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MANILA, Philippines – “I want to try eating less meat. Where can I get good plant-based food? What’s a good vegan restaurant to try?” “OMG, have you tried Cosmic? I’ll take you there!”
This is how most conversations with my carnivorous yet curious friends and relatives usually go. When a craving for plant-based fare calls, I almost always recommend Cosmic as the first (and best) vegan restaurant for them to try out.
As a mostly plant-based eater myself, I also find myself gravitating towards Cosmic when I’m in need of comfort food, sans the guilt. Their varied menu of simple, filling, but flavorful meals makes it exciting for plant-based eaters to enjoy familiar, home-cooked goodness again, and also easy for aspiring vegans and non-vegans to transition into eating more veggies and less meat, without compromising on flavor and texture.
Considered an easy and approachable gateway to vegan food, Cosmic brings new life to the “eat your veggies” order of your mother – aside from their ingenious way of transforming plants into dishes we grew up with, the warm, cozy ambiance, buzzing atmosphere, and eclectic interiors of Cosmic’s flagship branch in Poblacion, Makati City is unmistakable.
The mural-filled, tropical-themed, three-floor dining spot is filled with excitable energy, zest, and passion, all evident in their staff, the busy open kitchen, Cosmic’s diverse set of loyal customers, and the dishes served. Everyone is warmly welcomed here, vegan or not, and simply united by a universal love for good food.
Finding love in a meatless place
Even Cosmic didn’t convert to veganism cold turkey right away. The homegrown resto didn’t start as a 100% vegan restaurant when it opened in 2018; it was actually a vegetarian restaurant at first (dairy and eggs were allowed) that only transitioned to being purely vegan in December. That meant a complete shift to no animal by-products at all – no mayo, eggs, cow’s milk, cream, butter, and cheese, and absolutely no beef, pork, chicken, and fish. Instead, meat substitutes are used, which are made by Cosmic from different sources of plant-based proteins like soy, wheat, tofu, mushrooms, and others.
The diversity of their ingredients also impact the diversity of their menu – Cosmic’s offerings range from Asian cuisine, to fusion, to Italian, to Filipino. Whatever your cuisine preference is, you’re bound to meat your meatless match here.
“We have a variety of all-vegan dishes. We have Asian fusion, we have tempuras, salads, and we also have the tofu egg platter, and all-day breakfast, and comfort bowls like miso ramen and miso soup,” Cosmic’s restaurant operations manager and co-founder Lali Balagtas told Rappler. They try to pay homage to popular Philippine staples, like noodles, just without egg or dairy.
“We aim to serve traditional comfort food of the Philippines, as well as other Asian cuisines,” she said. And comfort it is – on the menu you’ll see your favorite sisig, sinigang, kare-kare, bagnet, and even isaw here. Presentation-wise, you may just be fooled; texture-wise, it could pass, and taste-wise, you’ll find it hard to believe that it isn’t meat. But non-vegans end up asking: “If you’re vegan, why do you want it to taste like meat?”
“It’s more or less because we want to convert those people. We want to encourage people to become vegans through our food. We know they’re looking for the taste of meat and the umami,” Lali said, and so Cosmic gives it to them, plain and simple. And hey, it works.
A cosmic coincidence: The vegan-ing of it all
Call it divine fate, but Lani was lucky enough to have four other friends who were all on board the plant-based train. It was also a cosmic coincidence that three of them – including Lali – had been vegetarians since birth. But what stirred the group to pursue their plant-based purpose in a country where meat reigns in its cuisine?
“We realized in 2019 that the demand for veganism was on the rise, and plant-based diets were getting higher, especially with the #MeatlessMondays trend,” Lali said.
Each friend has their own roles to play – one owner is in charge of recipes, while Lani is in charge of drinks, pastries, and operations. Another friend comes up with all the dishes, another caters to marketing, and another friend caters to business permits, accounting, and logistics. The fifth person handles the branding of the restaurant, and is involved in recipe development as well. Ultimately, Lali said that they were all brought together because of their love and passion for vegan food.
When they were first starting, Poblacion was also getting more traction at the same time – it became the newest nightlife destination in Metro Manila and a great place to barhop and food trip late at night with friends. Poblacion was also a rich breeding ground for design, art, and culture. According to Lali, one of the founders saw “the movement of the people” there, and thought Poblacion would be the best home for Cosmic’s humble beginnings.
“We knew there was a demand, especially in Poblacion, because of the backpackers and foreigners. With the crowd here in Poblacion, we know we’ll get vegans. But 70-80% of customers are non-vegans,” Lali said.
Vegan or not, enjoying good food is “universal,” Lali said. This is exactly what Cosmic tries to do with vegan food, which gave birth to their name “Cosmic,” since the cosmos is universal, and has endless possibilities.
“The restaurant’s growth was mostly organic. We had friends who promoted us. Luckily, the community of Poblacion eat here and appreciate it more through word of mouth,” Lali said.
“We are very fulfilled as business owners. We notice that we get a lot of inquiries, not just in our restaurant, but in partnership and investment. I think we are doing something right,” she added.
Cosmic’s magic actually goes way back to the resto’s founding – many of the recipes on the menu were recipes already being cooked in the owners’ own homes. However, the initial idea of Lali and her friends was actually not a restaurant, but a frozen products line of bagnet, patties, and others to supply to groceries.
“But then our cook started making dishes with those items, we started eating it, and said it’s so good. So, why don’t we just open a restaurant and serve what we know?” Lali said.
They decided to find a spot in two weeks’ time, right in the middle of Poblacion. Things moved so fast that when opened, they didn’t even have a sign – a quirk that a lot of customers ended up liking. Cosmic quickly became a prized hole-in-the-wall gem and a well-kept open secret you’d be eager to share with people you’re close to.
No meat, no problem! A plant-based menu that’s easy to root for
It’s easy to appreciate a menu that doesn’t intimidate or overwhelm, and has a varied selection of familiar favorities and interesting new things to try. At Cosmic, what you see is what you get – bagnet, sisig, sinigang, barbecue isaw, and even spinach lasagna. Every element of each dish is well thought of, and meticulously made from the most appropriate plant-based protein to correctly mimic its corresponding texture and taste, without it being too alien on the non-vegan tongue. You can trust every component in terms of quality and flavor.
Cosmic’s sinigang hits the asim spot, just like how it normally does – the veggies are crisp, the broth is on point, but instead of meat, tofu is used as the protein. They also have a creamy sisig, with the “pork bits” made from firm wheat protein – but the taste is just as savory, slightly tangy, and a tad spicy as your usual. It’s made from mostly soy and gluten, which is steamed and then fried for that distinct chewy-crispy texture. For their “mayonnaise,” Cosmic uses nippon tofu, another form of tofu from Korea.
Cosmic’s spinach lasagna is “veganized” as well, but still a worthy ode to the Italian classic – the lasagna noodles are al dente, the tomato sauce is tart and fresh, and the spinach is well-cooked. It’s made with no cheese but a vegan bechamel sauce that’s just as creamy, rich, and savory, and made from coconut milk. The “meat” is made from textured soy protein, and the salty “parmesan cheese” is actually cashew nut milk and nooch (nutritional yeast) mixed together.
You can’t leave Cosmic without trying their best-selling, crowd-favorite bagnet – fatty, savory, golden-brown, and crunchy. The magical no-meat “meat” is made from soy protein, which helps give it that stringy, muscle fiber texture of the real thing. Vegetable starch is also used for the uncannily gooey “taba” part of their bagnet.
The bagnet can be ordered solo, or better yet, as part of Cosmic’s famed Kare-Kareng Bagnet, served with their bean bagoong. This is one of my favorite meals in Cosmic – it’s homey, familiar, and comforting; the peanut stew is thick, gloopy, and savory, the vegetables are well-cooked, and the dish really must be paired with the crispy bagnet for texture and the salty bagoong. Cosmic’s vegan bagoong is made from taosi (yellow salted beans), tomato paste, and sesame oil, and is simmered for eight hours.
Their barbecue isaw is also a popular (and personal) favorite – it’s served on a stick and grilled to perfection, mimicking that charred, smoky look of regular isaw. Chewy, textured soy protein is marinated and cooked in traditional BBQ isaw sauce that’s big on umami, with a kick of sweetness. Although the texture is a bit chewier than expected, the taste is on point, and extra-addictive when dipped in Cosmic’s housemade suka.
There’s always room for dessert, and Cosmic’s leche flan is a guilt-free version of the classic sweet flan custard. Cosmic uses plant-based gelatin to hold its jiggly texture, and still uses caramelized sugar and calamansi zest in the custard to give it its distinct flavor.
Cosmic is also a no-alcohol zone, as the founders “are not only into the vegan lifestyle, but a holistic lifestyle,” as Lani said. They do serve alcohol-free “mocktails”, kombucha called Diwa Brew, and barako coffee from Sagada.
Cosmic’s ‘plants’ for the future
Through the years, Cosmic continues to grow, even despite its closure during March 2020’s lockdown. Patrons still ordered religiously from their favorite vegan spot via delivery and takeout, which helped the brand carry on during the pandemic and allowed them to grow another branch in prime foodie location Kapitolyo in March 2021, with Kapitolyo-exclusive new additions to their menu, like un-pork siomai and vegan bangus relleno.
Moving forward, despite necessary price increases, Cosmic is still set on remaining an affordable spot for filling plant-based food. “As much as possible, we locally source and we make sure that we make it ourselves. It’s more time-consuming, but it’s cheaper,” Lali said. Being creative, resourceful, and sensible with where you buy your ingredients (the Poblacion palengke is their staple) is key.
As for future plans, Lali said that they “plan to keep [their] hands dirty” by eventually putting up their own farm in the province. “But for now, we cater to the masses. We don’t claim that we’re healthy, we don’t say we’re organic, but we are a healthier alternative,” she said.
After all, it’s all about keeping it real here at Cosmic, not just through their messaging, but also through their humble intention to satisfy, their noble purpose to promote hearty vegan meals of good cost and quality, and to show both vegans and non-vegans that enjoying good food without having to eat meat is possible, fun, and an experience you’ll most likely look for again and again. – Rappler.com