Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The last time I talked to chef Nicco Santos, we were getting to know the ASEAN region through the food at Hey Handsome, his Southeast Asian restaurant at Bonifacio Global City in Taguig. Over plates of Indonesian lamb buah keluak and Singaporean ho fan, Santos stressed the need to respect originality and, at the same time, continuously evolve with respect to Southeast Asian food. That was two years ago.
Hey Handsome has since closed, and Santos’ other restaurant, Your Local, has been sold. Together with restaurant partner Quenee Vilar, Santos now tends to the team behind the counter at Elephant Grounds, a micro roaster from Hong Kong brought to the Philippines by the Standard Hospitality Group.
There are a lot of things to be excited about at Elephant Grounds, beyond the fact that it’s the latest addition to Manila’s roster of innovative restaurants. Ask anyone who’s been to the café in Hong Kong, and they will tell you the place is popular for two things: ice cream sandwiches and coffee. But in Manila, “it’s not just a coffee shop,” says Mike Concepcion of the Standard Hospitality Group. “It’s a place where you want to take care of people,” Santos says.
What is apparent is there’s a lot of warmth inside the newly-built café in Taguig, owing not just to the wooden interiors and its laidback design, care of architect JJ Acuna / Bespoke Studio, but also to the precision and detail by which Concepcion articulates a vision, and then takes his time executing it until it fulfills a standard.
Concepcion talks about making Elephant Grounds a space that shares mutual interests with other brands, how “the sum of all its parts … makes it really special.” But when he says he wants the café to be a “vibrant space,” where people can stay five times a week, he simply invites us to make Elephant Grounds home. When he says the café has “accessible food you want every day,” he tells us we are welcome to keep coming back.
One may argue that Metro Manila is saturated enough with coffee shops as second homes, as birthplaces of ideas or ‘coffices’, but there is enough in Elephant Grounds to spark curiosity. There are inviting stadium stairs just in front of the counter, ideally for takeout, but Concepcion is curious how people would use the space. The counter itself is familiar; it’s an Easter egg for those who remember how Hey Handsome looked like. On a wall are skateboards, made canvases with art by Erik Parker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Madsaki.
Combined with Concepcion’s lifestyle concept is a ready sense of family, even before the café opens to the public. Santos and Vilar are still with half of their old team, which explains the relative ease by which they work behind the scenes, and the playful banter in between. The hope is the chemistry translates into connections, for more room for relationships between the staff and customers, says Santos. “This is what’s going to sustain us, connecting with guests in an authentic way, not just transactional.”
Maybe it’s Santos’ engaging stories, or Concepcion’s enthusiasm — but already the food tastes good here, and for a reasonable price point, too. Drinks at the espresso bar start at ₱120, with some interesting choices, such as the black tie (₱150), a layered drink of espresso, milk, and cream. The tea bar offers bright and laidback flavors, most evident in the sunset iced tea, another layered drink of orange, pineapple, and butterfly pea tea, the citrusy yuzu oolong iced tea, and the berry fields iced tea (all ₱150), among others. There’s also Thai milk tea (₱150) if you need your fix.
The food is stamped with Santos and Vilar’s Southeast Asian flair, in more relatable packaging as comfort food. Nothing pretends to be anything than casual, accessible fare: a Thai shrimp salad, smoked bacon carbonara, yuzu salmon eggs benny, and tapa donburi, among others, are available all-day round. But it’s crucial that you try the twice-cooked pork belly adobo, laid in a bed of soft black garlic rice, alongside a velvety scrambled egg, atchara, and surprise bits of chicharon.
These options took five months to develop, with Santos aiming for great value without sacrificing quality. Drafting the menu for Elephant Grounds also meant he had to align with the Standard Group’s expertise in building brands — which includes Yabu, Mighty Quinn, and Ippudo Ramen — as he lent his culinary creativity to a broader market.
What was important was to localize the palates, while retaining established elements from Elephant Grounds in Hong Kong. For Santos, it was important to be aware that Elephant Grounds was arriving in the Philippines near the tail-end of the third-wave coffee movement: they have to impress both specialty coffee aficionados and people who might enjoy the usual cup of joe, but are open for something more. This takes work, for example, as when they had to calibrate and match the taste profile of Elephant Grounds’ OG blend here.
Yet there are touches of innovation, says Santos, as in the toasted rice ice cream (lovingly reminiscent of Filipino dessert guinumis), the dressing used for the salad, or the fried egg that comes with the duck krapow.
What customers may expect is far from a “copy-paste” version of the franchise, says Concepcion. All coffee is imported from Brazil, Sumatra (Indonesia), and Costa Rica, but the ice cream is local (the milk is from Holly’s) and food came from local suppliers. Consistent with the Hong Kong brand is the insistence on sustainability. “We’re trying to find a way to have artisanal suppliers and farmers and put them in business with bigger chains,” says Santos.
As a celebrated chef now behind the kitchen at Elephant Grounds, Santos says he still wants to challenge himself, “to explore and try on his business hat,” as he keeps all he learned from the years prior. “Even though I’ve lost two restaurants, I’ve gained more than I lost,” he says.
It’s a sentiment laden with meaning, which gives soul to what the café is poised to be: a fun and welcoming space where there’s good coffee, good food, and good ice cream to be had. With Concepcion, Santos, and Vilar at the helm, Elephant Grounds looks like it’s going to keep us staying for a long, long while, making us remember that good coffee is more than beans — it’s heart.
UPDATE (Jun 24, 2019): Elephant Grounds opens on June 28. It is located at LGF One Bonifacio High Street. Visit @elephantgroundsph on Instagram and Facebook.
UPDATE (Jun 7, 2019): Elephant Grounds has moved their opening date and will be announced soon.