Bench Café Serves Up a Filipino Fiesta with a Twist
The Malunggay Pasta will get you eating veggies!
2/F Bench Flagship Store, 9th Avenue corner Lane O, Bonifacio Global City
Open daily from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
(SPOT.ph) If you feel like you’ve been seeing Bench and their red-and-white stores since forever, it’s probably because the fashion brand has been around for 30 years. In 2018, they’re celebrating the milestone with the opening of their massive three-storey flagship store in BGC, which houses not just their retail store, salon, and barber shop, but also a full-fledged restaurant, Bench Café.
Bench flagship store
If you think opening a restaurant is a little off-beat for the company, you might be surprised to learn that Bench is behind a few of the international franchises that have popped up in the Metro, like PABLO Cheese Tart and Marugame Udon. Bench Café is special though, for being their first food venture that’s homegrown.
With Bench being a proudly local brand, it’s just right for their namesake restaurant to offer Filipino food, though you won’t realize it immediately from their chic modern interiors; bright geometric patterns and cheeky posters that “deconstruct” the food on the menu make the space a far cry from the usual wood-heavy homey Filipino resto. Eric Dee of FOODEE Global Concepts, who teamed up with Bench for the café, shares that the look was all courtesy of the Bench team, while FOODEE handled the menu, which he calls “glamourized turo-turo.”
“We were supposed to do big family-style portions since we had experience with that at [Filipino restaurant] Mesa,” shares Eric. “But Uncle Ben [Chan, chairman of Bench] wanted us to scale down the menu for the Bench consumer.” All they did, he shares, was resize the portions of what they’d already cooked up to something that’s perfect for the solo diner—and the Bench/to was born.
Each Bench/to meal has two viands, a special sweet-salty Bench tomato-and-onion salsa, dip, and Ifugao rice, which you can upgrade to Dilis (P20), Bagoong (P20), Talangka (P40), or Garlic (P10) rice. Executive chef Carlo Miguel doesn’t stray far from what makes Filipino dishes like adobo or bistek classics, while also looking for ways to subtly improve on them—like how he fries the okra and the eggplant of the pinakbet in B5 (P359), a technique based on how the French cook ratatouille. The extra step gives the usually-soggy veggies a slight crunch while still retaining the savory, slight coconut-y flavor of a classic pinakbet. The crispy tadyang of B9 is tasty, too, with a sticky barbecue-like sweet-saltiness to the tender beef.
Left to right: B8 (P399/Hipon sa Talangka and Honey Patis Chicken) and B3
Also a must-try is B3 (P319) for the dancing fish, or a deep-fried tilapia that’s been butterflied, and garnished with sliced onions and tomatoes. Only lightly seasoned, you still get the freshness of the soft fish, with the thin layer of breading adding a sharp note of saltiness to punctuate each bite. Paired with the spicy gising-gising, you’ll need more than a cup of rice.
Binagoongan Caesar With Dilis
If the dishes served at the Bench/tos stay as closely as they can get to the classics, Chef Carlo plays around a bit more with their All-Day Merienda. He reinvents the Caesar salad to create Binagoongan Caesar With Dilis (P149), replacing crunchy bacon with dilis, and using a bagoong-and-queso de bola dressing. The result is far too flavorful than what you’d expect from your typical bowl of greens—you get the salty-yet-tangy flavor profile of a Caesar salad, but the dilis adds a layer of smokiness that makes this a little more novel.
Sisig also gets reinvented with the Sisig Lettuce Cup (P220), topped with calamansi foam
The Tinapa Cones (P129) also don’t hold back in terms of flavor; Chef Carlos turns tinapa into a creamy mousse which he then pipes into fried lumpia-wrapper cones. Aside from the distinct smokiness of the fish leveled up by several notches, you also get a delightful contrast of smooth and crunchy with each bite.
But perhaps the most impressive of the bunch is the Malunggay Pasta (P229), if only for how it’ll easily trick you into eating your veggies. The vegetarian pasta dish uses malunggay for its pesto sauce, which somehow still retains that distinct nuttiness—your taste buds won’t be able to tell the difference. They’d probably even welcome the little deviations from the usual: The melted kesong puti chunks for rich creaminess, and tomato slices cooked adobo-style to add lip-smacking sour-saltiness.
Don't leave without indulging in the buttery-sweet Tsoknut Ice Cream Sandwich (P150)
The White Halo-halo (P119) has snow-like shaved ice
While you might rather go for an international cuisine when eating out—after all, few can beat your mom's specialties—Bench Café may just make you change your mind with Filipino dishes that are familiar enough to comforting, yet with little twists here and there, enough to make your meal a novel experience. Plus, if BGC is a little too far—or you just want to avoid traffic as much as you can—Eric shares that they do plan to open more standalone Bench Cafés in the future. A halo-halo and snack bar that’ll open at select Bench stores, with Bench Café’s signature soft-as-snow shaved ice, is in the works, too.
Photos by Majoy Siason
*Bench Café opens on January 25, Friday.