JC Buendia ‘designs’ food, including Kris’ Cauliflower Fritas
New ‘gastro bar’ serves Cajun, Caribbean and Creole dishesBy Alex Y. Vergara |Philippine Daily Inquirer
Fashion designer JC Buendia has found a new avenue for expressing himself. After spending the entire day in his Quezon City shop, by night Buendia attends to his new role as the face of Poppins.
At the corner of Scout Madriñan St. and Tomas Morato Ave., Poppins is one of the newest additions to QC’s thriving restaurant scene. Its name may have been inspired by the Julie Andrews-starrer “Mary Poppins,” one of the designer’s favorite films, but there’s nothing British about Poppins’ menu.
Instead, Buendia and his partners, who declined to be interviewed, worked for almost three months with young chef Aiz Anog to create dishes inspired by Cajun, Caribbean and Creole cooking.
The “gastro bar,” as Buendia describes his new venture, opened last June. Aside from Buendia’s friends from fashion and show biz, Poppins has been attracting an interesting mix of diners.
“There are places here selling bar chow, grilled items and beer by the bucket,” says Buendia. “Most of them are targeting the young. We had to come up with something new to stand out.”
Buendia originally wanted something more quiet and sophisticated where people his age could unwind. But, to his surprise, Poppins has been attracting a much younger clientele, in their 20s and 30s.
Buendia believes that there’s a market for Poppins’ Filipino-friendly version of Cajun, Caribbean and Creole dishes.
“My partners and I have been to practically all the Cajun places in the Philippines during our research,” he says.
Bestsellers include the Hickory Back Ribs, Pesto and Walnut Crusted Salmon, Jambalaya, Gambas Al Ajilio and the Cauliflower Fritas, an appetizer made of beer-battered cauliflower fries served with a choice of Hickory or Cajun tartar sauce.
“The dish came about after Kris Aquino requested something similar to what she and JC had sometime ago in Singapore,” says Anog.
Cooking from scratch
And since the place doesn’t have a central commissary, everything is cooked from scratch in the restaurant’s kitchen. Instead of being put in a pressure cooker, for instance, the marinated baby back ribs are slow-roasted in the oven for one and a half hours.
“Some people resort to shortcuts by using the pressure cooker,” Anog says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s better if you cook your dishes with love. It’s worth the wait because everything tends to taste better.”
Anog’s preference for French cuisine was also a plus. If you go down deep enough, she says, French influences are present in Cajun and Creole cooking. Everything fell into place when Buendia’s partners got a prime spot in the new Po’s Building, a three-story, brick-clad structure decorated with twisted wrought-iron grills a la New Orleans.
Anog, a graduate of the Center for Culinary Arts, says Buendia was so hands-on that he was involved down to the naming and presentation of the dishes. He also designed the staff’s
“He even selected the napkins and designed the paper place mats,” she says. “As for the food, I’m open to suggestions. The menu is actually a group effort. I appreciate their inputs because they know the market better.”
Buendia, working with one of the partners, an interior designer, created a place with off-white walls and interiors lined with mirrors and padded plum sofas with velvet upholstery.
In wholesale mecca Binondo, they bought dainty and mismatched chandeliers that seem to echo the designer’s smart, feminine look. Silhouettes of empty picture frames inspired by the set of his first gala fashion show last year adorn the walls.
“They were initially not too keen on white interiors,” he says. “Since they wanted a typical bar, they preferred a darker ambiance. I was able to convince them to go white by adding the plum upholstery and accent wall.”
Since Buendia is also not a big fan of bright lights at certain hours, he had a diffuser installed. (Poppins is open every day from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.)
Lights are dimmed as the night deepens. An experienced mixologist mans the bar opposite the DJ’s booth.
Poppins offers a preselected mix of lounge music, including jazz and mellow rock hits from the 1990s during “Throwback Thursday” nights. There are nights when Buendia is the DJ.
“I have yet to try my hand at spinning, but I love programming the music,” he says. “It’s best to do it impromptu because music should depend on the crowd’s mood.”
Buendia first learned how popular food was among Filipinos in his blog, “My Refrigerator Door.” The hits were considerably higher every time his topic was food.
“I later reaffirmed this on Instagram,” he says. “Imagine, my food photos had more likes than photos of my clothes.”
Not alarmed at all, Buendia took it as a cue to diversify to food. It coincided with an offer from friends to be their industrial partner in the restaurant-slash-bar.
“At first, they wanted a fashion café type built around me and my name,” he says. “I wasn’t too keen on the idea. For one, it sounded so passé, so ’90s. I wanted something more subtle, not in-your-face fashion.”
Then the partners mulled the idea of opening a dimly-lit sports bar. Since Buendia isn’t into sports at all, they had to abandon the idea.
“We finally agreed on a concept I presented that revolves around my personality, minus my name,” says Buendia. “To be honest with you, I don’t know how to cook, but I certainly know how to eat. If I had been a chef, perhaps this is what my first restaurant would be like.”
PHOTOS BY ARNOLD ALMACEN