MANILA -- Have you been around Kapitolyo in Pasig lately? Then you might have noticed that The Round Table has closed its doors a few months back.
With its original building set to be torn down, it was kismet that chef Mia Capay and her partners in Q Provisions found an available space opening up a few meters down the road from their original location.
But instead of opening another The Round Table, Capay opted to create a new concept called Bistro United, which deviates from its predecessor in basically two ways: a more spacious location, and an ala-carte menu.
The new space on United Street is roomy, easily three times the size of the previous location. The Round Table’s vintage homey charm gave way to a still comfortable but more modern look. Its cement finished walls, wooden tables and chairs, high ceilings, furniture and accents are done in a neutral palette, which helps in opening up the room, making it look even more spacious. A wall of greens in a corner serves as a decorative highlight and adds an outdoor feel to the interiors.
“In the Philippines, the notion of a bistro is a drinking place. That’s not what we’re going for. We’re going for something homey but not your run-of-the-mill [restaurant],” explained Capay.
The original definition of a bistro is a small chef-driven restaurant serving comfort dishes — and that's exactly what Bistro United is all about.
“We’re going for feel-good food with a Filipino diner twist, where we wanted to highlight local ingredients but use it in international [dishes], instead of the other way around,” added Capay.
This theme translates to a lot of things from the familiar to the absurd.
To start, smoked fish or tinapa is familiar to most Filipinos, but with Bistro United’s Smoked Fish Pockets, the fish gets turned into a pate with cream cheese which makes for a creamy and smoky filling inside a fried crispy wonton. Not overly strong in tinapa flavor, it’s a nice pleasant opening to any meal.
On the salad side -- or should I say non-salad side of things (and one of my favorite picks) -- is the Crispy Ubod Salad where Capay takes the same crispy wanton, fills it ravioli-like with a lumpiang ubod filling (coconut palm carrots, squash, camote, sprouts).
The wanton tweak makes this not lumpia, especially texture-wise, but what makes this dish sing is the tug-of-war between the amazing balsamic vinaigrette (which definitely had more than balsamic and oil -- I could taste coriander, pickles, pickle juice, and garlic), and the sweetness of the candied Iligan nuts on top.
There’s nothing more comforting that a plate of pasta, and in Bistro United’s Bagnet Ravioli, Capay wished to hit two birds with one stone, by also satiating the Filipinos’ love for pork.
Here, freshly made ravioli stuffed with a bagnet-sisig mixture is served with the diner’s choice of an oil-based sauce, or a cream based (garlic) sauce. I found the oil-based dish a tad rich, especially as there were additional crispy sisig pieces sprinkled on top. Go on right ahead if you’re feeling indulgent. But a word of advice? A squirt of calamansi wouldn’t hurt to balance out things.
For their main dishes, some of the Round Table’s favorite mains find themselves in the new menu like their melt-in-your-mouth roast beef, and their binagoongan-adobo fusion dish Adobo sa Mangga.
The latter though is now served in a sizzling plate, caramelizing more of that bagoong flavor, while the topping of green mango adds that nice acidic counterpoint.
Porchetta Kare-Kare is a slice of roast pork and veggies, served on a pool of peanut sauce. This is potentially a best-selling dish. Besides the visual appeal (read: the string beans are in a braid), this deconstructed dish’s main draw is having still crispy pork and skin, and still crunchy veggies with your sauce and of course, bagoong.
If you’re looking for something less saucy, there’s the Crispy Ribs (tadyang) paired with bone-marrow rice. Surprisingly, the bone marrow rice was flavorful, but not overly rich. And while they usually serve this dish with gravy, I opted to eat it with the balsamic vinaigrette from the crispy ubod instead.
Last but definitely not the least -- and also one of my favorites -- is the strange-looking Dalandan Chicken with Ube Rice. The ube rice didn’t have a discernable “ube” taste, although it did have a tinge of earthy and sweet. It had more of gingery note, in all honesty, than “taro.”
Alone, the rice tasted unspectacular but eaten with the unique sweet and sour taste of dalandan sauce with the chicken, it just works marvelously. It’s unexplainable how this combination came to be, but as far as weird combinations go, this wasn’t the last of it.
Weird and absurd. That just about sums up Bistro United’s signature dessert — tilapia ice cream.
“There’s no fishy taste, no lansa. It’s a little savory but still sweet,” Capay promised.
And it works! For the life of me, I cannot explain why mixing eggs, cream with this freshwater fish, and freezing it would result in something that tasted like cottage cheese, but it does. The fish are little balls in the ice cream that unfurls when you eat it, giving you that unmistakable texture of fish. Quite strange on the tongue that you have to take another bite just to be sure.
Sprinkled with dried chilies on top that added the slightest contrast of heat, it blew my mind that this was an easy cup to finish. I also thanked the food gods that it didn’t taste like fried fish at all. I predict that the populace will come to taste this dessert, and they should.
If you do want to hedge your bets just in case you don’t believe me about the tilapia ice cream, order the ever-reliable Banana Fritters. To give it that local flair, Capay shunned the typical caramel drizzle and instead opted for a thick and rich salted yema sauce.
While fans will be glad to note that most of the good things about the Round Table will continue in Bistro United (this includes a limited run of a brunch buffet during weekdays, and selling roast beef and their food kits), the new concept has a lot of things to be excited about.
Going ala carte may take a bit of getting used to for its staff, but if they continue on serving the kind of playful dishes I ate that evening, it will not be long before they get that queue in front of their shop again, just like old times.