Cafe Aurora’s chefs Nicco Santos and Quenee Vilar need no introduction at this point. Long-time foodies and gastronomes have no doubt been acquainted with the duo’s work.
All this is to say, when it comes to creating menus with an innovative Southeast Asian flair, Santos and Vilar are among those you can trust. That very sense is evident in Makati’s newest dining spot, Cafe Aurora.
Located on the ground floor of the Pacific Star Building along Makati Ave., the cafe may initially come across as the more sophisticated sibling in Santos’ line of food concepts, owing to its more corporate location. But its flavors and presentations are still as adventurous and playful as ever. The food and ambiance thus balance out, putting Cafe Aurora in that sweet spot between being intimate enough to impress a date or client, but also relaxed enough for a well-deserved nightcap.
While a chunk of Cafe Aurora’s menu has been dedicated to drinks—caffeinated, alcoholic, and otherwise—they have a pretty compact selection of 20-something dishes, from starters all the way to dessert.
Kick off the meal with a vibrant pomelo salad: A mound of crisp sigarilyas tossed with plump chunks of pomelo and prawns, doused in a coconut cream dressing, that when mixed all together pleasantly preps the palate for the rest of the savory dishes to come.
There’s also their take on the Japanese staple chawanmushi, with the addition of blue crab.
For something worth sharing, go for the tartare, Cafe Aurora’s version of the Korean yukhoe—beef tenderloin mixed with pear, sesame soy dressing, and topped with fresh egg yolk, served with buttered sourdough slices.
Or go for the larb, an herby, flavorful mix of hand-cut lamb shoulder, nam prik laap (a type of Thai spicy chili sauce), mint, and cilantro. Best eaten by wrapping a spoonful of the larb in a cabbage leaf, then popping the pocket in your mouth for a crunchy flavor bomb.
Among the stellar mains are dishes that we’ve already seen the chefs craft previously to near perfection—the rendang and the salmon donburi. I say near perfection only because it seems like every new iteration of these staples by chefs Santos and Vilar gets better each time.
The rendang features a Malay-style lamb, with nasi ulam or mixed herb rice, with a side of refreshing sambal matah and spiced serunding. Vilar recommends eating the rendang by getting equal portions of lamb, rice, and sambal to get that balance of flavor in each spoonful.
But if you really want a scene-stealer, go for the salmon donburi. While it may bring to mind the cult favorite dish from Your Local, Cafe Aurora’s salmon donburi looks more like a chirashi bowl—and is even smoked for an added layer of flavor. Once the smoke-filled bowl is uncovered, it reveals a glistening bed of house-cured and smoked salmon chunks, ikura, and mentaiko, spread perfectly and evenly over multigrain rice mixed with shiitake and corn. I may run the risk of overpraising, but this is exactly what I thought when I had my first spoonful: This salmon donburi is magical, and I am absolutely in love.
To pair with all those flavor bombs, go for Cafe Aurora’s selection of signature cocktails. If you’re looking for something “healthy” to drink, go for the cucumber salad (yes, it’s a drink). It’s a deceptively refreshing drink, made of cucumber, lemon, and makrut lime, mixed with Tanqueray gin. The sting comes after you down the drink, but it’s not because of the liquor—the cocktail is also mixed with Thai chili, giving an interesting (if not slightly addictive) burn at the throat.
But if you’re more of the type to have dessert or coffee to cap off your meal, Cafe Aurora also has a handful of striking options. Though only coated in a layer of soft Earl Grey cream, the mousse strongly carries the tea’s flavor, with only a mild hint of chocolate in the mousse’s body. The PB and J has a fuller flavor; mochi wrapper-like mixed berry jelly encases a potent peanut butter cheesecake, topped with beetroot crisps perfectly cut into leaves. Meanwhile, the affogato promises the best of both worlds of coffee and dessert: Homemade vanilla ice cream is served over a strong double shot of espresso (a special blend for Cafe Aurora by Plainsight Coffee), then generously showered with shaved macadamia.
While Cafe Aurora is set to fully open this February, chefs Santos and Vilar, with their business partner, seasoned corporate and banking lawyer Atty. Nilo Divina (whose mother is the namesake of the cafe), will also be opening a fine dining concept named Celera in the basement of Pacific Star later this year.
Cafe Aurora is located at GF Pacific Star Building, Gil Puyat Ave. cor. Makati Ave., Makati City. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays. Closed on Saturdays and Sundays.