There is a tent in the middle of the city.
It is a concrete canopy of white that cars pass by without pause. Puzzling, because this is an establishment that conjures images of whirling sands and thick-lashed camels. An oasis, if you will, in the middle of all the steel and glass that make up the buildings surrounding it.
You take a closer look at the sign: Buddha-Bar. Below it, a fringe of bamboo, and a scattering of beach-style lounges with scarlet umbrellas overhead. But you side-step them for the entrance, two black, wrought-iron doors with the most intricate of filigrees.
The doors are opened for you. You step in, and you are transported.
The dark, opulent belly of the restaurant opens itself to you, and you take in the rich reds and deep browns of the interior, the lavish chandeliers overhead, not of glass, but of fabric, thick ropes wrapped around the handles that hold a multitude of lamps. There is so much space, yet the place feels intimate.
You climb a staircase that belongs in Moulin Rouge, a row of dimly lit steps made for a grand entrance. And that’s when you see it. A massive statue of Buddha—12 feet and exactly like its Parisian kin, you later learn— overseeing the guests in its serene, golden glory. The music floats, as a DJ spins house and electro to set the mood.
Atmosphere, you think, stepping into a private room with where purples and wine reds combine with Oriental details. The furniture is understated luxury, and you have enough time to chat with your fellow guests, marveling at the décor, taking pictures, and generally ooh-ing and aah-ing at the beauty of it all before the dapper General Manager Sylvere Le Gall takes the floor and charms you off your feet. (He’s French, you reason out to yourself.)
“High product, high quality,” is how he sums up the Buddha-Bar experience. The first bar/club/restaurant was opened in Paris in 1996 by Frenchman Raymond Visan who fell in love with Asia. The name came to him upon a visit to the Chatuchak Market in Thailand, where Buddha statues were displayed in abundance.
Manila is home to the largest Buddha-Bar among 11 around the world, with a seat capacity of more than 500. There are 14 “little” Buddha-Bars in various countries as well, the difference being a “smaller” seat capacity of 200.
Buddha-Bar Manila was brought in by Picar Development, a subsidiary of the AMA Group (and developer of Stratford Residences, a first-class condo residence that is being planned to become the tallest building in the country at more than 70-storeys high. The company has announced that construction will be finished by 2015).
Almost like Paris
If Buddha-Bar Manila looks as opulent as its counterparts in Paris, Dubai, London, Monte Carlo, and New York, to name a few, it is because its mother company, the George V. Entertainment Group is very particular about having its franchise bars around the world meets its high standards. All the furniture—from tables, chairs, to the lighting fixtures—and the accessories like curtains, pillows—are sourced and imported from different parts of the globe. In fact, an initial investment of Php400 million was spent to create Buddha-Bar Manila’s structure and interiors alone.
Despite having the operative word “bar” as part of its name, it is first a fine dining establishment, says Le Gall, a seasoned hotelier previously employed by Sofitel. As much as 80 percent of its ingredients are fresh, he adds, with all dishes—from hot and cold appetizers, main courses, to desserts and pastries—made from scratch. Buddha-Bar Manila, after all, has also invested in a two-floor modern kitchen that strictly follows the international Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) standards. Each partitioned section of the prep areas for vegetables, meat, seafoods, and pastries are meticulously temperature-controlled.
He turns the table to Executive Chef Soc Santos, whose take-charge demeanor belies her humor, as she banters with Le Gall and tells the guests to prepare for a quiz at the end of the food-tasting.
Trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York, she worked for Shangri-La Boracay before becoming the boss of Buddha-Bar Manila’s kitchen. She trained in Paris for this job, under world-renowned Buddha-Bar Paris Chef Eric Rousselieres, and now serves Pacific Rim creations that fuse Asian tastes and French influences together.
“It’s close to my heart because it’s Asian food,” she says.
It’s a fondness, combined with a fastidiousness, that manifests in the menu.
Pacific Rim cuisine
You begin with the Buddha-Bar iced tea, a signature drink that you can sip on all day. The kiwi and lychee concoction is delicious, whooshing down your throat easily. The aftertaste reminds you of something that, if not exactly elegant, is fun: Jellyace. The lychee bits are a welcome bonus.
For starters you try the signature Buddha-Bar roll, which is maki made of five kinds of seafood wrapped in the thinnest slivers of cucumber. It is an instant favorite, the crunch of the fruit combined with the slippery fish making the dish about both taste and texture.
The salmon tataki is another appetizer you can stuff yourself full with, never mind the elegant setting. It is sliced in the finest of cuts, curling lovingly around your chopsticks and into your mouth.
Another signature dish is the Buddha-Bar chicken salad, a bestseller that distinguishes itself from its siblings served in other tables.
The main course is a medley of deep-fried golden duck pao with mee bandung, a spicy-sweet pairing that might just be your best rainy day companion. The Thai-style red curry shrimp is served in a coconut shell, the rice blending wonderfully with the soft coconut meat you scoop at the bottom.
Familiar with a zing are the crispy boneless chicken wings with spicy ginger sauce, sure to please barkadas looking for a good time, or a long conversation over frosty beer.
Pica-pica is also part of the menu, with Buddha-Bar fries to be dipped in spicy mayonnaise, vegetable samosa to be paired with mango chutney, and petite spring rolls to be doused in sweet and sour sauce.
“Why is everyone always quiet during dessert?” Chef Soc asks, but to you there is no question about it. In a place called Buddha-Bar, you feel reverent of a plate where tiny round dishes perch, bearing pale blue-gray scoops of sesame ice cream with seaweed tuiles. You want to hold the first bite in your mouth for a long time, pondering on the lightest of sweetness, the merest of nutty flavors.
The chocolate sesame bars also make an impression. Your companion calls it “like Kit-Kat” but you add, “only better,” the quality of the chocolate unmistakable.
The warm chocolate cake with praline cream is another indulgence, your only regret being the lack of space your stomach has for more of it.
“We’re not just a bar,” Chef Soc says, after you thank her for the meal. “Akala niyo lang ‘yan eh.”
She has proven herself correct. The experience has converted one into a believer.
Find Buddha-Bar Manila at Picar Place, Kalayaan Avenue, Makati City. Open from 12 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Mondays to Fridays, and 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Saturdays.Look for them online at www.buddhabarmanila.com.
On June 29, 9 p.m., catch Buddha Bar Paris’ resident DJ Ravin live at the Buddha-Bar XIV album launch party. DJ Ravin is behind the trademark Buddha-Bar sound (albums 1 to 13), spinning chill-out music in clubs worldwide from Paris to Dubai.