Mr. Roboto: Nostalgia finds a home in the south

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As I passed through a glass door at the corner of Sykes building in Alabang, a robot holding two bokken swords emerged from a wall and towered over my body. Just before my impulse to take cover shook me, I realized the robot, which was suspended in front of the red rays of the Japanese rising sun, was an artwork on the wall.

I looked at the other side of the room, where an entire mechanical battalion from the 1980s appeared before me, in the form of mural posters. A few of them jumped not only from the walls, but from a childhood memory, where their familiar names resided: Megaman, Voltes V and Iron Giant, among others.

“Hi, I’m Dani,” a girl sporting a black top said, shaking my hand.

“And I’m David,” greeted a tall guy with round glasses, smiling.

Daniella “Dani” Ramos and David Anthony Mendoza, the young duo behind Alabang’s latest modern Japanese food hotspot, welcomed and motioned me towards a table close to the wall where the colorful band of robots looked over us.

Assembling Mr. Roboto

Just like any other robot, Mr. Roboto was created from different parts. In Mr. Roboto’s case, the project was born out of a notebook and a bunch of pictures.

Back in October 2016, Dani and David were busy scribbling and drawing in a notebook to bring their ideas together for a small food business. After months of brainstorming and fine-tuning their menu, ranging from sashimi to katsu, the robot-themed restaurant opened its doors to the public this year, on June 26.

“We just love Japanese food. It’s given everybody loves it,” David said, when asked why they decided to pursue a Japanese-themed restaurant.

Dani and David said they wanted to do Japanese food without masking its true flavor with too many ingredients that don’t highlight the dish. In the Philippines, the duet noticed a trend among many Japanese restaurants that do modern interpretations of the cuisine: put too much of everything and the flavor gets muted.

This duo wants to avoid that direction. They anchor their food philosophy on their numerous trips to Japan, where they have observed how the Japanese lean towards being purists with their food, aside from the occasional pinch of wasabi and dab of soy sauce to heighten taste.

“I feel that all traditional Japanese restaurants are the same,” Dani said. “I wanted to be more playful [with the food].”

The decision to do a retro-themed Japanese restaurant came like a breeze for them. Dani lives for everything – especially the music – from the 1970s and 1980s. Hence, the restaurant’s ambiance – with an appealing array of red chairs and wooden tabletops – is accompanied by a musical playlist from the 1980s. Likewise, David turns to a huge collection of Voltes V VHS tapes and Gundam toys that his family has at home, revealing his spirit for a timeless era.

When Dani and David were thinking of a name for their endeavor, they were caught in between the typical Japanese tags such as “Godzilla” and “Tokyo”. Until one day, David was caught casually singing Styx’s 1983 hit, “Mr. Roboto”.

Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto, goes the opening of the song. Dani noted, “You know, that’s actually a good name.”

From simple food lovers

In spite of their youth, Dani and David are not entirely new to the food scene.

Dani grew up brushing ensaymadas in her father’s bakery, then studied baking and pastry-making in the United States. At Mr. Roboto, she takes care of things behind the curtain, spending most of her time in the kitchen, making sushi rolls and bowls of donburi.

David, a senior at the Ateneo de Manila University, handles the operational side of the business. While David said he doesn’t really cook, he grew up in a family who loves to eat and owns food businesses in the city. David spends time connecting with customers to gain feedback directly from their table and ensures they get the best experience possible.

“[My family] kept me out of the kitchen. I just ate all the food,” David laughed. “But growing up, I’ve always wanted to have my own business.”

Modern Japanese food in a retro resto

“We wanted to stick to traditional Japanese flavors,“ Dani said. “[The food is] not fusion, just modern in presentation.”

As a number of plates and bowls arrived on our table, I immediately saw how Dani’s pastry-making skill revealed itself in the dishes. Every bowl and plate was a colorful affair, with torched vegetables and smoky meat carefully arranged in a calculated fashion.

First, there was the Kani Salad Bomb, a plate of udon noodles, wakame salad and fried kani balls drenched in a rich sesame dressing. The salad stayed true to its name as I slurped the soft noodles and munched on the crunchy kani balls, its flavor exploding in my mouth.

Then came three plates of sushi: Mr. Roboto sushi, a combination of three types of tuna — spicy, negi and aburi (torched) — sprinkled with furikake. Then there was the Secret, Secret sushi made of diced unagi, and garnished pickled radish and caviar, which left a mild sweet taste in my mouth. And the Shake Nigiri, a bed of sushi rice topped with negi salmon and smeared with soy truffle and beets sauce, which caught my taste buds with its light flavor.

My personal favorite had to be the Chashu Donburi, a huge rice bowl of thick cut pork belly served with torched vegetable tempura and an egg yolk on top. The pork meat took center stage as the thick slab was so tender, it almost melted in my mouth. Then a bowl of Chicken Katsu with Roboto Gravy came next: a bed of fluffy rice crowned with hefty slices of crispy chicken karaage that blended well with the creamy gravy and grilled vegetables.

On the side, plates of Ika Sashimi, dabbed with teriyaki and black mayo, and Ebi Sashimi whipped with spicy shrimp bisque and soy truffle, filled my stomach. As if those two weren’t enough, a bowl of Sashimi and Tempura Chirashi was waiting to be sampled with its tuna, salmon and tanigue slices, neatly arranged with shrimp and vegetable tempura.

The Chocolate Bread Pudding capped off everything. The dessert is made up of four pieces of bread pudding, topped with vanilla ice cream at the center, and sprinkled with Milo powder, Nutella and candied bacon. The treat was the perfect way to end an entire Japanese course, with its chocolatey flare.

Robot of the south

Mr. Roboto sits in the growing food landscape of the south, a place most people would describe as far away. But Dani and David consider the south a great spot to thrive in.

“Here in the south, we’re quite laid-back” Dani said. “It’s just a small community, so we want to give them a good experience which they’re going to come back for.”

David nodded to this statement, adding that they want people to consider Mr. Roboto a food destination that’s worth the long trip.

I shifted my glance back to the vibrant mural of robots, ornamented with Japanese characters, that covered an entire section of the restaurant. Perhaps, all those who’ve lounged around this intriguing place have done the same thing, I thought. After all, it’s never easy to ignore the call of one’s childhood days especially when they take on the form of your favorite characters from TV and the big screen.

When asked about the moments that make them happy with their endeavor, Dani and David shared one story they’ll always remember.

Once, a woman sporting a Voltes V shirt came into the restaurant and feasted on their offerings.

“I’m eating here because I like this song,” she said, bobbing her head to the beat.

“And what song was that?” I asked.

“The Mr. Roboto song!” Dani answered.

Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto… Secret! Secret! I’ve got a secret! goes one of the most recognizable lines of the 1980s hit. In Alabang’s Mr. Roboto, the secret to its wonderful dining experience lies in the nostalgic ambiance, amazing food and its heartwarming service. Although it’s fairly new, I bet it won’t take too long before word spreads like fire among a larger crowd of food lovers: Mr. Roboto is a great place to be.

The secret’s finally out.

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