Chef, educator and hands-on dad: Rob Pengson in the kitchen of Esqinita with sons Santiago (in cap) and Sebastian.
Photos by BENING BATUIGAS
Chef Rob Pengson Elevates Street Food
CULTURE VULTURE - Therese Jamora-Garceau (The Philippine Star) - July 4, 2019 - 12:00am

The first time I met chef Rob Pengson, he was running The Goose Station, one of the first homegrown restaurants to introduce a degustation (or tasting) menu to Pinoy diners back in 2009. For six years, The Goose Station churned out creative, modern and exciting dishes; molecular gastronomy was shaking up the culinary world, and it seemed that anything was possible with a few high-tech kitchen gadgets and some liquid nitrogen.

But then, in February 2016, Pengson announced The Goose Station was closing. Maybe it had reached its apex. Maybe it was time for a change. Chefs, too, need to rest, recharge, and seek new inspo like the rest of us.

Whatever the case, the restaurant shut its doors, but Pengson remained in the public eye, adding “educator” to his list of achievements with his Global Academy culinary school, which was so successful it had branches in Makati, Quezon City, Pasig and Alabang.

But though I’d hear about him working here and there, his name was never associated with another restaurant since The Goose Station — until now.

After a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, Pengson has resurfaced in that most happening of areas — Poblacion, Makati — with a new restaurant, a catering commissary, and lots of big plans.

A Modern Carinderia

Heaven on a cracker: Unagi with foie gras, caramelized apple and apple aioli.

We meet at Esqinita, the signage of which is a black arrow (neon-lit at night) on a narrow street off P. Burgos, hence the name. “We wanted it to fit the area,” Rob explains. “It’s an esquinita, so the name is Esqinita without a ‘u.’”

His business partner is Ian Padilla, the chef of La Girolle. “He offered to me the space, so I said, yeah, make it a commissary, and at the same time we’ll use it for our Filipino restaurant.”

The 44-seat eatery is divided into a Hispanic-looking lanai with a bar and mural of a (possibly flamenco) dancer holding a fan, and a larger dining room facing an open kitchen. The lighting is warm, the vibe welcoming, and the general atmosphere casual and relaxed. Rob envisions Esqinita as a “modern carinderia” where they elevate “mostly Pinoy” street food.

I ask him what he’s been doing for the past two-and-a-half years, and he replies, “Hands-on dad — super.” On this Sunday noon — the first time Esqinita is serving lunch since it opened its doors on March 15 — Pengson is indeed in full dad mode. Instead of chef’s whites he’s clad in a hoodie and sweatpants, and is hanging out with his two sons, Santiago and Sebastian, who during the interview would frequently take turns coming over for a reassuring word or a hug from dad, whom they obviously adore. Rob says he could never bring them to Esqinita before because, like many of Poblacion’s establishments, it was a nightspot, which is one of the reasons he decided to open it for Sunday brunch.

Egg-cellent: Huevos Rotos, a sous-vide egg with chorizo and potato strings.

“Starting this week, you and my kids are our first Sunday customers,” he says.

Rob chose Poblacion because he was looking for a location for his catering commissary, “and the rent is a fifth of the price of BGC,” he admits. “But we also made a restaurant so there’s a busy activity every day, and also so that the staff can train.”
At present he’s mentoring 30-year-old sous chef Mark Sanchez, a Global Academy graduate who worked for Hey Handsome and was the head chef of Your Local.

“I asked him, ‘What are you passionate about?’ ‘Southeast Asian food.’ So I was like, let’s put it into our concept, our DNA. Let’s just make sure that we’re 51 percent Filipino. So our peg is we want to elevate street food, and our internal peg is we want to democratize the gourmet experience, make it cheaper.”

Esqinita’s democratically priced tasting menu is P1,200 for seven courses. “Some of it’s casual, some of it is froufrou,” Rob says. “For this place if you come in shorts, it’s okay.”

Our appetizer was not on the tasting menu: nachos with house-made cheese dip, sour cream, salsa and smoked eggplant. I only got to taste a chip or two because my family devoured the entire platter; they said it was so good.

Asian desserts with a twist: Ube with sticky rice and sweet beans; Earl Grey bubble tea with chocolate and creme Anglaise.

Then we started the degustation in earnest: a tuna ceviche that was more sweet than sour thanks to its surprising marriage to avocado ice cream; mussels torched Japanese aburi-style with two kinds of cheese that I imagine would go great with a beer, white wine or sangria.

Flashbacks of The Goose Station’s former brilliance are evident in dishes like smoked eel, foie gras and caramelized apple (aka heaven) on a cracker, the Umami Seabass, a crispy-skinned fish filet nestled in a pool of sea-urchin foam and cauliflower puree, and the Huevos Rotos, a sous-vide egg cooked at 65 degrees and served in a cocktail glass with bits of chorizo and a heaping nest of fried potato strings. This dish reminded me of eating in Spain’s modern restaurants while on family vacation in 2010, when molecular gastronomy was at its height.

The Spanish theme continued with Esqi’s version of paella Negra, but veered into Filipino territory with a hybrid chicken dish: “It’s our version of inasal and kare-kare,” explained chef Mark. “The chicken is twice cooked with the flavors of inasal, and then served with kare-kare sauce.”

This was another family favorite, followed by other Pinoy comfort foods like sisig, pansit bihon and canton, and truffle lechon with liver and guava sauces.

Chefs Rob and Mark are also excited to add new Southeast Asian fare to the menu like seafood laksa and tortang talong inspired by the Thai omelet. “In Thailand they deep-fry the omelet then put the stuffing, so it’s mixed with grilled eggplant, tomatoes and tofu,” notes Mark. “We have another version of it that is good for pescatarians: a seafood tortang talong.”

Inspired by the Thai omelet: The tortang talong can be cooked with meat or just seafood for pescatarians.

As good as all these dishes were, I felt like I was eating at two different restaurants: one that fused Filipino with modern European, the other merging Pinoy home cooking with streetwise Southeast Asian. But with two chefs passionate about two different types of cuisine, why was I surprised?

New School, New Restaurant

All becomes clear when Rob explains that he plans to open his signature restaurant, Beso Beso, on Chino Roces Avenue sometime in September or October.

“Beso Beso is our fine dining, kind of like The Goose Station,” he says. “It’s modern Filipiniana-European, which is why the name is perfect, because beso-beso was something we got from the Europeans. For that one, that’s the real way I like to cook. For (Esqinita), it’s something that I missed for the longest time since The Goose Station closed. I didn’t have this release, this outlet of how to cook the food that I love.”

Beso Beso will be located within a new school he’s opening in September, Aleanza Hall Culinary Arts & Design Institute. (Another surprise: He sold Global Academy.) “It’s a new culinary school that will house our fine-dining restaurant, but it’s not just culinary arts; it will be multimedia, photography, design… like a multi-arts school.”

His catering service Prima offers a budget buffet starting at P350 per head for a complete menu, including seafood and beef. Esqinita will expand to become a bakery and lechoneria that will eventually offer delivery of its dishes, desserts and special items like cochinillo.

Latin flavor: Esqinita’s lanai features a wall mural with fan dancer.

Rob also opened an online business school called Integra for students like him who perhaps don’t fit into the traditional academic mold. “For the last two years I studied quite a lot,” he says. “I took six courses at Harvard online and one in Wharton. I compensate because I didn’t finish college. I wanted to learn finance, corporate governance. I learned a lot and built one myself, and we have about 200 students already. That’s my other side: it’s always been food and education.”

For now, Esqinita is a comfortable way station, perhaps a bridge, until Rob lays out his latest reinvention of Filipino cuisine.

* * *

Esqinita Street Food Bar is located at 4988 P. Guanzon St., Poblacion, Makati City. To make reservations and find out more about Rob Pengson’s restaurants, catering and food delivery, visit chefrobph.com.

Follow the author @theresejamoragarceau on Instagram and Therese Jamora-Garceau on Facebook.

Passionate about Southeast Asian food: Sous chef Mark Sanchez.

ESQINITA STREET FOOD BAR ROB PENGSON
Philstar
  • Latest
Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?
X
Login

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

SIGN IN
or sign in with