This is the kind of restaurant I love discovering: a small cozy place just a little out of the way, but by no means a difficult journey, and well worth the detour.
Everything about it is young and new and fresh, from the chef, who’s 22, to the food, which is as fresh and inventive as one could want, to the enthusiasm and lack of cynicism that informs the experience of eating there. It’s the little restaurant that one hopes goes and grows, but also hopes doesn’t get too big or jaded or caught in the hype machine.
It’s called Sensei, along Aguirre Street in Sucat, which seems to be the Maginhawa Street of the south; this description will probably upset the denizens of Aguirre, who would describe Maginhawa as the Aguirre of the north.
In any case, it’s a cluster of interesting independent restaurants that don’t leap out at first glance. Sensei is located in what can only, in the most charitable terms, be described as a strip mall. Don’t let that put you off. On your way you will pass various Korean karaoke houses and little beer joints; don’t let that put you off, either. You will also pass a gaudy emporium called Leilani’s House of Bags, which has a 50-percent sale on everything, including, presumably, the Jaguar S-type displayed in front; don’t get distracted.
You’re here for food, unlikely as that might seem. It’s equally unassuming inside, but once seated we were informed that there was no menu, which is for me one of the best signs that augur an interesting experience. There was only what was written on the wall, which changes every couple of days.
Although there’s traditional sushi and sashimi to be had, including amaebi, my favorite sweet Japanese shrimp, we were here to see what the chef could do. He recommended seared tuna and fried oysters to start with, and then salmon and pork confit for mains. We could also have chosen a salmon head or grilled black cod or a seared wagyu rib-eye steak with truffle oil for P480.
Alas, there is only so much one can eat. The little touches make the difference: seared tuna sashimi is always a winner as long as the tuna is fresh, but the little chunks of caramelized pineapple gave it an extra kick and didn’t feel superfluous at all. Good fried oysters aren’t difficult to get wrong, but a little daub of kimchi chutney on top raised it to the sublime.
And the pork confit was—despite my initial reservations of having bits of fat cooked in fat—crisp and lean with just a little strip of rind, with an extra nod of ginger to help it along. It was like lechon kawali that had done time as a Japanese lounge singer and come back with that little bit of sleazy sophistication.
Not everything was perfect: the salmon was good, but not on par with the other dishes. The molten chocolate cake was the flourless sort, which gushes fragrant 85-percent cacao when one first digs in, but then leaves you with a kind of pudding floating in soup. I prefer the flour-cake version, and I think I may also have still been hankering for the grilled banana with miso butterscotch which I had been eyeing all evening but turned out not to be available.
Good value for money
The restaurant is rough around the edges, but it’s honest and it’s earnest, and most importantly, the food is good, as well as being fantastically good value for money. I had a brief chat (while he added up the bill with the calculator on his iPhone) with the chef-proprietor, Bruce Ricketts, nephew of Ronnie, the Internet tells me, who had put in five years in the US in the kitchens of various restaurants before opening in Manila.
I assumed that he lived somewhere in the area and so had chosen to open in Parañaque, but it turned out that he, like us, had made the commute from Makati. But he decided that Makati rents weren’t worth the gamble, so he opened down south instead.
If you’re after sheen and glitz and people watching, this may not be for you. If you’re after good food, a cozy place, and catching a talented young chef at the beginning of his career, then making the detour to this place is a must.
Sensei Restaurant is at 268 Aguirre St., Sucat, Parañaque; tel. 0906-2754555.