Menuwatch: Sarap, Mayfair, London

25 November 2022 by

Chef Ferdinand ‘Budgie' Montoya is on a mission to introduce London's diners to flavours of the Philippines using European techniques

Trying to pin down Filipino cuisine is no easy feat. Spanish colonisers have spattered their influence alongside the imported flavours of Mexico and the Americas. The Chinese and Japanese shared hits of umami across the sea while Indian curries appear in reimagined forms.

Chef Ferdinand Montoya was born in the Philippines but raised in Australia and now lives in London. He began Sarap because he wanted to reconnect with his heritage.

"I left the Philippines when I was five, so I was very much an Aussie kid in a Filipino body," he says. "I don't speak the language, so I chose a language I know better, which is food."

Having learned how to cook in the UK, working in London restaurants such as Dean Street Townhouse and Restaurant Story, he uses European cooking techniques and ingredients as a vehicle to show off Filipino food in a way his London audience will understand.

This is best demonstrated in the two uses of the root vegetable cassava, which bookend the evening set menu (and the alternative lechon menu). Montoya has crafted the first cassava dish into a well-known bite – a hash brown. Then, after diners have been led through the menu's flavour journey, it ends on a cassava tart – a Filipino filling in a European pastry.

The filling is Montoya's mother's recipe, and feels almost gelatinous in the mouth from the starch. He says this is common in Filipino desserts, but he "cheffed it up" by adding a pie crust base, a brûlée topping and a coconut sorbet on the side. The sorbet contains a Filipino twist, with a crumb called latik: fresh coconut milk simmered until it has separated, with the curds skimmed off and fried. It's the sweetest element of a fairly savoury dessert.

"It's a weird thing, Filipinos like sweetness throughout their meal but they don't like desserts to be too sweet," says Montoya.

One starter that beats the other set menu dishes for sweetness is a crispy chicken wing stuffed with Longganisa sausage and served with banana ketchup. The sweetness mostly stems from the sausage, although Montoya says that he has dialled down the sugar content of the original Filipino dish.

Alongside sweet, the other plinths of Filipino flavour that Montoya reflects in dish after dish are sour and umami. "We try and create nostalgic flavour profiles but use what's available to us here," he says.

Starting from his flavour building blocks, he has recreated adobo, the unofficial national dish of the Philippines, which consists of meat braised in soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, herbs and spices. Montoya's take is rellenong crispy pata – a fried pork trotter stuffed with adobo rice.

The trotters are deboned to the knuckle and braised in adobo with the bones and ham hocks. This flavoursome liquor is used to make the rice, which is combined with meat from the hocks, coriander and spring onions, and stuffed into the trotter. It is left to set in the fridge overnight, then deep-fried to serve. Presented in slices up to the knuckle, it can be split open by diners and the remaining skin and meat around the cartilage eaten. A sour vinegar concoction sits on the side for dipping, splashing or pouring as diners see fit.

Another dish from the Philippines that Montoya has remodelled at Sarap is kare kare. "We've always made it vegan, which baffles Filipinos a little bit because kare kare is originally an oxtail stew," Montoya says.

The flavour is recreated using seaweed for umami and miso for meatiness. These are combined with peanuts to make a thick sauce and then blended. The yellow-orange hue comes from annatto – a seed introduced to the Philippines via Mexico. This sauce is served with a celeriac terrine, sliced and pressed into a cube, and then dusted with black truffle.

This kare kare has been on the menu in various iterations, surviving the recent move from small plates to set menus (the evening set menu costs £55 per person, the lechon alternative £70). The change allows the team to lead diners through different flavours while cutting costs and taking less of a toll on chefs.

It delivers the Sarap philosophy of "authentic flavours delivered proudly inauthentically". Montoya hopes it will help UK audiences recognise the distinct flavours of Filipino food as well as those of other Asian countries. "It's about using the language of food to shine a light on a much underrepresented cuisine," he says. "I'll shout about it as much as I can."

The current Mayfair site may be only a temporary location, but Montoya is launching a crowdfund drive to open a permanent site for his Filipino restaurant Sarap in London's Soho.

From the menu

  • Cassava hash brown and caviar
  • Celeriac kare kare and autumn black truffle
  • Stuffed fried chicken wing, Longganisa sausage, banana ketchup
  • Rellenong crispy pata (+£8 supplement)
  • Line-caught sea bass, coconut beurre blanc, trout roe
  • Kale laing
  • Beef short-rib, toyomansi jus, shallots
  • Java rice
  • Cassava tart, coconut sorbet

Six-course evening set menu, £55

10 Heddon Street, London W1B 4BX

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