Manila, August 20, 2020—New brick-and-mortar restaurants would be crazy to open right now, right?
Or are they?
At a time when an unprecedented number of establishments have been forced to shut down by the COVID-19 crisis, a new brunch café is throwing its doors wide open against the odds.
Located inside the open-air mall, The Pop Up along Katipunan, Almusal Cafe serves an elevated version of weekend brunch with gourmet twists on Filipino classics.
“Of course the conditions aren’t ideal,” says managing partner James Thomas. “But we wouldn’t call it crazy to be opening right now. More than ever, people want comfort food. And Filipino breakfast food is about as hearty and comforting as it gets.”
Thomas is a New Yorker who, before he moved to Manila 3 years ago, was the general manager at Jewel Bako, a Michelin star restaurant in the East Village which won stars for 14 consecutive years–3 of which were under James’s watchful eye. One of his partners is Matthew Lay, who cut his teeth in Melbourne’s uber-competitive food and hospitality industry and is also an Italy-trained gelatiere (gelato chef). Both initially came to the Philippines for a short visit, fell in love with the culture, went back home but couldn’t shake the country off their minds—and so, months later, packed up their bags and landed in Manila.
The millennial partners were also drawn to the hip, young vibe along Katipunan Avenue, where there was already a café culture to build on.
“The idea was to marry New York and Australian café culture with Filipino breakfast, which we feel hasn’t quite gotten as much attention as it should have,” says Matthew, who runs operations.
“There are three things all good Melbourne cafes have: tasty, creative food; great coffee; and they’re all connected to their communities in a deep way. That’s what we’ve tried to replicate at Almusal Cafe–from the recipes down to the furniture and to branding,” he adds.
Both gentlemen have brought their skills and fine-dining experience to the menu. Well-loved classics like the beef tapa and pork tocino for example, are cooked in a sous vide machine for at least 24 hours before being finished off in the pan and garnished with a dollop of bright chimichurri sauce. The thick bacon slab is cured with honey butter for a subtle sweetness that plays off the salty flavor profile, while the lamb adobo is slow-roasted in premium spices for at least 12 hours that leaves it with a deep, concentrated umami flavor. The requisite fried chicken dish—this is the Philippines, after all—is aptly named “Ultimate Fried Chicken.” Two giant boneless chicken fillets are breaded and deep-fried in secret spices and served with thick country gravy, hot honey, and chili-lime corn. And of course, the coffee is always freshly roasted in-house.
Opening at a time like this means the partners have had to be both more careful and creative than ever—for example, by hunting high and low for the right eco-friendly packaging that will ensure their dishes travel well and offering jarred sauces and frozen versions of their meat that customers can enjoy at home. On-site, the staff is trained to practice high standards of hygiene, and guide markers are everywhere to ensure social distancing.
All of this does eat into the bottom line. But the partners say COVID-19 hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm for the local food scene at all.
“I actually think it’s a time for local food to shine—we source a lot of produce from neighborhood markets and really prioritize sustainability, and in turn, the community has come out to support us in a big way,” says Matthew.
“When people come in and tell us they’re excited to eat our food, that it’s a little something they can look forward to in these uncertain times—for us, that makes it all worth it,” says James.
Almusal’s mission is to elevate the Filipino breakfast using modern, creative techniques and ingredients. Taking inspiration from the strong café culture of New York and Melbourne, Almusal offers well-crafted classics in a relaxed, elegant space that adheres strictly to government health and safety guidelines. It is located inside The Pop Up along Katipunan Avenue.