Hey Handsome Is Closing, But Its Chefs Have Moved to Poblacion
The name of the restaurant sets the tone. In the case of Essential Goodness, for the Pilgrims, that tone is clearly youthful and unorthodox. It’s moniker is derived from history, before Poblacion became known as Makati’s hotbed for suspect nighttime activity, and way before its incarnation into the gentrified version of itself today.
“Before, there were lots of churches in the area,” chef Quenee Vilar explains. “We wanted our name to reflects this unknown fact about this location. And Essential Goodness? Well, it’s the food. It nourishes, it makes people happy. Who doesn’t love food?”
Perched atop Lub D Hostel, it is a peaceful, calming hub away from the chaos of traffic and hot bodies beneath. The neutral palette of beige and white is settling, awash with sunlight streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The layout is clear-cut: an al fresco cocktail bar on one side and an indoor dining area in the other. In between is the open kitchen where Vilar and work partner Nicco Santos instruct their team headed by chef Mark Sanchez.
This airy space seems to match the concept to a tee, which at this point is all-day brunch. However, in its beigeness and implied impartiality, it provides the blank canvass that the duo prefers. “Right now, we’re still testing the market,” Vilar admits. “We really don’t know what our diners will like. So, we are offering little bit of everything. There’s something here for everybody—familiar dishes for the travelers, and also for those who want to try the local fare.”
Some wonder if the menu is too adventurous for the backpacker crowd, but Vilar is unflappable. “The owners expressed that they’ve always wanted to work with Nicco,” Vilar shares. “They know his style and so they know what to expect having him on board.”
He resists, for instance, to serve a straight-up cheeseburger. Instead, he offered a variety of tasty options utilizing the humble patty. One version is served on top of rye and layered with melted, gooey cheese. Another is a rice dish with Japanese curry. A ground chicken patty is battered, fried, and then smothered with spicy, tangy Buffalo-style sauce in a rather successful version of a chicken sandwich.
Santos understands that there are certain things you do not mess with, like a longsilog. They make a garlicky, hamonado sausage in-house and serve it with the usual achara, fried egg, and garlic rice. But, because Santos is Santos, he needs to mess with us a bit by making a soufflé-like omelet with eggplant. A Nicco-fied tortang talong, if you will. It has the startlingly airy texture paired with the flavors you long for in a good tortang talong, making one wish it was served with rice and banana ketchup.
While price point, understandably, needs to be more friendly than, say, the Wildflours and the Dean and Delucas, Essential Goodness does have its indulgences. A spaghetti vongole is generously adorned with fresh clams and tomatoes and would pair beautifully with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc if not their Earl Grey cocktail with elderflower, vodka, and lime cointreau. For their steak and fries, Santos utilizes a top round cut, which is leaner but is abundant in brawny flavor. The dish is finished with potatoes wedges and a brown butter sauce that is perfectly complementary and does not overpower.
The menu is noticeably lacking in pastries, but they do have some fluffy pancakes. Here, satisfying one's sweet tooth is also the healthier option with their house granola (berry compote, homemade yogurt, toasted coconut, almond) and overnight oats with corn compote, strawberries, nuts, and bananas.
While serving healthy and proper brunch to hungover travelers is nothing short of virtuous, dinner is still going to be what Santos’s fans will expect. “Modern Thai street food,” Vilar says about the menu launching on their grand opening in December.
“It’s really meant to be a destination,” Vilar thoughtfully quips, perhaps an allusion yet again to the uncanny name of their new restaurant where their followers will soon worship. And, knowing the breadth of talent in that brand-new Poblacion Kitchen, as those pilgrims did many years ago, they will come expecting redemption.
Essential Goodness, for the Pilgrims is at the 13th floor of Lub d Makati, Makati Avenue, Poblacion, Makati.