Filipino food has gained increased visibility in Melbourne in recent years. From westside champions Migrant Coffee and Chibog to CBD restaurant Serai, gelato makers Kariton Sorbetes and casual eateries Ceree and Barkada Pinoy, options abound across town in ways they previously didn’t.

Joining the pack when it officially opens tomorrow is Askal, a new Filipino restaurant led by co-owner and chef John Rivera. Rivera has significant experience in the city’s fine-dining scene, working previously at Amaru and Sunda, and as head chef at now-shuttered South Melbourne fine diner Lume. At Askal, Rivera is committed to making, in his words, “unadulterated Filipino food”.

The offering is approachable and refined, but doesn’t stray too far from the flavours you’d find in the nation of more than 7000 islands. “We have such a diverse, rich food culture that we just want to represent truthfully,” Rivera tells Broadsheet.

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The menu opens with a “strong snack game” including a doughnut topped and filled with oxtail kare-kare (a thick stew with peanut sauce) and rock oysters with aged pinakurat (Filipino vinegar) and green chilli relish. Move on to small plates of ocean trout kinilaw (a raw fish dish often compared to ceviche) served with guava aguachile, radish and fried taro; pancit palabok (a rice noodle dish) with calamari and preserved urchin; and sizzling pork jowl and abalone sisig (typically made with pork and chicken liver served on a sizzling plate).

Among the larger plates, standouts include a young hen lechon (a spit-roasted meal) and coal-roasted swordfish. There are also considered vegan and vegetarian options including earthy piaparan (a coconut milk-braised dish) made with mushrooms that brings Mindanaoan flavours to the fore.

“We encourage people to eat with their hands,” Rivera says. “For the uninitiated, we do understand that could be quite daunting, and that’s fine. We want people to be comfortable. It’s about understanding our audience, and easing them in.”

For dessert, there’s halo-halo – a mix of shaved ice and seasonal fruits with an assortment of jewel-like jelly toppings and currently finished with a white peach and chrysanthemum sorbet. There’s also a Tanduay rum caramel leche flan and a canele version of pan de coco (a sweet bun with coconut filling).

The venue is set in the former Shakespeare Hotel; co-founder Michael Mabuti (who is also behind Toddy Shop and Kariton Sorbetes) oversaw the renovation. Exposed brick walls are softened by curtains in deep red, gold and navy – a nod to the Filipino flag. The entire venue is cast in a warm glow thanks to capiz (windowpane oyster) shell chandeliers that were slowly transported by the team over multiple trips back to the Philippines. Most tableware is by Melbourne-based, Filipino-owned Little Bruns, with pieces including contemporary takes on traditional palayok clay pots.

Drinks are just as thoughtful, with bartender Ralph Libo-on and sommelier Carlos Consunji (both ex-Serai) at the helm. The Cecil Sour, named for Libo-on’s mother, includes salted durian tempered by coconut, lemongrass and citrus. And the Purple Slurple is a visual knockout, appearing as a vibrant cloud of ube and hazelnut, suspended in a clear concoction of cacao and bergamot. Wines, sourced from local vineyards and abroad, honour classic pairings: fresh rieslings sing with seafood, orange wines share notes with Filipino ferments, gewurztraminers go well with spicier dishes and bold reds pair nicely with meat.

The name Askal is portmanteau of “asong kalye”, a Tagalog word meaning “street dog” and a mascot of Filipino resilience, resourcefulness and adaptability that resonates particularly with the diaspora.

“We chose the name Askal to pay homage to our fellow Filipino in the diaspora,” Rivera says. “Filipinos all over the world have had to adapt to the societies and nations they now call home, and that can only be done through the sheer resilience of the people.”

It’s an apt symbol for the restaurant as the entire opening team – including Mabuti, Consunji, Libo-on and culinary operations director Dhenvirg Ugot – all hail from the Philippines.

At the time of writing, Askal is awaiting its liquor licence.

Askal
167 Exhibition Street, Melbourne
No phone

Hours:
Tue to Sat 5.30pm–10.30pm

askalmelbourne.com
@askal.melb