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The Triumph of Good Taste

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Five months after a ruinous fire gutted the revered Café Adriatico, the LJC Group’s crown jewel has been rebuilt to shine anew. Faithful foodies may now rejoice

Café Adriatico is a quaint magical place alive with fond memories and the nostalgic food pangs of sated diners—a sizable congregation who consider it a second home.

It’s precisely this feeling that built the Adriatico’s reputation as Malate’s premier breakfast place, watering hole, and everything else in between.

One overcast afternoon, LJC Group president Lorna Cruz Amba, daughter of Adriatico founder Larry J. Cruz, wined and dined a collection of journalists with a multi-course treat amid amiable chatter. The occasion was Café Adriatico’s grand reopening following its near-destruction last year.

When the gut-busting food part was over with, her highness Lorna Cruz Amba held court in a small table to field questions from a handful of eager press wanting the complete dope on a timeless brand’s phoenix-like resurrection.

Midnight Tragedy
On the night of 13 December 2010, a fire broke out on the second floor of Café Adriatico and gutted the restaurant. It seemed like a tragic end to a revered Malate institution, whose singular achievement was being the standard-bearer of fine dining amid its generally seedy surroundings. Owing to its legend, Café Adriatico has been reincarnated in Mall of Asia, Pasay and Gateway, Cubao, while the other LJC brands have sprouted in many fashionable metropolitan locales. It’s the original that still shines brightest though.

If, together with nearby sibling Café Havana, Adriatico were removed from its 30-year location, Malate’s romance would surrender itself to encroaching South Korean entrepreneurial designs and a multiplicity of whorehouses.

Adriatico is the pinnacle of class in Manila’s lowest class neighborhood. Much to the good fortune of Café Adriatico’s habitués and patrons, the LJC Group rallied soon after the fire and wasted no time refurbishing the damaged flagship. Almost five months to the day, Café Adriatico is alive and well, pulsating with life, its charm intact.

Indeed, the charm of Café Adriatico is its most endearing facet. As anyone who at least pretends at having good taste knows, Café Adriatico is furnished with antiques and all sorts of wooden ornaments, lending it an almost kitschy, old world ambiance.

The aesthetic grandeur is balanced by a bulletproof reputation for great food; a meal at Café Adriatico is an experience to be savored. It is sublime. If this strikes the reader as an overbearing and unwelcome endorsement, then go to Café Adriatico one morning (it usually opens at seven o’clock) and try the Fisherman’s Breakfast. You’ll wish home cooking was as good.

It’s affordable too. Although Café Adriatico caters to a broad clientèle, the food is neither snobbishly highbrow nor embarrassingly cheap. It’s not fast food either, despite the LJC Group’s consistent expansion across the last 30 years (a dozen restaurants to date). Behind the theatricality and food, lies the charm and magic—the beating heart of a kick-ass restaurant empire.

Remembering Things Past
The empire is currently ruled by Lorna Cruz Amba, art patron and food heiress, who took over the reins of the LJC Group upon her father’s untimely demise in 2008. To understand what drives Lorna—whose casual demeanor hardly gives the impression of a decisive executive with a mountain of responsibility on her shoulders—calls for a portrait of her late father Larry J. Cruz, career journalist, accidental restaurateur, and Kapampangan whose own late father lives on through a vast artistic legacy.

After a prolonged stint in newspapers and magazines, Larry became Assistant Press Secretary for the second Marcos term, a period in his life that raises questionable assumptions, but was generally uneventful. The great transformation occurred midway through his life. Approaching his 40s, Larry reinvented himself as an antique dealer and rented a place in Malate, already an old district with a long tradition of being overshadowed by the far more glamorous Ermita. (Apparently, fate has made a switch, as Ermita today is bereft of spicy luster.)

It took a fateful partnership with a certain David Sharuff for Larry J. Cruz to dive headlong into the restaurant biz. The two raised the necessary capital. On the verge of opening their venture, David Sharuff bailed, leaving Larry to pursue the matter on his own. In hindsight, the reversal was fortunate since Larry fell on his creative gifts and vision to create the unique dining experience that is Café Adriatico.

He continued to manage the flagship’s offshoots (to date there’s Abe, party place Café Havana, Fely J, Ang Bistro Sa Remedios, Lorenzo’s Way, and Larry’s Café and Bar), alongside a venture into magazine publishing (Larry sired Metro, now owned by the Lopezes) and a countryside getaway in his beloved Pampanga, right until the time of his death.

Comfortably ensconced as a sophisticated fount of Filipino culinary excellence, Café Adriatico’s menu is actually an odd assortment of delights. No surprise since a lot of the restaurant’s pizzazz won’t be around if not for its selection of Mediterranean dishes, with a strong inclination for traditional Spanish selections and Italian fare.

Measured fusion experiments aren’t out of the question either (as in adobo pandesal sandwiches for merienda), though don’t expect avante garde monstrosities in the same vein as El Bulli to ever grace the Adriatico menu.

Grand Designs
A small army of press people crowded Café Adriatico’s second floor, where sits a well stocked bar bedecked with glassware and bottles. Clustered in the small tables that are part of the Adriatico chic, expectant guests were served a five-course meal brought to each individual as a sampler of the new Adriatico—still the same, but with a little more.

The ‘little more’ included delectable linguine noodles and prawns in garlic, since garlic plays a great role in the dishes of almost every LJC Group restaurant. To the delight of old Adriatico patrons, the very best is still the very best: the Lengua Estofada, buttered melt- in-your-mouth goodness.

Larry’s personal favorite fare, hummus, was an ecstatic little death for the taste buds. And don’t forget the garlic soup.

During the interview, the LJC Group president was very transparent in a way few executives are. Between long accounts about growing up, her father, and her grandfather’s paintings (mostly in reply to this nosy writer’s queries about them), Lorna shared how much of the new Adriatico is actually new. Fortunately the fire, which destroyed a lot of her grandfather’s paintings, spared much as well. The great Café Adriatico is back in business.

Print ed: 06/11

 

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