I ’m burning alive in this heat as I step out of my car and walk along the hot asphalt of Enriquez St. in Poblacion, which in the past few years has become the Greenwich Village of Makati. We’re in the death-clutches of a summer heatwave as I try to find this new restaurant where I’m supposed to meet with the chef-owners, but I can’t see it. It feels like I’m looking for an oasis in a desert and I soon realize why—the place has no signage except for what looks like a rusty iron plate from a junkyard.
It says “Lampara” with a flickering light behind it, like a kerosene lamp, and I am strangely attracted to it like a moth to a flame.
I duck inside and climb the steep staircase to the restaurant, where I find relief in a cool and quirky little space marked by stylish eclecticism—par for the Poblacion course. I take a seat in one of the retro-chic chairs before a tall young man in a chef’s apron comes out of the kitchen to greet me, introducing himself as Alphonse “Al” Sotero, one of Lampara’s three chefs. He takes me on a quick tour of the mod greenhouse sala and the al fresco terrace patio, where he lights a cigarette.
“RJ and I met because of smoking,” he says as he glances at the glowing tip of his fag for a moment, as if wondering if he was ever going to quit. “There was a smoking area in Enderun where we were studying, and I bummed a cigarette from him.” He’s talking about his partner RJ Ramos, whom he credits as Lampara’s main torch-bearer.
Together with Prince Tan—Al’s best friend back in college—and two other silent partners, they bravely made what many sensible entrepreneurs and gambling bookies considered a dangerous bet: open an unscaleable restaurant in a city saturated with fierce competition. Armed with Enderun degrees and internships in Provence, the Rancho Mirage in California, the Ritz-Carlton near Aspen, Colorado, and the Eiffel Tower, the three culinary school graduates decided to return to Manila and grind their teeth in a charming little restaurant in BGC called Hey Handsome, where they dished out unique Asian fare that qualified it as one of the best new homegrown restaurants of 2016.
Every dish that comes out of Lampara’s beleaguered kitchen is a manifestation of its chefs’ determination to please their guests’ palettes
Following the career trajectory of most ambitious young chefs, RJ and Al began thinking up a place they could call their own. “Lampara is really RJ’s idea and concept,” Al says, just as his bespectacled partner comes out to introduce himself. “And Prince and I were his supporting pillars. He calls me the fertilizer that nourished his seed.”
That seed was planted by a common question among foreigners exploring new cultures: where do we eat? And if you really wanted to break yourself into the acquired tastes of Filipino cuisine without getting bitch-slapped by the miasma of fermented shrimp paste, or whatever purity of madness dictates the desire to slurp down an unborn duck fetus for pleasure, the answer to that question becomes limited to maybe five restaurants. “We believed there was room for one more,” says Al.
Reminiscent of Francis Mallmann, RJ possesses a mild obsession with fire (their company is called Fire Bunny), which is the reason they named their resto-concept Lampara. “We hope the flickering flame of Lampara will shed a new light on Filipino cuisine,” he explains. “And that word-of-mouth would spread like wildfire in the local dining scene.”
One can only conjecture about whether he was being careful about what he wished for or not. The chefs pitched their original concept to a businessman and flat-out failed: “He wanted something more scalable, and we wanted something with more personality, something more intimate and special,” according to Al. Undimmed by their first rejection, they soldiered on, deciding to put their own money into the project along with two other partners, and continued to refine their ideas in what would be the first of a perpetual series of growing pains.
First, they had walked around Legazpi and Salcedo, from Jupiter St. to EDSA, looking for a location. “We literally walked all day,” says RJ. “We felt the restaurants in Makati had more personality than the ones in BGC. The nitty-grittiness of Makati was more appealing to us.” They eventually found a place on Aguirre St., but found they were charging too much. “We were also quite hesitant with Poblacion, because it’s more known for bars.”
They prowled the streets of the bohemian red-light district each night, observing the wild power of its culture and the undeniable success of others until they found a place near the bar with the boxing midgets. They contacted the owner and out of 80 pitched concepts, Lampara was chosen. “But they made us wait almost nine months—[there was] trouble securing the lease and a lot of empty promises.” It reached a point where the team almost threw in the towel; they were waiting too long.
But the stars aligned and an opportunity presented itself: “Z Hostel invited us to do a pop-up during Independence Day,” says RJ. “We served our Rice Cups and Duck Breast Salpicao, which everybody loved.” Soon after, their friend Cris Dytuco—chef of the closed-but-soon-to-reopen bar Oto, delivered good news: the landlord in front of Oto was leasing, and the rate was good. Lampara submitted a proposal, then closed the deal a few days later.
“The idea was to help put Filipino food in the global spotlight,” reiterates RJ, dubbing their refined concept a “Neo-Filipino bistro.” Purely elegant dishes emerge from the kitchen one by one for us to taste, and though none of them look traditional, they all taste like home. The menu may invite you to try their duck or veal, but what you’re really in for is the heartwarming taste of adobo or caldereta—light-years away from insipidity.
As was the case with igniting Lampara into existence, the development of their menu was also fraught with hassle. “When we started doing our research and development, wala pa kaming aircon dito,” says Al. “There was no exhaust and everything was so dusty while we were cooking because we were still under construction… maingay, amoy varnish, sobrang init talaga.”
Still, they authored recipes that were clever, creative, and cohesive in taste and texture: Their salpicao marinade works wonderfully with tender short-ribs, and their take on tokwa’t baboy features creamy tofu topped with two variations of pork—delicate floss and crunchier morsels—dressed in a pickled onion and balsamic vinaigrette. “Creating the inasal was fun,” he continues with gusto. “All three of us made different marinades, then we took the best elements from each and combined them. We marinated our chicken with it and on the first attempt at grilling, it came out perfect. It’s our version of inasal that was thankfully approved and welcomed by people from Bacolod.” Now that’s an acid test you don’t want to fail.
Personally, my favorite dish is a rendition of the infamous dinakdakan, an Ilocano delicacy made with creamy pig’s brains, snouts, and ears. As little starbursts of flavor popped in my mouth, I asked Al to explain the dish: “We had a pork mask dish, like atête de veau, which is compressed pig’s face—headcheese or sisig, in other words. It was very difficult to cook because it breaks apart in the pan, so we decided to combine it with duck breast and the deep-fried egg recipe we took with us from Hey Handsome. It worked well—it became our version of dinakdakan, without the pig’s brain.” They christened the dish “Dinuckdakan.”
It was very liberating to have the latitude to create innovative dishes, but they claim their biggest fear was that they didn’t have an established name or reputation in the industry—they were newbies with a lot to learn. “A lot of these great chefs have their own... philosophy about food. I just know how to cook,” RJ says with a chuckle. “You really need to have a commanding presence in the kitchen, which we’re still learning to achieve. We’re still very, very nervous.”
And based on the events that transpired next, they had every reason to be: First came the treacherous task of designing and building the restaurant, which they practically did themselves—along with the Space Encounters design team, who developed a concept with modern lines and Filipino touches. Materials like rattan and solihiya blended in with wood and clear stained glass, reminiscent of old Filipino houses. During construction, which took about four months, the guys were on-site every day.
“We were extremely hands-on; it took us a whole day just to choose tiles,” they said. They had input on every single thing and even had a big fight with another contractor they hired to build the kitchen. “We were in Bali for a week to pick up some plates, ashtrays, and lamps,” Al recalls. “And the whole time we were gone, nobody had been working on the construction! They said the kitchen would be done by the time we got back but nothing happened. RJ was swearing at them on the phone.”
Despite the scourges, Lampara finally served its first guests in December 2018. RJ tells the story: “We had a guest; a friend of our landlord’s, and one of the owners of Manila House, [who] wanted to celebrate her birthday here. The place was still under construction and a lot was missing—including the glass, doors, and much of the furniture—so we had to clean everything and put up curtains because we didn’t have any doors. It was a construction site in the morning and a restaurant at night, but we couldn’t say no—she was a friend of the building owner, and she was quite connected; her crowd was exactly our target market. [Thankfully], the event was a success and a good exercise in teamwork and synergizing everyone’s efforts.”
They scored another private booking a few weeks later, but succumbed to over-confidence. “We were still understaffed, and RJ and myself foolishly thought we could handle the service with just one bartender and one server,” Al says sheepishly. “Ang yabang-yabang namin, patatlo-tatlong pan pa ako,” he laughs. Then a terribly ironic realization dawned upon them: Lampara had run out of gas. “The flames were not strong enough so we had to use one burner for the entire service, and the food took forever to come out. It was a disaster.”
Two days after Christmas, Lampara had a fully booked evening, with guests including Charles Paw, owner of Hanamaruken, Hole in the Wall, and The Grid Food Market among many other restaurants. “All the guests arrived,” recounts RJ, “We were ready for a night of full service when—boom! A transformer explodes and the lights black out. We lose all power. The line right outside our dining room actually bursts into flames. We had to run across the street to borrow fire extinguishers.” All reservations were canceled that night and the guests that were already there had to be sent home.
It was utterly devastating in that they wanted to impress Paw, a vital figure in Manila’s vanguard of restaurateurs. But if there is a God, he must have bestowed his mercy on the Lampara team: Paw returned to the restaurant a few weeks later, and had a divine dining experience that he posted about immediately. “All the buzz surrounding the restaurant started with him,” says RJ. “But that didn’t mean our problems were over.”
“Did you tell him about the debut?” Al asks as he lights up another cigarette. “I’m about to,” answers RJ, which makes me laugh. “Two weeks ago, we had a debut. They booked the entire restaurant from 8:30 PM; a down payment was made. All the guests arrive and right smack in the middle of dinner, the exact same thing happens—another transformer explodes and the power goes out, AC and all.” Great Caesar’s ghost, I thought, this is beginning to sound like a curse cast upon a couple of cooks who had no idea what they got themselves into. “It’s happened three times since we opened, and always during an important event,” RJ also lights up a cigarette and admires the flame from his lighter for a moment. “We had to transfer the entire debut party to another bar. We felt horrible for the debutante, but were shocked at how gracious she was.”
It was one crazed crisis after another, including a recent water shortage in the summer. Indeed it’s been a nerve-wracking saga for these guys—it still is, and it seems like the only problem they never encountered was ennui. But every time the Lampara team found themselves in the quicksand of calamity, not one of their guests muttered a complaint.
“We hope the flickering flame of Lampara will shed a new light on Filipino cuisine.”
The restaurant business is a trade that attracts a lot of half-bright critics that will flog you for all the wrong reasons, and a fledgling startup like Lampara, with all its bruises and battle scars, could have suffered some pretty vicious repercussions. But they haven’t—and it’s probably because the food is so good. Every dish that comes out of Lampara’s beleaguered kitchen is a manifestation of its chefs’ determination to please their guests’ palettes, and leave them with a memory they won’t soon forget. On top of that, their willingness to roll with the punches, no matter how fast or hard they come, not only compels their guests to overlook the inconveniences in favor of appreciating their hard work, but also inspires the chefs to embrace the age-old axiom: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
As Al says, their dry runs were wet and their soft openings were hard, but in the end, it balanced out because of the quality of their food and the admirability of their work ethic. And now that the moon is out and all this gibberish is down on paper and on the record with my name stamped on it, I believe a Lampara signature cocktail is well in order.
“Any will do,” I say as I settle into a comfortable, periwinkle-blue ‘60s lounge chair in the air-conditioned room, admiring the interior, which looks like it could be in a scene from Mad Men. An impressively well-versed waiter brings me a Pana Kakana Kana, spiced gin mixed in a brandy snifter with cardamom and black pepper.
It’s a beguiling concoction that delivers a subtle punch, and I enjoy it while nibbling on more of their lumpia-inspired rice cups, which bring the familiar flavors of taba ng talangka, ubod, and longganisa into your mouth in delicately crunchy bites. I’m feeling great now and the restaurant is once again fully booked, the dining room bustling with edacious guests. Just as I reach for my drink to take another sip—KABOOM!
A transformer explodes right outside the window next to me, and the entire restaurant blacks out… again. I grin with giddy amusement as I take a sip without skipping a beat. Oh well, I think to myself as the sparks fly behind me. I guess sometimes, if you really want to shine, you’re gonna have to burn.
This story was originally published in GRID Volume 08.