A mature Cirkulo brings gourmet surprises
- Joseph Cortes () - February 20, 2002 - 12:00am
No, it wasn’t the seven-year itch that led to the changes at Cirkulo, the hip, trendy Spanish bar and restaurant along Pasay Road in Makati.

Yes, a number of things have disappeared, touches that set off this restaurant and bar from its Spanish restaurant peers. For one, the "el" is gone; it’s now just plain Cirkulo. For another, the signature red circular sliding door has been changed with a conventional glass door that you can push and pull, although the outline of the old round door has been retained. The dark windows have been changed with clear ones, providing diners with an unimpeded view of the busy traffic on Pasay Road, as well as letting in lots of natural light.

"I guess we’ve just matured," says Malu Gamboa, Cirkulo co-owner who, with brother chef J Gamboa, updated the attitude of Manila gourmands towards Spanish food when the restaurant first opened in 1996.

"One day, I think I just woke up and realized I can’t stay up until the wee hours anymore. We used to have people here until four in the morning. But now, we close at 11 p.m. If we have friends here, I tell them at 11 p.m. that they should start ordering their last drink. If they insist on staying, I ask them to go home."

The change was timely. When the restaurant boom started, first on Nakpil in Malate, then The Fort, and now Libis, Cirkulo did feel the crunch. But they had their regulars, who came regularly for their share of paella and tapas. From a yuppie hideaway and party place, the restaurant suddenly became a family place, with even whole clans descending on weekends for Spanish food.

Maturity brings with it changes. For two months last year, Cirkulo was closed for renovation. When it reopened in November 2001, it was a totally new restaurant.

Designers Vickie and Luigi Antonio lightened the dark interiors by contrasting the orange red walls with large areas of geometric white lines. The Arturo Luz collages of toreador hats, capes and uniforms have been temporarily kept in storage in exchange for three commissioned Lao Lianben canvases, although a token Luz collage hangs at the bar. The signature toreador hat lamp shades have stayed and now hang over the bar and the cold tapas counter.

The new lounge area has deep armchairs and cozy sofas, while the bar area, for now, retains the old metal and wicker chairs in silver. The dining room is now the restaurant’s focus, with tables set far apart from each other to give it an illusion of space. Red and navy blue chairs surround wooden tables. The floor is made of 50-year-old supa wood, resurrected from old bowling lanes, fastened to the floor with wooden pegs, not nails.

"I really feel that we now have a real restaurant," says Malu. "The dining area alone almost covers the whole space. The lounge area is for those who feel like they just want to hang out with a drink or two before proceeding to dinner, while the bar will always be there."

Much more than the changes to the restaurant’s look, Cirkulo now offers an expanded menu that is no longer just Spanish, but also Mediterranean and fusion Pinoy. Chef J Gamboa, who was named Best Chef of the Country in the 1996 Bonlac Great Chefs of Asia Competition, has refined the menu to include a number of healthy options.

"We have guests who come in wanting something light," Malu says. "Often they just say that, and then at the last minute they order a paella. But sometimes they just want a pasta dish or a salad. We’ve added a number of these options for some of our regulars."

The menu has nine pasta items with a number of seafood-based sauces and a vegetarian choice. The Spaghetti ai Fungi Portobella has a sauce of Portobello mushrooms, olive oil, garlic, onions and chili, a treat for vegans, while those who want non-meat sauces can choose from the Spaghettini Palermitano, Spaghetti Cappessante, Linguine del Imperatore, Linguine Negra and Linguine Vongole.

The tapas menu has the usual boquerones, chorizo frito, gambas al ajillo and jamon serrano. However, new items like an antipasti platter, with prosciutto, salami, mozzarella, sundried tomatoes, olives, anchovies and marinated vegetables, and a mezze platter, with babaganouj, hummus, kalamata olives, marinated feta cheese, pickled vegetables and pita bread, as well as the sinful cochinillo and cabeza de cerdo, or spicy suckling pig sisig, liven up the appetizer choices.

Those with a penchant for something more refined can order fines de claires oysters from France, which are available fresh on Fridays and Saturdays and served baked the rest of the week. The menu also offers Sevruga and Osetra caviar, available at P2,900 and P2,700, respectively.

The caviar was a holiday addition, and was quite popular among merrymakers. "Maybe, it was just the holiday season, and people felt a little extravagant. We’ll see if it’ll be just a seasonal thing in the next few months," she adds.

The entrée items include old favorites like Lengua Sevillana and Bacalao a la Vizcaina, and there are three paella choices, namely Paella Cirkulo, Paella Marinara and Paella Negra. A number of other Spanish favorites are available as part of a P295++ prix fixe menu that changes daily. On Mondays, it’s crispy cochinillo leg, salpicao on Tuesdays, pan-fried Chilean sea bass on Wednesdays, rabo de toro, or braised ox-tail, on Thursdays, and callos Madrileña on Fridays. Each set lunch comes with soup of the day and dessert.

However, chef J is quite proud of his latest innovation, pan-fried fillet of apahap with asparagus, capers, lemon beurre blanc and linguine al burro, a light dish of succulent fish fillet that is tender to the bite.

"Many prawn farmers consider the apahap to be a pest because it feeds on prawn fingerlings," he explains. "I convinced a friend to instead sell me the apahap. I think it will be the food fad in the coming years."

Of course, a meal wouldn’t be complete without a selection of desserts. Apart from its trademark homemade turrones and mantecado ice cream, chef J recommends his Warm Dark Chocolate Truffle Cake with Liquid Center. The name says it all, and the surprise of a molten chocolate center when you take a bite of the cake is simply fun.

The new Cirkulo still packs a lot of surprises that will surely merit it more than just a casual visit. After seven years, it continues to be the hip and trendy Spanish restaurant and bar that Manila’s gourmands and party people have always known it to be.
* * *
Cirkulo is at 900 Pasay Road, Makati City. Call 810-27-63 or 810-87-35, fax 817-40-42, or e-mail jgamboa@elcirkulo.com for inquiries. Visit its website at www.elcirkulo.com.

ARTURO LUZ BAR BEST CHEF OF THE COUNTRY BONLAC GREAT CHEFS OF ASIA COMPETITION CHEF J GAMBOA CIRKULO DESIGNERS VICKIE AND LUIGI ANTONIO NOW PASAY ROAD RESTAURANT
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