In the US, in cities like New York and Los Angeles, the food of the Philippines is being championed by enterprising chefs blending the flavours of the homeland with youthful savoir-faire. Now, Australia is building its stockpile with another champion of its own: Jonathan Bayad.
The owner of Sydney’s first modern Filipino restaurant, Rey’s Place, says he was planning to open a bar when someone planted the idea of serving Filipino food with a modern edge. (Full disclosure, that person was me; I met him managing the bar at a restaurant I was profiling, we waxed lyrical about our heritage and Filipino food’s low profile, I gave him a copy of my cookbook, 7000 Islands: A Food Portrait of the Philippines and went on my way, none the wiser to what I’d implanted).
For years, Bayad would go back and forth: would anyone want to go to a Filipino restaurant?
There are several theories why Filipino food doesn’t have a foothold in Australia, while Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Malaysian are widespread. Financial imperative is one: Filipino migrants are largely white-collar professionals. A preference for Filipino home cooking is another. Plain old thinking that no one’s interested also seems to have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Bayad says one customer was dreaming of opening their own restaurant 30 years ago. “This is how long it’s taken. I can’t tell you how excited everyone has been and how much support we’ve received.”
Of course, Rey’s Place, named after Bayad’s dad, who drives an hour each day to help out (his mum is the sourcing mastermind behind hard-to-find Filo ingredients), isn’t Sydney’s only Pinoy offering. Sizzling Filo in Lidcome, LaMesa in the CBD and Pasalubongs at markets across town are among the solid but small selection, but it is the first quite like it.
Located on Crown Street, Darlinghurst, a stone’s throw from culinary beacons Edition and Flour & Stone, Rey’s Place feels intimate and urban with natural light filling the ground floor and a moody subterranean dining room. If you’re familiar with the Philippines, you’ll recognise the Spanish influences in the ornate, dark wood finishes, native rattan coverings and colonial bistro appeal. It reminds me of a few favourite haunts in Manila.
Filipino Shaun Oligo, who Bayad engaged shortly after he found the space, heads the kitchen and the result for the most part is wonderfully clear, rich Filipino flavours with inventive reworkings.
Take sizzling mixed pork meat known as sisig, a classic drinking companion, which Oligo stuffs into soft bao buns that simultaneously foil and take on all its deliciously fatty flavour.
Meanwhile, lechon, the country’s famed slow-roasted pig, is served crowned with thick shards of crisp skin (essential) and a housemade vinegary, just-sweet Mang Tomas sauce, as well as toyomansi, another cherished Filipino dipping mix made from soy and kalamansi (native citrus). My mouth salivates at the thought of it.
While dishes come as individual share plates, Bayad has been educating customers on real Filipino eating habits – eating every dish together and letting all the different components and flavours collide on the palate – and encouraging diners to follow suit.
The finishing touch? Turon, a dessert of deep-fried spring rolls filled with plantain and jackfruit. Here, it’s served with a creamy, intense purple ube ice cream and is the stuff sweet-lovers’ dreams are made of.
Filipino food, you’re making your mark.
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Lunch Wed - Fri 12pm- 2pm
Dinner Tue - Sat 6pm - late
163 Crown St, Darlinghurst, NSW