Home Economy Melo’s daughter reopens Carmelo’s

Melo’s daughter reopens Carmelo’s

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By Joseph L. Garcia, Senior Reporter

FOR MANY Filipinos, their first taste of a really good steak was at Melo’s. Carmelo “Melo” Santiago, opening his first branch of Melo’s in 1987, popularized Angus steaks in the Philippines. Later projects also saw him bringing Japanese wagyu beef to the Philippines through House of Wagyu Stone Grill in 2007. Melo’s name thus still has some heft in the restaurant industry, despite his passing away in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.

He and his daughter, Cristina, had first opened Carmelo’s in Greenbelt in 2014 (according to her memory; some news outlets say they opened the year before that).

In an interview with BusinessWorld during a tasting on May 30, she recalled that their joint venture began after she set up her dessert business, Sweet Bella. A graduate of the California School of Culinary Arts, she had planned to open a cafe, but her father insisted they open a steakhouse instead, with her desserts included in the menu (she had, after all, won The Best Dessert award from the Philippine Daily Inquirer three times).

In 2020, while the restaurant was under renovation, the pandemic struck, and they decided not to reopen at the time. “Before he passed away, he even told me in the hospital: ‘Let’s build Carmelo’s again.’” She reassured him that they would, but mindful of his health, she also urged him to take it one step at a time.

“He passed away — I lost… naiiyak ako (I want to cry),” she said, her voice breaking slightly. “I lost my hero. I didn’t know what to do.”

She told us though that after seeing an available space at The Proscenium Retail Row at Rockwell, “There was something in me that I said, ‘I think I’m ready to build Carmelo’s.’

“I never really thought of opening na eh,” she said.

She was surprised by the ease with which she got the space, simply walking into Rockwell’s leasing department. “Somebody up there helped me.”

The space, as we entered it, had its ceilings dripping with golden chains, and was paneled in wood. The private dining room was modeled after her father’s music room at home (the electric fireplace was her idea, though), and his portrait and a book about his achievements (which she presented to him) are there.

The meal opened with oysters, served on a bed of dry ice (lending a smoky effect); the oysters were very plump and had a very clean flavor. Despite the theatrical flair with which it was served, her father’s old-world imprimatur was still present: the oysters were served with a small bowl of mid-20th century cocktail sauce (not a bad addition, and I could pretend for the few seconds that I was swallowing an oyster that I was somehow on a transatlantic flight back in the 1960s). Her father’s classic paté was also on the table.

“Times are changing. Now they like new sauces, like miso sauce or something,” she said. Other changes included more flair in the service (as in the oysters, and later for the main course when sides were served on tiny copper pots).

The tuna tataki that came next was definitely modern: it had a very mild flavor, given some power by the savory miso sauce. The grilled Octopus a la Plancha was the yang to the tuna’s yin: the octopus itself was robust, while the creamy cauliflower puree was a clever way to tame the octopus. All these were served with a La Fiole Cote du Rhone Blanc, which also complimented the Prawn Bisque (the plate arrived with the prawns curled up in it, then the soup itself was poured out of a teapot; lovely videos await).

Then the Grilled Wagyu Ribeye arrived (perhaps a nod to the changing times — this, instead of her father’s Angus, was her showpiece for that day; though of course, Angus is also on the menu). A knife cut through it like butter, and it tasted luxurious. It was all very simply grilled, letting the beef speak for itself. It was served with steak rice, mashed potatoes, and grilled vegetables. We left exactly one bite of steak on the plate, for we had unfortunately filled up on the excellent bread and the truffle burrata pasta (good, but could be better; we note the pasta’s mushiness). These were paired with Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot Chateau Loyasson from Bordeaux, which added even more dimension to the otherwise already-perfect steak.

A headache kept us from Ms. Santiago’s award-winning desserts (her Pearl, guava mousse with fresh mango coulis, looked like a real treat), but the two bites we took of the Angelina — her hazelnut mousse with a hazelnut praline crust, adorned with vibrant raspberry coulis and edible red magnolia flowers — left us wishing we felt better so we could enjoy it.

While Carmelo’s bears her father’s name, it’s run independently from the Melo’s chain which is operated by her siblings. Still, family and tradition leave a heavy imprint.

“Always make sure that your food is the best quality,” she said, asked about the things she learned about the business from her father. “The only thing that my dad really requested is never change my supplier.” Her father’s steaks, and now hers, are sourced from Australia and the United States.

“Always connect with your customers. When they come back, they feel like a special person,” she added.

“For me, it was a moving forward also. I’ve accepted that he’s gone, and now I can do the things that he had implanted, and practice it, and make a name; knowing that he was the one who polished me, how to be who I am now,” she said.

Carmelo’s Steakhouse is located at the second floor of The Proscenium Retail Row, Rockwell, Makati. Follow @carmelossteakhouse on Instagram for updates on the restaurant. For reservations, contact 0915-903-8005.

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