The facade of Todd English Food Hall at SM Aura. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for ABS-CBNnews.com
MANILA – The group behind the successful Mesa chain of modern Filipino restaurants is making its boldest business move yet with the opening of its first foreign franchise.
And it’s not just any imported brand. Todd English Food Hall, which opened last week at SM Aura Premier, is only the restaurant’s second outlet since the American celebrity chef launched the original at New York City’s posh The Plaza in 2010.
“This is a statement restaurant,” said Eric Dee, who personally runs Mesa for his family’s Food Link group, which also includes Crocodile Grill, the Kapampangan restaurants Ebun and Mangan, the Japanese restaurant Kai and the tapas bar Cerveceria.
Dee’s father, veteran restaurateur Rikki Dee, started his food empire in the mall food courts in the late-1980s with Chin’s Express and later Inihaw Express before branching out into free-standing restaurants.
But while their family is well-known in the local F&B industry, the younger Dee feels they need a restaurant like Todd English Food Hall if they want to convince other foreign brands to work with them in the Philippines.
Already, Dee is set for the opening of the first Philippine outlet of Hong Kong’s famous Tim Ho Wan dim sum restaurant at SM Megamall later this month.
The cavernous 900-square-meter culinary destination that is Todd English Food Hall is definitely impressive: it boasts of nine stations or live kitchens, preparing a wide gamut of food from salads to pizzas and pastas and grilled specialties, plus a stylish retail section selling items from sea salts and spices to a beer-making kit.
Dee said it took to a while to convince English to partner with them. “I grew up in the States, I ate in his restaurants, I don’t watch anything else but the Food Network so I was familiar about him,” Dee told a select group of food bloggers at a private lunch specially cooked by English at the Raffles Hotel.
Todd English working at the kitchen of the Raffles Hotel for a private lunch. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for ABS-CBNnews.com
They first met on December 5, 2011 – which was memorable for Dee as it was his wife’s birthday – in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where English was attending an event.
“We met up with him, had a few drinks, told him we were also in the restaurant industry and that we should do something,” Dee recalled. “It took two more years of back and forth emails and it came to a point where I was like, ‘I’m going to New York to see you.’”
Dee said they were originally looking to bring the Mediterranean restaurant Olives, English’s first restaurant which he opened in Boston in 1989, or P.U.B., the chef’s re-interpretation of the traditional English pub which has branches in Las Vegas and Birmingham. But they changed their minds when they saw Food Hall at The Plaza, which is a Fairmont property.
“When we got there, this is it. This is what we want to bring. This entire concept is totally different. We don’t have this in the Philippines,” he said.
“So from there, it took as a while to find the space because we needed 800 square meters at least. We were eyeing the spot of Establishment (at The Fort), we were looking at that. But we have good ties with the SM Group, and we were offered a space in Aura.”
With the various live stations, diners often mistake Food Hall as a buffet restaurant. “That’s the misconception: that it’s a buffet because of the setup,” Dee acknowledged.
“It’s a la carte. The food comes from the nine different stations. We have a consolidated menu. It runs like a normal restaurant.”
But what’s truly impressive – even more than the eye-catchy cupcake wheel or the fact that its pasta machine, hand-built in Italy specifically for English, is only one of three in the world – are the prices, which are comparable to most homegrown restaurants.
For instance, Food Hall’s highly recommended signature flatbread pizzas start at P380. Tacos range from P220 to P320 for the striploin steak. One can enjoy a signature pasta dish for as low as P220 (roasted pumpkin ravioli), while among the main courses, the T.E. Half-Chicken, brined and boneless, goes for P320. A bowl of Vietnamese noodles is priced at P210.
Dee explained that the pricing was set as such because of its mall location.
Chocolate dessert at Todd English Food Hall. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for ABS-CBNnews.com
“If you’re in a mall, you have to have the right price points. And because of the Food Hall being what it is, we’re more flexible. We’re not stuck on serving high end. In fact, when you go to the Food Hall, you can leave the place full for P500. But you can also splurge and have steak for P3,800,” he said, referring to the 1-kilogram Bistecca, which is the most expensive item on the menu.
Although dining at Food Hall is definitely a worthwhile experience, if you just want to sample English’s cooking, you can also go to the Spectrum at the Fairmont Makati, which will include a special pizza created by the celebrity chef for the all-day dining outlet’s lunch and dinner buffet.
The Todd English Pizza. Photo: Handout
Available for only one month from April 20 to May 20, the Todd English Pizza is basically the chef’s signature flatbread pizza but topped with Spanish chorizo, Manchego cheese, caramelized onions and scallions.
For the special lunch at Raffles Hotel, English prepared dishes which were not available at Food Hall -- the rustic Black Olive Spaghetti and the heavenly Fonduta Ravioli with Brown Butter Sauce and Fresh Black Truffles were standouts.
He explained prior to the lunch that his style is basically Mediterranean to which he has added some Asian twists – as can be gleaned with his seared tuna with shoyu glaze and olive relish, and the curried braised beef sauce for the Wagyu steaks.
Todd English with local chef Sharwin Tee of Lifestyle Network's "Curiosity Got the Chef" during a private lunch at the Long Bar of Raffles Hotel. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for ABS-CBNnews.com
“It’s wonderful to be here in the Philippines. Thank you for opening your arms,” English said during a toast that ended the special meal.