Rafael’s: Where Bold Design Meets Comforting Flavors

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food drink

With his artsy surroundings, one can only expect Rafael’s food to be equally imaginative.

RHIA GRANA | August 10, 2022

From the front door, Rafael’s Tapas Bar & Resto in the Garden Wing of Newport Mall promises to be a visual stunner. Its gray textured walls are adorned with bright and colorful paintings. A few gold trumpet chandeliers easily become a focal point against metal tree sculptures and arrow wires. Adding to the overall dramatic ambience of the environment are red velvet seats, gold painted doors and decorative tiles. The place has modern elements but also an unmistakable old world vibe. Flashy and flamboyant – did we mention it has a gold toilet seat? – but also warm and welcoming.

Bright colors add to the overall dramatic vibe of the space. Photo taken from the restaurant‘s Instagram

The man behind this art-filled bar and restaurant is a mild-mannered hospitality professional from Davao named Henjie Carmona. Prior to opening this whimsical attraction in November 2019, he managed multiple properties in Makati and overseas for over 15 years. Taking care of hotel F&B points of sale led him to discover his passion for gastronomy. But catering only to the needs of hotel occupants, for example, breakfast and banquet room packages, limited his creativity. “I wanted to create a [restaurant] concept,” the UP Diliman Communication Research graduate told ANCX.

Rafael's tapas bar and restaurant
Sculptures of trees in metal and arrow wires by the artist Totong Aguillon. Photo taken from the restaurant’s Instagram

Henjie has a treasure trove of memories to look back on as inspiration for his first standalone restaurant. Her late father, Rafael, a native of Bacolod and after whom the restaurant and bar is named, was an excellent home cook. “I wanted to recreate the food our father served us when I was growing up,” Henjie shares.

Rafael's tapas bar and restaurant
The staircase leading to the VIP room has been beautifully hand painted by Charlotte Rodriguez. Photo taken from the restaurant’s Instagram

With his artistic environment, one can only expect Rafael’s cuisine to be creative as well. The restaurant and bar serve a mix of reinterpreted Filipino and Spanish dishes. The caldereta (P1,200) is made with wagyu steak which is sous vide to retain the texture and flavor of the meat. Their paella uses arborio rice, which is typically used for risotto, giving the dish a different texture than you would usually expect. They have three versions of the staple Spanish dish: soft shell crab, squid, and seafood paella.

Pork sisig at Rafael's Tapas Bar & Resto
pork sisig

One of the restaurant’s best-selling tapas when it opened was the sisig de canard (P680), which is spicy duck breast, flavored with black garlic, aioli and served with quail eggs. But they had trouble sourcing duck meat when the pandemic set in, so they decided to recreate the pork sisig (P600) that Henjie’s father used to make. It is made with crunchy and spicy kawali lechon pieces and served with aioli.

Okoy at Rafael's tapas bar and restaurant
Vegetable and seafood fritters

Easily a favorite dish is also their version of Okay or Vegetable and Seafood Fritter (P220) – which is made with fresh shrimp, squid, sweet potato carrots and cooked in a light egg batter. Instead of vinegar, it is served with the tangy “Bicol Express” aioli which gives this Okay a unique taste.

Soft crab risotto
Soft shell crab risotto

Henjie says he aims to provide not just great food at Rafael’s home, but a full sensory experience, so a lot of attention has been paid to making his interiors a bit more provocative than usual. He enlisted film production designer Aped Santos (“Baler,” “Batad,” “Liway”) and J+A Architects to balance the classic and contemporary side of the space. The eye-catching Gaudi-inspired metal works at the bar are by artist Totong Aguillon, who also made the previously mentioned metal sculptures.

Rafael's tapas bar and restaurant
The lobby bar features Gaudi-inspired metal works by artist Totong Aguillon. Photo taken from the restaurant’s Instagram

Petronila's VIP room at Rafael's Tapas Bar & Resto
Petronila’s VIP room can comfortably accommodate 10 people and is equipped with a Smart TV and surround sound system. Photo taken from the restaurant’s Instagram

An art lover himself, Henjie commissioned award-winning artist Angelo Tabije and Tanya Gaisano Lee from Davao to create the major artworks found in the main dining hall. Even the stairs leading to the VIP room at Petronila (named after Henjie’s mother) are beautifully hand painted by fellow local artist Charlotte Rodriguez, a film worker with an interest in costume design. Charlotte also painted the gold doors and murals in both bathrooms.

Rafael’s Tapas Bar and Restaurant is located in the 2/F Garden Wing of the Newport Mall. It is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (Monday to Sunday). For more information, check out their Instagram account.

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