New Restaurant: Cool Café Aurora Opens In Makati
Chefs Nicco Santos and Quenee Villar of Your Local and Hey Handsome fame are back!
Having worked together for over a decade, chefs and culinary consultants Nicco Santos and Quenee Vilar could literally finish each other’s sentences and sometimes even serve as each other’s taste buds. This is one of the reasons why their culinary concepts work so well — it’s a reflection of their harmony as equals.
How apt that on Valentine’s Day (February 14, 2023), Nicco and Quenee — together with almost everyone from their staple culinary team — are making their much-awaited comeback with Café Aurora, an relaxed fine dining concept at the lobby of Pacific Star Building in the bustling heart of Makati City.
Café Aurora came about in 2022 when the two met Atty. Nilo Divina, a seasoned corporate and banking lawyer and managing partner of Divina Law, one of the leading law firms in the country. The restaurant now bears the name of Atty. Nilo’s late mother. The three became business partners and wanted to bring a unique dining experience for busy employees who are looking for delicious options for their lunch break, post-work drinks, or an ideal location for out-of-office meetings with clients or colleagues. They also want to highlight not just the food, but their suppliers, especially local growers and manufacturers creating ingredients with outstanding quality.
Upon entering the lobby of the building, you’ll find Café Aurora to your right, tucked within a quiet corner. Step into the restaurant and you’ll find a bright display of house wines to your left and a quaint al fresco area to your right, partially hidden from the busy building walkways with lush ornamental bamboo. Working with the same design firm who designed Your Local and Hey Handsome (two of Nicco and Quenee’s most popular concepts), Café Aurora gives off a brooding art deco vibe with the black and white tiles, dark wood and leather chairs, and pristine marble tables. Chatting with Chef Nicco, he confirmed there are some elements in the new restaurant that are throwbacks to his old joints both in the decor and the menu.
And speaking of the menu, diners can enjoy different offers for lunch and dinner — a well-curated list of dishes that show off Nicco and Quenee’s maturity in their craft and quiet restraint in executing the dishes they want to put on the table. While there are less than 20 dishes on the lunch menu, you’d be happy to know that it comes with a voluminous selection of drinks from local and imported beers to an impressive list of malt whiskies to coffee concoctions as well as classic and signature cocktails created by their head mixologist Jomer Calangian, who’s been with them since their days at Your Local.
Café Aurora is the duo’s fifth concept together after Your Local, Hey Handsome, Any Any (a stall at Century City Mall from a few years ago), and Sambar, which was a home-based business borne out of the pandemic. While they stuck to their Asian-inspired prowess, both Chef Nicco and Chef Quenee agreed that what distinguishes this new venture from the others is the food.
“This is the first menu we’ve ever made that I want to eat every day… Right now, seeing that Meatball, I want to eat it,” Nicco shares, gesturing at the enormous chicken meatball between us, but more on that later.
According to him, the food they offer at Café Aurora is devoid of bells and whistles, allowing the true flavors of the food to shine without distracting the diner with extravagant garnish or complicated plating.
“Now I can’t hide behind flavors,” he realized. “Our food is more straightforward.”
They share that while research and development took a while, they finalized their menu in just two weeks. In the past, they were eager to show off their deep knowledge of Asian flavors through meticulously prepared and plated dishes. Now, with Café Aurora, they’re not afraid to admit that the menu is “market-centric”.
“We wanted to create dishes that people will appreciate,” Nicco said, recalling that they were done cooking food just for the sake of being the first to create something new.
“It’s about cooking something that more people will enjoy,” Quenee explains. Agreeing with Nicco, she adds, “We are serving familiar flavors with our own take.”
The result of their new approach on food and cooking is a glorious display of their maturity as chefs, mastering which elements must shine and where they need to exercise restraint. The flavors of the dishes this writer tasted are spot-on, as delicious as they are immaculate. And just like what they wanted, every dish is served on a white plate or bowl with minimal garnish, letting the food do the talking. But the food didn’t just talk, it sang a harmony so beautiful you’ll want to keep coming back for another performance.
We recommend starting your meal with the Chawanmushi, a delicate egg custard with blue crab, shiitake, and house-made dashi. Followed by the Pomelo Salad, a finer version of this Asian staple with pomelo pulp, poached prawns, and minced wing beans (sigarilyas) tossed in soured coconut cream to bring all the flavors together.
If you're dining with a group, you can share the Tartare, inspired by Korean beef tartare called Yukhoe. It has meaty chunks of beef tenderloin and pears mixed with sesame soy dressing and topped with a fresh egg yolk. Everything is meant to be mixed thoroughly before scooping on top of toasted sourdough bread.
The Wings are flavored with curry, fried ‘til crisp, and served with marmite butter sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Inspired by the Thai classic, their version of Larb features tender pieces of hand-cut lamb shoulder seasoned with nam prik laap and fresh market herbs. It’s served with cabbage on the side, which is meant to be used like an edible cup. The dish also comes with pieces of cucumber to enjoy in between bites of Larb to temper the heat and bring freshness.
The grilled Hamachi collar is Chef Quenee’s favorite from their current lunch menu. The delicate yellowtail fish is marinated Indo-style and served with house-made peanut sauce and lime to brighten the flavors.
Café Aurora’s Adobo is as flavorful as it is delightful to look at. Inspired by Lu Rou Fan, their version came from a memorable pop-up they held in Taiwan. Their iteration has fatty pieces of braised pork with its lip-smacking sauce soaking into the multigrain rice at the bottom of the bowl. It’s served with pickled cucumber to balance the saltiness and ajitsuke tamago with a jammy center, giving it a creamy flavor and mouthfeel. It’s best eaten swiftly while it’s still warm.
Chef Nicco’s favorite dish is the Meatball, a giant version of Japanese Tsukune. It’s a tare-glazed grilled chicken meatball nesting on top of fried shredded leeks and a bed of shiitake-and-corn multigrain rice. The already impressive dish is crowned with a cured egg yolk and a generous sprinkling of chopped green onions. Despite its size, the Meatball is beautifully charred on the outside and juicy within. It’s tender and flavorful, thanks to the sweet and savory tare glaze. The creaminess of the cured egg yolk is a welcome addition. Chef Nicco created this dish for his 7-year-old son, making sure he had something to enjoy when he visits. And this writer went home that day with a new favorite dish as well.
Aside from these dishes, their menu also has Salmon Donburi, an homage to one of their first creations for Your Local years ago. But their rendition for Café Aurora is simpler yet more elevated, sophisticated in its simplicity. This dish shows how much the two have matured in the industry and how they’ve honed their skills in just a decade of working together. Chef Quenee admits this current iteration of their signature dish is one of her favorites on the menu.
If you’re looking for libations, Jomer suggests trying their signature cocktails like Poor Man’s Tea (Beefeater Dry Gin, Genmaicha, and Yuzu), Kebaya (Maker’s Mark bourbon, Laphroaig 10 single malt whisky, Cointreau, with ginger and turmeric), and a refreshingly interesting Cucumber Salad (Tanqueray, Makrut, cucumber, lemon, and a hint of Thai chili).
For those who don’t drink, Café Aurora offers deliciously crafted coffee-based beverages, like Death Cream (double espresso with warm Seoul milk or Hacienda Macalawan milk, cream, and French vanilla) and Milo Dinosaur (double shot espresso, homemade cocoa-milo syrup, Hacienda Macalawan milk, homemade vanilla ice cream).
And of course, don’t forget the dessert. For his first collaboration with Nicco and Quenee, pastry chef Dan Rosales made five signature desserts for Café Aurora.
During our visit on a busy Monday, we tried the PB & J, Chef Dan’s rendition of the classic American sandwich, which he elevated by turning it into peanut butter cheesecake covered with mixed berry jelly and topped with beetroot crisps. The flavors are familiar, the cheesecake was light, and the crunchy leaf gave it a new dimension.
The second dessert is simply called Mousse, but believe me when I say there’s nothing simplistic about it. Unassuming as it looks, one spoonful is enough to make you understand that you’re in for a treat. On top of it is an Earl Grey-infused cream hiding a cloud-like milk chocolate mousse. As you dig deeper (which you should), you’ll find pieces of dark chocolate fudge for added depth of flavor and texture.
Without a doubt, their food is superb, making the food community even more excited to have the duo back in action. But more than anything, the owners of Cafè Aurora want to take care of the diners, their suppliers, and their staff — the beating heart of their operations.
Despite having only met in February 2022, they realized they all share the same values and they knew their staff are in good hands. “Nilo is an amazing guy, he takes care of his staff. That’s the kind of partner Quenee and I have been looking for for such a long time,” Nicco explains.
Café Aurora is open from Mondays to Fridays, 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Contact: (0917) 104-3672 | Facebook: @CafeAuroraPh | Instagram: @CafeAuroraPH | Address: G/F Pacific Star Building, Makati Avenue corner Gil Puyat Avenue, Makati City.