Chef Bruce Lim returns with new restaurant

Posted at 08/02/2014 2:23 PM | Updated as of 08/03/2014 5:12 PM
Chef Bruce Lim poses for a photo in his latest venture Rustique Kitchen. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for ABS-CBNnew.com

MANILA – Celebrity chef Bruce Lim is back with the newly opened Rustique Kitchen along Pasay Road in Makati City, marking his return to the local restaurant scene after the closure of his short-lived Chef’s Table.

Although Rustique Kitchen is owned by businessman Tonyboy Cojuangco, Lim’s name is attached to the new restaurant, which took over the space that was previously occupied by the French brasserie La Regalade.

Although the star of Asian Food Channel’s “The Boss” has maintained his presence on TV and food events, Lim took a step back from his high-profile position as chef-patron when he closed not just one but three restaurants and focused instead on food manufacturing with Mise en Plus Foods Inc., a commissary that supplies food items to companies such as Mini Stop and Philippine Airlines.

“It was something that hurt,” he said of his restaurant’s demise. “That’s why I went into food manufacturing and I wanted to stay away from this.”

Backed by his well-received TV stints, which also included “Tablescapes” with actress Angel Aquino, Lim, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in London who worked under renowned chefs like Gordon Ramsey, opened Chef’s Table at the Infinity Tower in Bonifacio Global City in 2010, which ran for one-and-a-half years.

“For me, it was the wrong timing,” he mused at the recent press event for Rustique Kitchen. “(SM) Aura wasn’t there yet, also the Infinity Tower wasn’t (fully) built at the time. It wasn’t really the ideal time.”

Sensing trouble at the restaurant, Lim’s went on to open two other establishments – Hyphy’s at Robinsons Galleria and Chef’s Lab at Burgos Circle also in Taguig. Both lasted for about a year.

“I think I was such in a hurry because I was losing Chef’s Table, I decided to open up two more restaurants, which hurt,” he said, describing the experience of having to close the restaurants as “heartbreaking.”

“The problem was I couldn’t focus on one. I spread myself way too thin. It was too soon, too sudden. But again it was the school of hard knocks -- good teacher, expensive tuition,” he added.

Lim with Angel Aquino in a promotional photo for Asian Food Channel’s “Tablescapes”

That’s why Lim considers Cojuangco a “godsend,” when the businessman called him up from out of the blue to ask if he was interested in opening a restaurant. According to Lim, it was his “Tablescapes” co-star Aquino, who is a good friend of Cojuangco’s long-time partner, actress Gretchen Barretto, who gave his number to the businessman.

“I guess with his encouragement, it’s what brought me to come back out and play with food again,” Lim said of Cojuangco, who also owned La Regalade, among other restaurant ventures. “In a way, he is definitely a godsend. From just a cold call, not knowing if I was down or if I can do it, he just said, let’s talk. It was that simple.”

Four months since that phone call, Lim is definitely back to his playful self in Rustique Kitchen – but armed with the painful lessons of his previous venture.

“That’s why I didn’t go full-on Filipino because there’s no way I can keep up with everyone else’s home cooking. That’s why I kept it more Continental,” said Lim, who worked in various hotels in the US before moving back to the Philippines nine years ago.

However, Cojuangco, who loved the buko pie and tortang talong of Chef’s Table, which have been included in Rustique Kitchen’s menu, wanted a more “Filipino edge.” What emerged was, in Lim’s words, “Continental cuisine with a Filipino twist.”

“It’s comforting, comfort food. Flavors that you understand and you appreciate. But when you get it, it’s like totally different, like, ‘What is that?’ But when you taste it, it’s nice,” he said.

Danggit served with French beans. Photo: Handout

That’s why you get dishes like the humble danggit served with French beans and pumpkin pie, or dilis used to add texture to marbled potatoes. Lim placed diced salmon and tuna sashimi on a camote chip, threw in bits of Ilocos bagnet into a corn chowder, and simmered clams in white wine and lambanog for a pasta dish.

“It’s easy to make prime food -- you can just take the foie gras, the USDA Prime beef, Wagyu -- but to make prime food affordable is very, very difficult. My goal is to make affordable food prime. So it’s totally twisting it a bit,” he explained.

For instance, he is currently working on his version of tokneneng, those orange-colored deep-fried hard-boiled eggs sold on the streets. He intends to transform it into a Scotch egg but deep-fried in the familiar orange batter with Iloilo’s spicy sinamak vinegar. “When you look at it, it still looks like tokneneng but when you bite into it, the egg will be runny. I’m gonna serve it with cheese sticks which you can dip in the egg. So it’s really a different feel talaga from the regular food out there. I really want to have fun,” he said.

Ox-tail kare-kare. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBNnews.com

During the preview of Rustique Kitchen, Lim wowed the diners with his deconstructed ox-tail kare-kare, which featured meat that just falls off the bone and the distinct bagoong flavor already infused into the creamy sauce. If there was any complaint about this dish, it was that we wanted to order extra rice with it.

He also noted that beyond these creative dishes, they are also working on pairing cocktails and mocktails with food. “We’re having fun with the alcohol as well. So it’s not just the wine list, which is awesome by the way,” he said, boasting that they serve “really affordable” Italian wines.

Lim, who is a US-born Filipino-Chinese, said the current menu isn’t final yet as they had to rush the restaurant’s opening to beat the “Ghost Month” and he expects everything to be complete once the crucial “ber” months roll in. For instance, he pointed out that there will still be changes in the interiors, which will have a feature wall. He is also still sourcing suppliers for a key menu feature that highlights one-kilo slabs.

Signature buko pie. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBNnews.com

But there are definitely several dishes that diners can already feast on, such as the amazing dessert that put Lim in the culinary radar of Cojuangco. Lim’s buko pie is different not just because it is served warm in a glass. First, the pie crust was crumbled into an almost powdery texture with the coconut custard with buko strips scooped over it.

Although viewers will still see the popular chef on TV, Lim admitted that he prefers running a restaurant to doing cooking shows.

“On TV, it’s scripted, it’s edited, you have to have a character you have to play,” he said. “Here you just be yourself, enjoy and have fun. Your soul and your attitude will show on the plate and that’s what I love about it.”

Hopefully, Filipino diners will love it too.

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Bruce Lim’s Rustique Kitchen
G/F Leelin Building 2
Pasay Road, Makati City