MANILA – True to its name, La Picara soft-opened at the new One Bonifacio High Street Mall on April Fools’, one of the most light-hearted days of the year.
La Picara means to be naughty in Spanish, and the restaurant promises exactly that through its fun yet sophisticated interiors and dishes with playful Asian touches.
The humble croquetas, for instance, served as vehicles for all sorts of Asian fillings such as adobo, sisig, and even salmon sashimi.
Another had the classic jamon but was presented like the Japanese octopus ball or takoyaki, and topped with even more dry cured ham shavings that resembled bonito flakes.
Despite the fusion elements, Spanish owner Isabel Calvo assures that the flavors are as authentic as they can get.
“I’m proud of most of the things on our menu. We want to play with the cheekiness, but still keeping the Spanish flavors,” said Calvo, a Spanish teacher who started out selling paella and croquetas in Manila’s food markets.
“We use a lot of ingredients from Spain, such as the pulpo (octopus), Iberian pork, and our Spanish wines,” she added.
Calvo runs La Picara with three other partners – an Australian, a Kiwi, and another Spaniard.
She considers their team an ideal one as each of them specializes on one aspect of the business. Calvo takes care of the food, one is in charge of operations, the other worked on the business permits, and another was behind the design and furniture.
Australian owner Ben Arnold, who runs the Philippine franchise of St. Louis House of Fine Ice Cream and Dessert just down the street, believes their restaurant offers a unique take on Spanish food in Manila.
“I’m that one partner that’s maybe the devil’s advocate, it’s like I’m from the outside looking in, and they (other partners) might just need that),” he said.
Arnold went on: “There are a lot of Spanish restaurants here, so we have to have a point of difference… You really have to have something that’s going to bring people back. The salmon nigiri and the croquetas, I don’t think you can get that anywhere else.”
Another interesting item on the menu at La Picara is the Socarrat Roll, which pays tribute to the beloved “tutong” or the crust of rice that sticks to the bottom of the pan.
The crunchy roll is filled with gambas al ajillo or garlic shrimp for that burst of seafood flavor.
Recalling the story behind the Socarrat Roll, Calvo said: “When I was selling paellas in the market, all the Filipinos would ask for the tutong. And I’m like, that’s so funny, we call it socarrat and it’s also very common in Spain to ask for that. So when we were creating the menu, I thought of making a dish that only included the best part of the paella – just the socarrat and gambas al ajillo. How can you go wrong?”
And speaking of paella, the centerpiece of Spanish cuisine also had a “cheeky transformation” at La Picara, while still maintaining its integrity.
This can be seen in the Chili Crab Paella, which still features the Spanish bomba rice cooked the traditional way, with the broth and toppings showcasing Singaporean elements.
“They go against the original flavors, but we still cook them the Spanish way. We do a very flavorful broth and then we add the rice, and we always have a very thin layer of rice with the burnt part or tutong at the bottom, then we just change a little bit of the flavors,” Calvo explained.
“So instead of the standard seafood paella, we have chili crab paella,” she continued. “So we use the sofrito of the chili crab, and we use soft-shell crab tempura. We also have the classic paella but we do like toppings of lapu-lapu and we have a touch of coconut milk and curry to make it a bit different.”
Calvo happily shared that La Picara is already booked for the month of June, a clear sign that the restaurant’s Spanish-Asian offerings have so far been well-received by BGC diners.
She promised to roll out even more surprises in the coming months, and among those considered are authentic Spanish churros with fun dips and fillings. Keep your fingers crossed, everyone.