MANILA -- The food business is not new to Bench, having brought foreign concepts like French patisserie Paul, Japanese cheesecake purveyor Pablo, and tonkatsu shop Maisen to our shores.
As one of the known "game-changers" in the Philippines, it wasn’t surprising that Bench would eventually create a homegrown food concept, and last month, it launched the Bench Café at its flagship store at Bonifacio High Street in Taguig City.
What was surprising was that Bench actually attached its name to this new concept, which can either boost or damage one of the country's most iconic brands.
Bench, however, padded the odds to its favor by finding a partner in Foodee Global Concepts, the group hehind Tim Ho Wan, Todd English, Fo’od, Pound, and Tsuta Ramen, among others.
The cafe's menu was created by Foodee's new corporate chef (and former "The Biggest Loser" contestant) Carlo Miguel of Draft Gastropub.
In line with Bench's "Love Local" campaign, it offers Filipino food. But chances are the dishes are nothing like the ones served at your favorite Filipino restaurant.
So what would food from a café by Bench taste like?
Truthfully, I half expected them to serve hipster food that looks good but doesn’t really hit the spot, especially in terms of the comfort that Filipino food brings -- all fluff, no substance, and usually at a hefty price too.
That's why when I was handed a clipboard menu with an introduction that read, “Bench Café updates our favorite dishes by fusing Filipino with Filipino, bringing traditions from all over the islands to create a bold character that is undeniably distinct,” I squirmed a little.
Guests are greeted by a bright room, light wood all around, white brick walls, hip artwork of pigs, fish and other ingredients with backgrounds of pinks and blues, a checkered floor, drop lights in gold and black, and in one corner, you see the back part of the store’s LED sign — Bench in mirror reverse. This is indeed a very trendy-looking restaurant.
There are 12 all-day merienda options, and I tasted only two – the Tinapa Cones and the Sisig Lettuce Cups.
The Tinapa Cones came in threes in a cone holder. These were lumpia wrappers shaped into cones and deep-fried, filled with tinapa mousse and tomato salsa. Lumpia wrappers had the heft to balance out the richness of the tinapa mousse (that probably used cream cheese as a base), and the salsa gave that needed element of acid to keep things from getting too one note. I thought that it was an unexpectedly good start to a meal.
The sisig was served in a skillet topped with calamansi foam, and had a bird’s eye chili sticking out of it. On the side, there were lettuce, crushed chicharon, and pig’s brain aioli. I saw a version from another table with the option for a soft boiled egg on top --
perhaps if you want it a bit more saucy.
This dish isn’t a straightforward sisig dish -- although you have that option -- but Miguel recommends that you mix chicharon and aioli into the skillet, and watch as the foam gently dissolves. The chili can be set aside or cut, and added to the skillet for some heat. Take a leaf, plop in a spoonful of your pig's brain smeared meat, and take a bite.
Gelatinous bits with different crispy sounds from cartilage, chicharon, and lettuce, then there’s the slide of the the aioli dotted by fruity notes of calamansi, and, of course, the smoky taste of roasted pig—you get all that in a bite. This dish was not just all beauty, this had brains, too, literally, and it moved me from being nervously squirming in my seat to eagerly anticipating what would be next.
And next was breakfast! As a café, there was, of course, a dedicated space in its menu for morning feasting.
Silog or sinangag (fried rice) and itlog (egg) is staple Filipino breakfast fare, and in Bench Café, you are offered your topping choices from Spam, sweet longganisa, corned beef, daing na bangus, tocino, garlicky tapa, sisig, adobo flakes, tomato and kesong puti -- or you can have them all in the Bonggalmusal!
Bonggalmusal’s root word is, of course, ‘bongga,’ Filipino slang for extravagant. It’s a positive word, and you can’t get more positive than starting (or ending) your day with a mound of garlic rice, some calamansi foam, and all those toppings! While the calamansi foam adds a hint of acidity, you’d be better off asking for some ketchup for your Spam, and some garlic-infused vinegar for almost everything else, which the restaurant both had, upon asking.
Alternatively, you can also have all of those silog topping choices in a panini. The corned beef panini gets top marks, using house-recipe corned beef sandwiched in well-buttered and crusty bread. Ideal as a snack, or a light breakfast.
Innovating and fusing the turo-turo concept and the Filipino predilection of eating more than one dish per meal, Miguel came up with the Bench/to. Patterned after the Japanese bento, the Bench/to comes in a tray and has at least two dishes (some have three) with sawsawan (salsa and atsara) and Ifugao rice.
For the twos: the table favorites included the soy sauce-marinated, well-fried Crispy Tadyang (beef ribs) served with Pinakbet; and the Dancing Fish (fried Tilapia) with Gising Gising.
For the threes: taking my vote were the sinful Hipon sa Talangka with Honey Patis Chicken, and Gising Gising; Salted Egg Chicken that was partnered with a very fragrant Pinaputok na Bangus Belly, and Tortang Talong; and a traditional Beef Kaldereta, to be had with Inasal Liempo, and Pinakbet.
“The Beef Kaldereta is my lola’s recipe!” shared Miguel.
Bench/tos come in sets (the rice can be upgraded to garlic, dilis, bagoong, or talangka). We were lucky enough to order almost everything and share bites from almost all of the dishes, so I started wishing for a mix-and-match option, which would be truer to the ‘turo-turo’ concept. Perhaps a create your own bench/to? At the top of my head, some things that would go well together would be the Inihaw na Pusit with Chicken Pork Adobo, or Pinaputok na Bangus Belly with some of that Lechon Kawali.
There are five "iced" choices in Bench Café’s dessert menu, but the must-trys are definitely the halo-halos.
Bench Cafés Halo-halo Ice gets the bingsu treatment with a fine shave that effortlessly melts on the tongue. The "ice" also gets flavored depending on type—Ube Milk Ice for Ube Halo-halo, and Coconut Milk Ice for both Classic and White Halo-halo.
Fix-ins for the Classic include macapuno, garbanzos, caramelized bananas (also used in the Banana Con Yelo; these were thinly cut and not too sweet), leche flan, ube halaya, palm bean (kaong), nata de coco, and ube ice cream. The Ube and the White Halo-halo have almost the same toppings, but without the kaong and the halaya (and coconut ice cream for the White Halo-halo instead of ube).
There were cakes and macarons but I opted to taste the Flan B and the Tsoknut Ice Cream Sandwich.
The first, aptly named for being a flan that’s shaped like the letter B (for Bench), was smooth to the tongue and creamy, topped with macapuno, and the requisite caramel syrup.
“Only eggs and milk,” Miguel said of the Flan B.
The Tsoknut Ice Cream Sandwich was inspired by those dirty ice cream sandwiches pedaled in the streets using pandesal or a hamburger bun. This ice cream sandwich gets a gourmet upgrade, using toasted ensaymada as the bun, sandwiching vanilla ice cream, aggressively spiked with Tsoknut (peanut chocolate). This gets messy, so eat fast, and watch the brain freeze.
COFFEE & COCKTAILS
With a beverage menu concocted by Khalel Demetrio of Liquid Maestro, the drink list took twists and turns in coffee concoctions like the should-be-very-popular Ube Grass Latte and the much sweeter Pandan Latik.
Two Filipino tsokolates were inspired by Demetrio’s travels. In Luzon Double Mocha, he used two types of cacao from Cavite and Batangas, while the Mindanao Hot Choco Latte used cacao from Malagos, Davao.
The staff-recommended Otap Sesame Tsoknut turned out to be a Tsoknut milkshake, tempered with otap flavor and texture. The sesame was hardly noticebale, and it did all in all exceed my initially scared expectations.
Other non-alcoholic options (without caffeine) include the pandan-tinged Benchanted Iced Tea, or the sure-to-become-a-tourist-draw Sago’t Gulaman.
On the alcoholic side of things, Bench café has a stable of signature cocktails. Demetrio, one of the top mixologists in the country, has created these designer cocktails, inspired by the Bench brand.
The Kayumanggi was a coffee and mint ‘mojito’ (named after Richard Gomez, the first Bench model); the Circa 1987 is a fruity affair with dalandan and peach notes; the Pinay Colada had coconut milk and toasted pineapple flavored with pandan; and the Alab ng Lahi had spicy rum and used toasted corn panutcha, as the name suggests, this was the strongest tasting of the lot.
As I sat there, fully stuffed and partly inebriated thanks to that mix of cocktails and coffee on a weekday night, I pondered on Bench’s decision to put up a café for its 30th year anniversary, and I realized that it’s a good thing.
If the café was created to reflect what Bench is all about, it succeeds.
Just like Bench, the dishes were priced very competitively – specialty coffees start at P130, while the most expensive cocktail is P250. The White Halo-Halo (my pick) is priced at P119 and the cheapest silog, the Spam Silog, is only P139. Bench/tos though are a bit steeper beginning at P239 and goes all the way up to P439.
In terms of style, the café’s space is beautiful—peaceful, spacious, both looking modern and classic (thanks to touches like the floors and the furniture), definitely able to compete with the pretty restaurants around Manila (or Asia).
And then, there’s the food. Both Demetrio and Miguel mentioned that when they were making their respective menus, they had to think designer and Filipino. This resulted in a menu that’s accessible both in price and taste -- much like the brand.
And while Bench Cafe only just opened, as long as the fare and the attentive service stay consistent, it may very well be the next favorite Filipino food destination of many.
And who knows? Much like how Bench introduced Filipino fashion to international markets, maybe Bench can introduce its brand of Filipino food to the rest of the world.