Chef Ferdinand ‘Budgie’ Montoya has permanently closed Filipino barbecue restaurant Sarap Baon in Brixton Village, after the impact of COVID-19 in late 2021, and rising costs of doing business in early 2022, rendered the restaurant non-viable.
“With the closure and the end of the rent moratorium being at the same time... I think you can put two and two together,” he said. “Brixton Market have a business to run, they wanted to keep us there, but ultimately it wasn’t responsible or possible to keep it going.”
Before it was Sarap Baon, the site which Montoya opened in January 2020 was simply Sarap: a continuation of a series of Filipino residencies that took him from Dalston, to Soho, and then to Brixton. At that point, it was indisputably a barbecue and lechon specialist: the latter then consisting of pork belly slow-roasted; stuffed with lemongrass, ginger, garlic, chilli, coconut vinegar and soy sauce; and served with a mound of pickled carrot and daikon, coconut vinegar seasoned with bird’s eye chilli, and a Filipino liver sauce.
But Montoya had long maintained a goal of creating something more malleable than a signature dish: “an identity for Filipino cuisine in London” that refracted the archipelago’s traditions — and those of its diaspora — through the city he calls home. Sarap was going to become a bistro, less constrained by the conditions of being a pop-up, moving between kitchens at short notice with little chance to put down equipment. That was January 2020. COVID-19 curtailed the plan.
“Baon was something we always wanted to do off the back of Sarap, not the other way round. We had to pivot because the 20-seater restaurant simply wasn’t going to work at that point, and I had to come up with something that would work for delivery and takeaway.”
The menu accordingly brought together takeaway lechon, chicken sinigang rice bowls, and barbecue pork skewers with a couple of dishes that offered clues to Montoya’s imagined direction for the restaurant: a “bistek” tartare that played calamansi and soy off against the French classic among them.
That imagination became reality when he opened Sarap Bistro on Heddon Street, in Mayfair. The tartare joined the menu, along with delicate kinilaw, using coconut vinegar per tradition and rhubarb per Britain, right now, and a rendition of lechon which sees crispy pig’s trotter stuffed with a truffled adobo rice. It’s been a hit, but Montoya says the financial reality of even a successful restaurant is currently a challenge: “VAT is going up, costs are going up — the price of oil has literally doubled — and I’ve always struggled before this, with pricing, pricing Filipino cuisine and dealing with people’s preconceptions of what they think they should be paying for it. It looks like they’ll have to go up: I’ve already gone through the pain of losing one restaurant, and I don’t want to do that again.”
Just as the Brixton restaurant was first Sarap, Sarap Bistro will now revert to its original title, to reflect the closure of Baon and what Montoya describes as a new “focus” to his work. “One of the lessons I’ve learned over the past three years is to focus on one thing and doing it well,” he said, adding that the restaurant is in negotiations to extend the current residency, which ends in June, through summer and hopefully to the end of 2022.
So while he’s rueful, at the reality of “just pouring your heart into something and having your feet swept from under you,” Montoya is also looking forward to the future of Filipino food in London, in part created by the contribution of his cuisine. “While we could have kept going and taken the hit, there comes a breaking point. Now, I only have a pop-up restaurant, and it’s back to the drawing board of securing this as a permanent location. That’s where I’m putting all my energy now.”