No-phone meals and South American flavors? Welcome to Sobremesa
John A. Magsaysay (The Philippine Star) - April 20, 2016 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines – We live in an age when Instagram #foodporn posts leapt to 371 percent, when one in every four social media users regularly take and post pictures of their food, when an average person spends only 22 minutes on each meal, and the global fast-food industry rakes in a cool $551 billion annually.

While advances in technology certainly make our lives faster, easier, and more convenient, it seems like the days of lingering lunches, drawn-out dinners, quality family mealtimes, or actually enjoying our food while it’s hot are numbered. 

Chef Benjo Tuason is no stranger to fast-food fixations or trendy tastes. He grew up in his family’s Pasig fast-food franchise, and got his start in the Philippine gourmet scene serving small plates at the now-defunct Relik and Raven’s Nest. Yet he has since decided to outgrow all that with his hearty new South American-Filipino restaurant, Sobremesa.

“In Spanish, Sobremesa means the time spent with the people you dine with. In Portuguese, it means dessert. They have a similar thought, extending your experience after every meal,” he explains of the restaurant’s double-sided moniker. “Here, we promote no-phone meals where we challenge our diners to give us their phones upon ordering, put these in a cage, and lock them up. You get to enjoy your meal, and after the main courses, if you didn’t try to reach for your phone, you get a free dessert.”

Sounds like an excellent plan to keep diners’ attention on their plates and their mates and have a sweeter time, but it defies every new restaurant’s viral marketing maxim.  “Restaurants tend to focus on the profit or how popular they are that sometimes we tend to forget that we cook because we want to satisfy people,” chef Benjo says. “So we decided to come up with a restaurant that actually celebrates the whole experience of dining and the conversations that come with it. Most of our patrons who have tried it say that it is a refreshing feeling,” he adds.

This is the type of setting one should expect to go with a soulful menu of Latin and Filipino comfort food, where servings are meant to be shared, the plating is fuss-free, and the ingredients are on the right side of fresh and familiar. “It’s very relaxed. We don’t try to be fancy. And you see this being reflected in our food also. It’s what I enjoy eating, it’s what I enjoy cooking, because I’d always think that if you’re happy with what you’re serving, you will always taste it in the food.”

Heirloom Recipes

One of Sobremesa’s bestsellers is its Bulalo Estofado, a sweet, savory, spiced, and slow-cooked stew made more comforting by beef marrow. “It’s a dish my mom used to make me before she died of cancer two years ago, and I decided to honor her with this dish,” Benjo shares. “She’s a very vital part of who I am right now because I learned cooking through her.” It was also the dish he’d always request every time he came back from his lengthy culinary stint in Melbourne, and perhaps it’s something that tastes a lot like a homecoming.  

Now, in spite of his mom’s absence, chef Benjo makes it a point to brush up on heirloom cooking by breaking bread with his business partner, Brazilian model and actor Daniel Matsunaga and Daniel’s mother, through whom he learns to develop his South American recipes.

“For me, mothers are the best cooks,” Benjo declares. “Make me choose between a table at a three-star Michelin restaurant and my mom’s cooking, I’ll go with my mother’s cooking because that really came from the heart. There’s no training there, no formal schooling, no cookbooks. It’s all about the love.”

Hearty Ingredients

While he keeps his dishes simple and straightforward, the painstaking approach his kitchen undergoes when sourcing, handling, prepping, cooking, and serving Sobremesa’s food can be tasted in the rub that comes with the steaks, the richness of its stews, the softness of its meats, and even the complexity of its side dishes and condiments.

“I’ll leave the molecular food to those who do it well, and I have much respect for them. It’s their thing,” Benjo explains. “But this is my thing. I want my guests to be full, nothing fancy. But you may have the knowledge, the technique, but if you don’t love your ingredients, you don’t treat your food with respect. If you don’t treat it with respect, people would be able to taste it. It’s all connected, and it’s what keeps us in our toes in the restaurant game.”

So Sobremesa’s menu is an ever evolving one, largely dependent on the laws of supply and demand, the shifting seasons, and, sometimes, even from the chef’s loot from his weekly market trips. “We only have 20-25 staple items on our menu. But we offer monthly menu additions that keep us developing new dishes. We have a lot of good local chefs now. There are really good restaurants that are opening up. So, as a chef, you have to constantly innovate. Sticking with the same menu for 10 years or more just doesn’t work anymore. You have to evolve or you’ll get left behind,” he shares.

Yet, however complex our food scene becomes, chef Benjo only abides by a simple tenet: “When cooking, I only have three points: To prepare with care, cook with love, and serve with pride,” he says, a mantra that he also shares with his kitchen staff. “It’s important that you have that respect for your ingredients, where they come from and how they’re handled. At some point, someone grew that meat, someone planted this rice, and I hope that sometime, people would appreciate that. It’s not just the chef or the restaurant. It’s a whole chain of people.”

Homey Feel

And while more and more restaurateurs are keen on opening in the Metro’s boomtowns, Sobremesa went the road less traveled. “I always say that every bridge you cross is a different ballgame,” he says. “I was born and raised in Pasig. I live here, all our family businesses are here, so I really wanted to do something here. Something closer to home, something more relaxed.” He found a cozy spot in Ortigas’ newly brewing Sapphire Bloc. “I felt that Pasig is also building up, going for the likes of Makati or the Fort (Bonifacio) and I wanted to join in as early as possible,” he adds.

The flipside is he has the busy Ortigas yuppies in his crosshairs, reminding them to make the most of their working lunches. “Being in the area, of course, much of our target market is the corporate crowd and also the ones I classify as the titos and titas of Manila. Of course, there are the families from the residential villages here as well. So, we tend to tailor-fit our menu for bigger crowds,” the chef notes.

He even goes as far as shifting happy hours. “A lot of office workers would cap their work with a few cocktails, so we worked something out with Patron to come up with unlimited cocktails every Friday night. We also encourage our customers to bring their own bottle for a limited corkage fee. We just try to make it simple: if you want to drink, just bring it here and enjoy it with a meal. People would think it’s bad for business, but if it improves consumer experience, then it’s all the better.”

Perhaps we can never change our new restaurant rules, yet we can all still remember the simple joys that come with dining out, and Sobremesa seems to be the place that would constantly remind us. Because, as chef Benjo Tuason cleverly puts it, “sometimes, when we bite off more than we can chew, the experience gets lost in the table.”

 

 

 

 

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Sobremesa is located at the lobby of Sapphire Bloc, Sapphire Road, Ortigas Center, Pasig City.

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