This New Steakhouse Serves a Wagyu Mountain
“I just realized in the mornings, it’s hard to see [our location],” muses MM Vazquez, co-owner of Atilla Meat Bar, as she looks out the window.
It’s true. While Atilla has a great corner space in Molito Lifestyle Center in Alabang, it falls victim to the bright glare of the sun as reflected by the building beside it. The effect, in the morning, is a dark space of glass walls, a blank canvas that the regular passerby will probably ignore.
It’s unfortunate because Atilla is a really promising restaurant, boasting of an interesting menu of flavors that both excite and satisfy the palate. “It was a hodgepodge of different restaurants that I went to when I was traveling,” says MM, who used to work for My Mamou Food Concepts, particularly Mamou Rockwell and the Recovery Food brand, before striking out on her own.
MM cites Bellota-Bellota in particular, a Spanish restaurant/deli hybrid she found in Paris. She describes the aesthetic as steampunk, a unique vibe for what was virtually a kiosk located in a mall’s basement. When she got there, the staff warmly welcomed her and gamely talked about their wares. “I don’t think there’s anything like this in Manila,” MM remembers thinking at the time.
“What I got was really the experience of interacting with the people behind the store,” she explains.
She and business partner Martin Ledesma thought of a concept that combined the casual, intimate atmosphere in MM’s memory with all the delicious food that they love. The result is a cozy space with minimalist décor. Adorned with simple, streamlined fixtures and a tasteful black motif, the space manages to fit in a dining area and a cocktail bar without looking too restricted.
“[Customers] think it’s a fine dining place, I guess it looks very fancy?” MM says. “But when they come in they’re like, ‘ooh, it’s very casual!’”
“That’s what we want—the whole feel is ‘come as you are.’”
MM insists on a very casual approach to dining. She wants both customers and staff alike to feel comfortable, to feel like equals. The staff doesn’t wear uniforms, merely wearing aprons over their preferred outfits. “I told them, wear whatever you want,” MM says. “As long as you look presentable, then shine on, man.”
Everyone who works at Atilla is encouraged to show their personalities and build relationships with the regulars. They are trained to be very knowledgeable on the food they serve, from the cuts of meat to the cooking styles. They even offer advice on how best to enjoy your ordered dish, just like their boss.
“I think sometimes when I talk to guests I might be overbearing and go, ‘no have this, this, and this!’” MM shares. “But you know when you just get so excited, [it shows]?”
Atilla's Steak Mountain is basically an 'over-glorified gyudon,' says owner MM Vasquez.
Chef Nikki Reyes designed the Steak Mountain, a Japanese rice mound covered with Argentinian rib cap and wagyu strips, in just one try.
MM’s excitement translates into a lot of ideas, which Martin and their chef, Nikki Reyes, manage to interpret. Their signature dish, Steak Mountain, came about as a burst of inspiration when MM was looking at pictures of gyudon. An over-glorified gyudon, she calls it, and pitched it to chef Nikki by describing the feeling of a climb.
“When you’re climbing up a mountain, you start off with boulders. [Then] as you get to the top it gets easier, it gets grassy and gets lighter, and when you’re at the top it’s a beautiful view,” she explains. “So something like that, but Japanese!”
From that visual, chef Nikki created Atilla’s pride and joy: a literal mountain of seasoned Japanese rice, surrounded by “boulders” of tender Argentine rib cap resting below a slope of A4 Wagyu strips, then topped off with grassy-looking bonito flakes, leeks, and pickled Shimeji mushrooms.
“She brought it out and we just, we didn’t have to do anything to it, everybody was just like, ‘fuck yeah!’” MM recalls.
Steak Mountain, based on MM's vision, starts with meat boulders at the bottom, rises with strips and gets 'grassier' at the top, with bonito flakes, leeks, and pickled Shimeji mushrooms.
Other dishes, like the Anchovy Butter Crumb pasta, took more time to create. The only thing they had to work with was a photo of a dish MM ate in Paris. There was a lot of reverse-engineering [that went on].” MM recalls. The result is a surprisingly light creamy linguine with juicy cherry tomatoes and crunchy walnut-bread crumb crumble. “It’s not supposed to taste like anchovy,” MM explains, “The anchovy is to give off that sort of umami, the whole depth of flavor.”
Anchovy Butter Crumb Pasta is a lighter take on creamy linguine, topped with cherry tomatoes and walnut bread crumbs for acid and texture.
Atilla makes sure to have lighter fare, so that everyone has options. “There are gonna be some people who will be brought here that are not necessarily meat-eaters, so you have to be a little bit inclusive,” MM says. “We try to be as friendly as we can.”
The Tinapa Caesar Salad is its local interpretation of a classic Caesar. Anchovies were replaced by tinapa, parmesan cheese with queso de bola. And then, on top of the massive, leafy stem of grilled romaine are beef chicharones. The char on the leaf adds a bold, smoky texture.
Tinapa Caesar Salad is served with a massive stem of lettuce, grilled and lightly charred for added smokiness. Behind it is the Beef Marmalade Crostini, orange-infused Argentinian beef served with toasted bread, homemade liver spread, and pickled onions.
Atilla’s friendly atmosphere is shared not just with people, but also with plants. Each table has an edible herb with a name, a suggestion made by Atilla’s store manager Mary Duritan, who was told that plants grow best when you acknowledge them. “We had to prune Robert, because he was growing so fast,” she shares. Other notable plants in the room were Popoy and Basha, which MM jokingly says shouldn’t be on the same table because they might end up arguing like their famous namesakes.
Customers are welcome to put the herbs, which include thyme, rosemary, mint, and basil on their dish. “Instead of cactus on your table, why don’t you just put food?” MM says. “If you’re eating steak and you’re like, I think this needs more thyme? There you go!’”
The Braised Pork Belly, served on lemongrass shallot rice with grilled leeks, boasts of an Asian flavor profile of sweet, savory, sour, and spicy.
Steak is uniquely highlighted in Atilla through its Steak Flight. Inspired by beer and whisky flights served in bars, Atilla’s steak version serves 150-gram slabs of meat from the U.S., Australia, Argentina, and Japan, in striploin or ribeye options. From the gamey Argentinian meat to the sinful Japanese wagyu, you’ll be surprised how each piece has a distinct flavor even though they’re the same cut. It’s a great recommendation for first-timers who have no idea which meat to get.
Atilla's Steak Flight offers customers a preview of their offerings in one platter. Here, a ribeye selection of U.S., Australian, Argentinian, and Japanese meats are served medium rare.
So what does any of this have to do with Attila the Hun, you ask? For MM and Martin, the powerful fifth-century ruler exudes their resto’s multicultural personality. “I think he’s a very interesting character,” MM says. “He’s this guy who kind of conquered the world in a sense, he’s like a nomad. That’s kind of fitting with the meat bar, we don’t want to be labeled as a steak place, or Japanese, or Mongolian. [We’re] really just a hodgepodge of different places.”
In a menu, where Atilla’s image appears majestically sitting on top of a cow, filled with a range of dishes inspired by Japan, Europe, and the Philippines, perhaps that’s the only label that fits: nomad.
But for a restaurant that says it’s a mixed bag of different things, Atilla’s is, on the whole, a very coherent concept, with a distinct point of view and a great story to tell. Opened last December, it holds much promise for many a hungry Southerner. Here’s hoping they can look beyond the dark glass and find it.
Unit 14B Building 8 Molito Lifestyle Center, Madrigal Business Park, Alabang, Muntinlupa