Two-Michelin-star chef opens ‘sexy’ French bistro Atelier Vivanda in Manila
CULTURE VULTURE - Therese Jamora-Garceau (The Philippine Star) - February 3, 2016 - 9:00am

How’s this for a foodie love story: Two female BFFs set off on a European holiday. One of them is Khristine Gabriel, who was a spokesperson for Ever Bilena Cosmetics for 14 years. The other is Grace Lee, a Korean TV host, DJ and restaurateur who became even more famous after briefly dating P-Noy.

As diehard foodies the two friends did their research, of course, compiling a list of the best restaurants to try. “We intentionally did not look for Michelin-star restaurants in Paris because it takes so long to get a reservation,” Gabriel says. “It was on the third day of our trip when we stumbled upon the restaurant Akrame, which I chose because I learned from Googling that the chef there trained under Ferran Adria of El Bulli. I thought dining at Akrame could be the closest thing to dining at that iconic place.”

Midway through the meal, the ladies were getting anxious to meet the chef, who hadn’t made an appearance. They only saw a young guy working at the restaurant who kept smiling in their direction. “I thought he must be the line cook!” Gabriel says. “Another European guy smitten by the beauty of a Filipina.”

Of course it turned out to be the chef himself, Akrame (the “e” is silent) Benallal, a young Frenchman of Algerian descent who won the first of his two Michelin stars at the tender age of 32.

Telling them he wanted to have a “proper conversation,” Akrame made them wait until most of the diners had gone, and expressed interest in opening a restaurant in Manila. On the same day, he phoned Alain Ducasse to ask if Manila was a good venue to open a restaurant, and the legendary chef said, “Now is the best time to open a restaurant in Manila, because it is becoming a global culinary destination.”

Three weeks later Akrame visited the Philippines himself to scout locations for the restaurant, and found our country extremely receptive to his idea of a “sexy, casual French-style bistro.”

“I love Philippine people,” he says. “When I come first time and look around I see Manila people have money, they want to go out and try the food. We want to do like a steakhouse but very modern, because in France we have very good food, very good style, and I want to export this.”

Gabriel and Lee, meanwhile, looked for investors who would help them bring in the P17-million Atelier Vivanda concept, and found partners from Orbis Capital Ventures Inc. Group, which gathered Philippine business luminaries like First Pacific associate director and Philippine STAR chairman of the board Ray Espinosa, Atty. Jake Corporal, Anton Palanca, Charles Palanca and wife Nicole Palanca, Bede Gomez, Ron Rapanot, Raffy Ocampo, Ian Ocampo, and Dax Carlos.

“I’ve always been on the lookout to co-invest in ventures,” says Espinosa, who also owns a café, gastro pub and bar. “This is what I really want to do: F&B, I like the social aspect. I met with them, they presented this and said it’s great. They’re like-minded people with a passion for F&B and entertaining. I’ve tried Akrame’s steaks and they’re really very good. It’s also good to bring brands like this to Manila. The market’s ready. Pinoys, we’re foodies — we like food, food is very important.”

Meat, potatoes and Brut

The stage was set for Atelier Vivanda, located in Megaworld’s burgeoning dining destination Forbes Town Center in Bonifacio Global City, and revolving around the holy trinity of meat, potatoes and Brut, a wine and cheese bar Akrame opened with cheese expert Pauline Aymard-Dupin two years ago in Paris.

“People like to just have some cheese, some jam, some wine — we want to make something very casual,” Akrame says.

“Even if Atelier Vivanda is closed for lunch, Brut is open for dessert, cheese, charcuterie, and a different wine selection,” adds Gabriel.

There are five different takes on meat and potatoes on the menu, and ordering is supremely simple: Akrame instituted his winning Le Formule, a fixed-price meal where you can choose one entrée, one meat (la viande), one side dish (l’accompagnement), and one dessert for P2,300 — very reasonable when you consider that 60 percent of the ingredients are flown in from France.

And what ingredients they are, cooked simply and yet with such finesse, refinement and respect. The Parisian free-range chicken used in the French Yellow Chicken Breast is the plumpest, juiciest, tastiest chicken I’ve ever tried, its juices oozing out onto the crispy skin on top. The whole-cooked foie gras starter is not your typical pan-seared liver but a new taste experience, with the richness of the foie gras pushed decadently over the top by a celery-vanilla-chili coulis, then at the last moment reined in by a tart hit of kumquat.

Akrame recommends dishes like the Thinly Sliced Smoked Beef Aged for 50 Days and the Black Angus or XL Vivanda Ribeye, which he prepares himself in Paris before the meat is flown here.

“I create every time in (my studio in) Paris,” he says. “I eat it myself and tell my staff, ‘Okay, we make this now.’ When I did this concept I wanted it to be very casual, because for me, the fine dining is good but people, they don’t want to eat all the time in fine dining, they want something more casual — you know, sit and drink, have meat, you pay and you’re gone. When you go to a fine-dining restaurant, it’s for something very special like for anniversary, for experience. But here you can come every time.”

The dance his beautiful meats perform on your tongue isn’t complete without their starchy partners. Atelier Vivanda offers unlimited potatoes in mashed, sautéed or gratin form, but the menu is surprisingly free of French fries. Instead, they have Pommes Dauphines, potato balls formed with butter, Old Comté cheese and white pepper from France, which you can dip into Akrame’s own ketchup, made from the finest tomatoes he could find. The chef also makes his own pepper olive oil for the steaks, which I ended up dipping my bread into. (Both items and the Brut wines and cheeses are sold at the restaurant.)

For dessert they have an old standard, crème brûlée, which Akrame somehow elevates to a symphony. Maybe it’s the natural vanilla pods he uses, which are sourced all the way from Madagascar.

“People say they’d come back just for the potato balls and the creme brûlée,” Gabriel says with a justifiable hint of pride.

Akrame says he would like to use more Philippine ingredients, and in an attempt to introduce more homegrown elements into the menu, Gabriel says they have a potato farm in Baguio and are attempting to plant seeds like those for the mustard micro-greens.




The Michelin-star chef likes ‘pancit’ and ‘kilawin’

The Filipino chefs at Atelier Vivanda, who will be overseen by Akrame’s French chef, Sebastien Formal, prepare a boodle of Pinoy food for their founder, who says he enjoys eating casually himself, with an eye for the street foods and specialties of the countries he visits. “My next trip I want to stay one week and do the rounds and try the local food,” Akrame says. “Grace took me out, and I ate the halo-halo, the noodles with shrimp — really, really good.”

At the boodle where he gamely ate with his hands off banana leaves, Espinosa observed that he liked the ceviche (kilawin), the sauces, and the eggs. “He said, ‘Your clams are green! In Paris, it’s black!’” Espinosa laughs. “It’s his first time to be exposed to Filipino food; we also served him lechon manok.”

In preparation for the grand opening on Feb. 1, the owners held a number of tastings so the kitchen would know how to handle the two-level, 55-seat restaurant, which also features a private room for eight upstairs.

“Unless you’re able to serve live, the kitchen will not get the rhythm of serving,” notes Espinosa. “I keep telling them there has to be an exact number of minutes from the stove to the table, so that the proper temperature is served. Because otherwise it will either get cold, be served too early or too late.”

There are three other Atelier Vivandas in Paris and one in Hong Kong, and Akrame says he plans to open more in Azerbaijan, London and Brussels, but Gabriel says that, at present, the Manila branch is considered the most beautiful. “It’s not as cramped, whereas in Paris, they dine elbow to elbow.”

The chef tells me he plans to close his Restaurant Akrame in Paris this year for five months, doing popups in the meantime: “I say to Michelin, ‘I want to start with zero, because I want to challenge myself.’ I’ll change all the design of my restaurant inside to do something really, really futuristic.”

Paris is a long way away, however. If you want to taste the food of a visionary two-Michelin-star chef, you’ll have to go to Atelier Vivanda.

* * *

Atelier Vivanda is located at U-A8 Forbes Town Center, Forbes Town Road, BGC, Taguig City. For inquiries and reservations, contact 663-0756 or 0917-791-1026.

Follow Atelier Vivanda’s social media accounts for more updates: FB-Atelier Vivanda Manila on FB and IG-@ateliervivandamanila.

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