If you’re a not a habitué of Xavier Street in San Juan, there’s a big chance you might miss Chef Michelle Adrillana’s Unfrench Bistro at 81 Xavier Residences, the high-end condominium complex right in front of Xavier School. The restaurant doesn’t call attention with a flashy sign or a menu board standing right by its entrance. It’s just quietly tucked right beside AUB Bank.
“That’s intentional,” the ISCAHM-trained chef tells us, smiling. “This is where you go if you don’t want to be seen.” Which reminds us of the popular hashtag: #IYKYK.
The place doesn’t mean to discriminate, the chef insists. “Everybody is welcome here. You can come in your casual clothes and just order a smoothie or have breakfast,” she says. “When you're feeling overwhelmed, it's a place where you want to sit and just melt in one corner.” UnFrench, according to Chef Michelle, should feel like a safe space, like a “mother's warm hug.”
The restaurant is actually strategically located—it’s right across Xavier School and a stone’s throw away from Immaculate Concepcion Academy (ICA)—so she’s confident customers would come by. “Sometimes, PTA meetings are held there,” she offers.
Another reason for her confidence, says the chef, is the quality of the food she serves. “We’re not scared to be un-French,” she says. “We apply French techniques in preparing our food, but we also add our own spin to it. I think the apt word is rendition, not fusion. That defines my way of cooking.”
One example is her Poached Salmon in Dill Cream Sauce. “Poaching is very French. Dill cream sauce is very French. What I did was drizzle it with some lobster oil to balance the tanginess of the dill cream sauce,” she offers. It’s a delightful, guilt-free dish, and one of the must-tries in their menu.
The popular Italian dish Chicken Milanese is traditionally coated with seasoned flour, egg wash, and bread crumbs. But Chef Michelle “unFrenches” it by adding chorizo floss, making it more flavorful. The chicken cutlet is served with pomme lyonnaise made of red onions instead of white.
The chef reinvents the classic French dish Lobster Thermidor for her restaurant and gives it a Filipino twist: She replaces the creamy white wine sauce with the savory, mildly spicy flavors of laing and tops it with melted cheese. “The flavors of this dish are quite aggressive. It packs a punch,” she says. We suggest you order this dish with some rice pilaf.
UnFrench offers a small but diverse menu, some inspired by Chef Michelle's favorite dishes. One is the Shrimp Bomb, which is her take on PF Chang’s Shrimp Dynamite. It’s a great appetizer—one you won’t even notice you’ve already finished—and is perfect with her Burrata Salad.
There’s also the Laksa Escargot, which was inspired by Singaporean laksa, her favorite from the Lion City. Adrillana’s first rendition of this dish was Ginataang Kuhol Laksa with Aligue, which she presented as part of a gastro diplomacy project in Singapore back in 2019. Everyone loved it so when she was invited again last year to the World Gourmet Summit for a nine-course degustation at Mandarin Singapore (now Hilton Singapore Orchard), she served the same laksa dish. But instead of kuhol, she used escargot. She also turned the concentrated laksa broth into butter form and lay down the escargot on top of rice noodles, doused it with cilantro oil, lobster oil and ikura. She offers this same dish at her San Juan bistro, sans the bed of noodles.
Another reason she’s proud of her dishes, says Adrillana, is because of how they “consciously and conscientiously” put their food together. “For me, sustainability is top of mind, and it goes beyond just using seasonal produce,” says the ambassador for Rise Against Hunger.
At UnFrench, they do the best they can to apply sustainability in food preparation. “We don’t just dump the peels in the bin. Instead, we dehydrate and pulverize them and add them to our flavorings, or use them for our oils,” Chef Michelle offers. Remember the lobster oil we mentioned earlier?
She doesn’t strain the soups and sauces. This explains why the cream of ratatouille and the pommery smash in her roast beef don’t come in the usual silky texture, and why the butter in her Laksa Escargot is powered with some fiber in there. “It makes our dishes more nutritious,” she says.
You may choose to order UnFrench Bistro’s Prix Prixe Menu for P1,980. With this set, you have one starter (either Cream of Ratatouille or Apple Walnut Salad), two mains (Poached Salmon in Dill Cream Sauce and Lobster Oil; Chicken Milanese with Chorizo Floss, Pommes Lyonnaise; Triple Threat (pork belly with lechon and sisig, add P500 if you want foie gras) with Rice Pilaf; 8-hour Roast Beef with Pommery Smash); dessert (Knackerli Cake or Taho Cheesecake); plus coffee or tea.
The bistro also offers a Pescatarian Prix Fixe Menu for P2,800. This consists of the Clam Chowder and Pulpo Causa for appetizers; Poached Salmon in Dill Cream Sauce with Lobster Oil and Lobster Laing Thermidor for the mains; and one dessert (Knackerli Cake and Taho Cheesecake); plus coffee or tea. All the above-mentioned dishes may also be ordered as an a la carte dish.