Fast food gets upgraded, finally
“This is inspired by my favorite restaurant,” says Chef Mikel Zaguirre of his latest eatery, the newly opened Carnivale at S Maison. “McDonald’s,” he finishes with a little chuckle.
It sounds like a joke. The whimsical playground with marquee lights fanning the ceiling, stuffed animals instead of bill trays, and gray walls that will soon be covered with colorful murals barely looks like your typical fast casual. An upmarket choice feels more appropriate for the French-trained chef, but despite his tendency to overwork his sous-vide machines, the 29-year-old is remarkably grounded—a quality that is especially relevant to the cuisine of today. “Nostalgia is in!” he proclaims.
Located right next to the cinema
The goal is to make the customers feel like they're riding a carousel.
The walls will soon be filled with murals.
“I wanted to come up with a concept that would showcase very playful food—a play on old and new flavors, a play on textures, a play on temperature differences, but not in an uber modern and formal setting,” he says. The concept of a carnival, something that would excite kids and trigger sentimentality in adults, allowed him that creative legroom.
There are nuggets (IPA-battered fried sous-vide chicken breast with buffalo sauce and Roquefort blue cheese dressing), fries (either seasoned with homemade salted egg powder or sprinkled with shaved Parmesan and truffle), and nachos (double-fried colorful corn chips with roe, bisque dressing, cheddar, Gruyere, mozzarella, buttery soft lobster slices the size of Pogs). Co-owner Ojie Ocampo tells us that they use one whole local lobster for every nacho order.
Certain bargains must be negotiated to wholeheartedly enjoy a Kel Zaguirre establishment. Filipino favorite Locavore, mom-and-pop taco shop Taqueria 101, hole-in-the-wall Empingao—more than coming up with recipes, Chef Mikel’s talents lie in his ability to bring down high-brow techniques into the realm of dishes that anyone will enjoy. He’s a People’s Chef who introduces everyone to the wonders of confit and braises via items like tacos and sandwiches. Carnivale, of course, rehashes this graceful arrangement. It is always a middle ground between high-end sensibilities and everyday comfort.
Lobster Nachos with three cheeses, roasted garlic and chili sauce, bisque dressing, sous-vide lobster, pico de gallo, ebiko, fresh cilantro, and lime
The Salted Egg Fries are twice-fried and seasoned with salted egg powder, pepper, and condiments.
The Truffle Fries come with white truffle dressing and Parmesan.
Chef Mikel Zaguirre works with such precision that he doesn't even allow others (including his partners) to taste his dishes until he's confident that they're ready.
This is, however, as far as Chef Kel is willing to compromise. He is stubbornly unapologetic about his flavorsome style and refuses to scale down in terms of price, speed, or ease (on the kitchen’s part) if it means backing down on flavor. The Lobster Nachos, for example, are P680. It’s not a surprise. He is, after all, the chef that sold a P900 Angus salpicao and made you taste every centavo you paid for.
This sentiment extends to his sous chef. Chef Patrick Ortega, who has worked in Gallery Vask, Dean & DeLuca, among other places, sums it up quite easily. “I don’t see why we can’t apply fine dining values in this type of food if they can make it taste better.”
Chef Kel turns to us as his sous chef walks back to the kitchen. “He’s going to be the next big thing in food,” he whispers.
The Cheese is a stack of hash brown buns, sous-vide house-ground Angus chuck and short rib patties, mac and cheese, gratinated cheddar, Gruyere, and mozzarella, a 64-degree egg, and a Parmesan crisp.
The Duck comes in a beetroot bun stuffed with a beef-and-duck patty, Sriracha mayo, charred onion, gratinated Manchego cheese, Asian slaw with pomelo, and roasted garlic chili sauce.
The Shroom is particularly special to the chef, who got his girlfriend's approval with his combination of portobello, zucchini tempura, tomato confit, rocket, and Provolone.
Ojie's favorite is the Lamb. The chefs made a salsa version of a Fattoush salad to pair with the lamb, yogurt, rocket, compressed watermelon, and Feta. The green hue comes from olives.
The burgers at Carnivale are well-calibrated iterations of old-time favorites, upgrading them with rocket leaves, compressed watermelons, gratinated cheeses, saffron. The affable chef pays tribute to his beloved Quarter Pounder with the Wangus (the tart and sting of raw onions and relish driving home that familiar flavor), while muffins, sausage patties, and hollandaise stir up memories of Sausage McMuffins. Carnivale’s versions are decidedly more sophisticated. The patties are sous-vide Angus beef with Wagyu fat and visible herbs. The intimidating muffin buns are airy discs that sink to a wonderful lightness when you bite into them (the texture a cross between pancake and bread). Everything is deeply satisfying in a way food cooked for convenience can never be.
Chef Kel makes us try oil curiously speckled with black bits. “It’s charcoal oil,” he explains as the smokiness of roadside Pinoy BBQ coats our taste buds with a single drop. Even their so-called “shortcuts,” are the least lazy ways to procure flavor.
The bestseller is the Gravlax, a classic boosted by a squid-ink brioche bun, pickled red onion, honey mustard glaze, and an onion tuile for crunch.
The tribute to the Quarter Pound, the Wangus
The Cronut is a lesson in balance.
Carnivale's version of a breakfast burger uses airy English muffins, peppery pepperoni, a sausage patty, creamy scrambled eggs, and Hollandaise.
The Jessy Mendiola chicken burger, which is deliciously fiery.
The premise is always to tease the eyes first (“We don’t need to style our food because our food is already porn,” says Patrick), then lunge at you with extravagant blasts of flavor. The stunning effect of the Cronut Burger, for instance, is followed through with a light crispness from a Parmesan-filo ring, a curious lather that calls to mind Frito Lay dip, and bright tweaks from mustard and sour cream. Always potent, always confrontational, but always undeniably logical.
Humor appears every now and then to remind you to just have fun with your meal—which is the end goal of any restaurant designed for comfort. We asked Kel about the beet-tinted bun of his fiery chicken burger even though we already had an inkling of the answer. “Jessy Mendiola,” he says with a big smile.
28-hour sous-vide Boneless Short Ribs complete with kalbi sauce, stringy mornay (mozzarella, Gruyere, and cheddar), pickled cabbage, shredded cabbage, edamame
This newer version of a salpicao is called 15 Clove Wagyu Salpicado with red wine Worcestershire sauce, button and shiitake mushroom ragout, edamame, baguette chips, and a 64-degree egg.
Currently off-menu is this throwback to chicken and waffles. Carnivale uses chicken karaage (Japanese fried chicken) and a perfect souffle.
The yang chow risotto with pork adobo
This enormous Ferrero is finished off with gold powder. Inside, it's a light arrangement of Nutella ice cream, dark chocolate Kit-Kat bits, dark chocolate and Kahlua ganache, almond flakes, and Kracklin.
The Froot Loops cheesecake is balanced with a delicious sour cream ice cream.
One of his more recent inventions, a yang chow risotto, comes out of left field, a Chinese-Italian surprise that feels out of place in a restaurant that follows a carnival theme. If you forget semantics, you would realize that the the dish is rather brilliant—a creamy umami bursting with sweetness from Chinese chorizo. Obvious yet innovative at the same time, it is Chef Kel on a plate. He's only doing what he does best—playing with flavors. Where's a better place to do that than a carnival?
Carnivale is at 2/F S Maison, Conrad Manila, Seaside Boulevard corner Coral Way, Mall of Asia Complex, Pasay City.