You won’t find the artist Juvenal Sanso here. Already in his 80s, the old man is said to be slowing down. But black and white photographs of him are installed on a post, and some of his summery plant and floral paintings hanging on one wall. His elegance is reflected in the interior design, and his Catalan roots is the inspiration for the dishes served in this quiet restaurant that bears his name.
Café Sanso has been open for the past three years but perhaps owing to its location it seems only a few people know it exists. A shame, really, because judging from our recent impromptu lunch, it serves some of the most flavorful takes on Filipino and Spanish home-cooking in Manila.
Tucked in one of the narrow streets in San Juan, the café is connected to Fundacion Sanso, a museum that honors the painter’s prolific career. It is not, however, owned by the Sanso family but run by a young chef named JB Calungcagin from Nueva Ecija. JB was an apprentice of the Austrian Norbert Gandler, and completed his studies at the International School for Culinary Arts and Hotel Management in Quezon City.
While we expected to find Sanso’s personal recipes or favorite dishes included in the menu, JB says he created the restaurant’s repertoire of appetizers and entrees inspired by the flavors of Spain—Catalan to be more specific, the blue-eyed artist’s birthplace. Hence, the menu involves a lot of pork dishes, sauces, a merging of sweet and savoury, and stews. But JB has infused them with Pinoy touches, resulting in flavors surprising and very much the café’s own, but also familiar and comforting.
For our late lunch, we ordered the Juvenal Farm Salad (because we thought it was Mr. Sanso’s personal recipe) to share, and ordered a main dish each: the Callos A La Madrileña for me, the Pollo Rostizado for my friend, and the Churrasco Pork Belly for her son. Tasting bits from each other’s plates, we all agreed this was a restaurant worth coming back to and endorsing to friends. My friend liked her pollo, which was served with garlic gravy, toasted garlic and pepper gremolata. Her son was pleasantly surprised with the sauce of the pork belly, and the crispy pork skin was a winner. And my callos? Soft and fatty and delicious; I had to order a bowl of white rice halfway through.
After the meal, we asked if we could meet the chef, and in minutes Chef JB was standing beside our table, wearing a cool Hogmsith apron, giving names to flavors and ingredients we couldn’t quite place. The green chimichurri-inspired sauce (it couldn’t have been mindless pesto)—where the thrice-cooked pork belly sat—had cilantro, garlic, herbs and vinegar. The refreshing peach slices of the salad, it turns out, were marinated in star anise and sweet wine. The tripe for the callos boiled twice to get rid of the gamey scent and achieve that lovely softness.
All in all, it was a charming lunch. Honest, satisfying and flavorful cooking in an off-the-beaten-path address. Presented in a manner that echoes the qualities of the man the café was named after: artful, elegant, dignified.
Café Sanso is at 32 V. Cruz, San Juan, Metro Manila.