate that is actually from Madrid, Spain. We try to be as authentic as possible, even our ingredients we try to be as fresh as possible. Even our chicken, we do not use frozen meats.'
Most of the dishes served in Alqueria are inspired by Chef Adrian Nieto, their Spanish chef who grew up helping his mother in preparing family recipes, some of which (like the paella) are now available for everyone to experience in the restaurant.
Filipino cuisine has interlocked with Spanish, so our cravings for paella, salpicao, and gambas happen very naturally to our local palate. It's high time the SumoSam group presents to diners more options for Spanish dishes we grew up with and love. What was born as a Japanese restaurant called SumoSam in 2005 at Shangri-La Mall sprung even more Japanese and Japanese fusion concepts (John and Yoko, Mr. Kurosawa, Akira, Banzai), and later on, adding Italian (Marciano’s and Balboa) into their resto group mix. Recently, they've also conceptualized a gastropub (Wolf and Fox), a Filipino restaurant (Dekada), and brought in the very first international brand under their group, Teddy's Bigger Burgers. Alqueria is their 11th brand, and looks like there's still more to come from Marvin and his team. "Conceptualizing your own is difficult, and it's also a challenge to bring in an international brand to the country," Marvin tells me after our press lunch in Megamall.
Read on to learn more about Marvin Agustin's thoughts on our bustling local restaurant industry, the challenges of setting up a homegrown concept and bringing in an international brand, and his favorite cuisine and comfort food in this interview.
Question: The SumoSam group has been around for nearly a decade, and you've experienced yourself how the restaurant scene is changing through the years — international brands coming in, local concepts popping up left and right. What do you think is the secret to longevity in the food business?
Marvin Agustin: Well of course first is the quality. The quality of the food, the experience of the guests. They have to be fulfilled, they have to be satisfied. It's an overall experience right now. Dati papasa na kung 'okay lang' yung food, papasa na yung 'okay lang' yung service. Now, it's very competitive. And, value for money.
And how about when it comes to the customers now? Is the local palate changing?
Well traveled na ang Filipinos, eh. And even if they don't really leave Philippines, they travel vicariously through the Instagram accounts of people who travel a lot. So very sophisticated na ang Filipino diners.
What do you think are the food trends that will happen next year?
A lot of international brands still coming in. We are seeing them already not just in retail but in the food business as well. We'll see more of international brands.
How about you, personally? What do you think diners should be embracing more of in our food scene?
Of course I encourage to try all the new ones, then they could be the one to judge kung sino ba talaga ang best for their taste. But they should not forget the local brands, the local restaurateurs, who have been working hard on creating new concepts for them. Di naman natin mapipigilan the invasion of international brands… So at the end of the day, it's really all for the consumers, you know? What's best for them, the food, the budget, and the total experience.
Your group has experience in both homegrown food concepts and bringing in an international brand [Teddy's Bigger Burgers]. How challenging is one compared to the other?
Conceptualizing your own is difficult, and it's also a challenge to bring in an international brand to the country. When you are conceptualizing your own, you're the boss of your concept and your consumer. When you're bringing in an international brand, you have a principal to follow their direction–everything that you do, you have to get consent from them. We've experienced that with Teddy's, our first international brand in Greenbelt 3, and we're bringing in more. So it's both challenging, and both fun in a lot of ways. You really learn from them, you learn how they become successful in that chosen category of food. Different challenges, but at the same time, fun.
Any plans to bring in your homegrown concepts into the international market?
Yes, that's also the plan. It's also part of our exploratory direction. Hopefully, hopefully, in the future, you get to see the restaurants when you travel abroad.
When you travel abroad or here around the country, what cuisine is your personal favorite?
I love Spanish food. That's actually how Alqueria was conceptualized–I fell in love with Madrid when I went this year. I was supposed to stay there only for a couple of days, I ended up staying for two weeks. [laughs] I love the food there! I also love burgers, I love fried chicken. I love Filipino food, it's one thing I can eat every day. And I love Japanese, because it's healthy, especially the sashimi and the grilled items. I also love Italian as well. I love to eat! [laughs]
How about eating at home? Do you still have time to cook?
Yeah, I do.
What do you like preparing?
Pasta. I like pasta. Even my kids kasi like pasta. Filipino food, all the time. Recently, I just made my own caldereta. Yeah, I still cook at home. It's my therapy when I'm very busy and need some downtime. When I don't want to think about work, I cook.
What was your comfort food when you were growing up? Something you loved eating when you were a kid?
I'm a very simple guy, I love fried chicken. I love bulalo! I can eat bulalo every day [laughs].
How about food cravings when you are sick, or when you're tired?
Siopao? What kind?
I love Kowloon! [laughs] I love jumbo pao.
And if you can choose your last supper, the final meal before the end of the world, what would you eat?
Wow. Ah, cochinillo. I love lechon! Cochinillo, because it's crispy and tender at the same time.
Any advice for aspiring restaurateurs?
It's not glamorous. [laughs] It's one of the hardest businesses to put up and to manage. Don't get fooled. But I am not discouraging them, it's also a fun business. I enjoy it and I love it. If they like working hard, then they can get into this business. But if they want it easy and to just coast by, the restaurant business is not for them. Putting up a restaurant kasi is setting up an experience. If they want to be authentic–and I'm not even talking about the cuisine–if they love hospitality, this is a business for them. It's also about service, and entertaining people. It's great if they love to cook, even better if they love to eat. At the end of the day, it's the taste and the overall experience that will be the judge of their restaurant.
Follow Marvin Agustin on Twitter (@marvin_agustin) and Instagram (@marvinagustin), and visit his official website (http://marvinagustin.ph). Visit his newest restaurant, Alqueria Restaurante Y Chocolateria, at the 3rd floor of Mega Fashion Hall, Building D, SM Megamall. Contact +639175463370 for reservations and inquiries. Like Alqueria's Facebook page (/AlqueriaPH) Follow Alqueria on Instagram (@AlqueriaPH).