Chef Fernando Aracama sits with business partner Pam Solilapsi in the chartreuse banquet of what used to be the second floor dining room of his eponymous restaurant. He's become much more reflective and pensive than the first time I met him. He says so himself—he has come to terms with his life on the sidelines. We are quick to counter his statement, being fans of his from the time we first had bites of his miso-glazed sea bass and Choc-nut ice cream in the now-defunct Greenbelt's now-defunct Uva. Aracama, with his lovable Ilonggo magnetism and his natural flair in the kitchen, has made him both media darling and respected industry renaissance man in his heyday.
"Oh, when it was good, it was really good. I knew how to play the part," he says with a wave of his hand. "But, I must say, I'm happy where I am now. I'm in a good place."
With the quiet resolve of an experienced sensei, he happily passes on the reigns of his plum BGC location to Solilapsi who, despite being almost two decades Aracama's junior, has been a longtime collaborator in the team that has brought us legendary nightspots such as Embassy, Republiq, and now, The Palace. For years, the Eric Cua-led clique dictated Metro Manila's nightlife, and still very much dominates the superclub scene. However, Solilapsi would be the first to admit that to tap that larger market of working stiffs and non-clubbers, they had to seek inspiration elsewhere.
Early Night? is a product of both consumer demand and the need for Aracama's group to adapt to the evolving BGC landscape. A barrage of working millennials litters the city at dusk, looking for a quick beer fix after a stressful day. At the same time, 30-somethings want a laid-back, well-ventilated escape from parental duties and the often formidable challenges of the real world.
Solilapsi reveals that she has taken her cue from her old crew of partygoers. "A lot of them complain that they can't stay out late anymore," she shares. "Many just don't want to go trough the tedious ceremonies of a night out." If you have ever had to blow dry your extensions or apply mascara with still-wet nail polish, then you would know how this could be a burdensome drill.
The vibe at Early Night? is carefree and relaxed, an unabashed nod at the flourishing Poblacion area in neighboring Makati. Cheeky one-liners painted on walls are Instagramable, as are the brightly colored ceilings and boho chic furnishings. "I think this is the first time we didn't use CAD to design an establishment," Aracama chuckles. The concrete coffee table was from Opus; a taupe velvet sofa was witness to many nights at Republiq. It's like rummaging through vintage finds at a garage sale or flea market.
What's the food like, chef? "Straight-up street food," Aracama replies.
Chef Fern's legendary Choc-nut ice cream
The extent of their research was asking the staff how they liked their pork barbecue. "Garlicky? Peppery?" The good chef did a survey. "Most of them preferred their barbecue sweet. So that's what we went with." Served with spiced vinegar, the grilled morsels of pork are tender and, yes, adequately glazed. Crispy shrimps look straightforward enough, but Aracama's kitchen refuses to neglect the vital details. "The nilasing na hipon was soaked in gin bulag," he imparts. He also thought fragrant pomelo would work well in the marinade. He waited for my reaction, and when he didn't get it fast enough he exclaimed: "It's gin-pom!"
Nilasing na Hipon
It's not a proper inuman without tokwa't baboy, and they serve a decent one here. But, what would pique both millennials' and titos' interests is the sisig fries—literally, it's sisig on top of French fries. So simple, and yet with both components done well, it's that unlikely match that moves you to wonder: "Why didn't I think of that?" The Gen X crowd will get a kick out of the Chili Chippy Pie, which is the bag of local barbecue flavored corn chips drenched in their house chili con carne and sour cream.
Chili Chippy Pie
It's a fun menu and very cheap—prices that you won't see elsewhere within a 500-meter radius. If you want proper Filipino food, Aracama the restaurant is still operational downstairs and can easily send up some crispy pata.
Early Night? doesn't host happy hours, but you don't need one. The beers are priced at P60, and the cosmopolitans come in pitchers. "It really is like being in Poblacion," Aracama says. "But, without the stray cats."
This is the allure of Early Night?, a casual atmosphere to go with the easygoing prices, unheard of in this prime BGC stretch along 5th Avenue. But as Aracama and company had proven, it's doable—to the delight of the young drinking public and those who are too busy with life to go clubbing these days. As for Aracama, we asked: "what's next?" As he walk away towards another engagement in Makati, he shrugs and shares his plans. He keeps it vague, but lets us know enough to satisfy our curiosity. "Maybe I'll do something where I'll just be open for lunch, I don't know," he says with a nonchalant pucker. "I really love my sunsets."