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The Odd Duck’s Asmaa Said blends Brazil, Japan, and Manila in Uma Nota’s design

MANILA, PHILIPPINES — Underneath the streets of BGC, at the center of a vast gallery where dining gives way to dancing as the day ends, hangs a massive tree with silk leaves that play with light, painting the walls with fecund shadows. Celadon drapery runs down the length of enormous arches, bringing a rainy texture to the scene as their own lights — hidden behind recesses at the tops and bottoms of these fixtures — lend an ethereal quality to the fabric. At the base of the central arch, a golden DJ booth is crowned by lush greenery, framed on either side by a homey assemblage of sconces and assorted artwork.

This is quite likely the first thing you’ll notice after heading down the stairs from the dimly lit, art deco-inspired entrance of Uma Nota, a Brazilian-Japanese restaurant and bar concept currently drawing in the cosmopolitan segment of Metro Manila’s dining scene. Beyond delivering just a fusion of cuisines, Uma Nota celebrates the rich history between the two cultures, with Japanese immigrants settling in Brazil over a century ago, giving birth to a community that’s developed its own unique nuances within the greater population.

The Bonifacio Global City location is Uma Nota’s third, following Hong Kong and Paris, and is by far the most conceptual in design. Whereas the preceding locations took inspiration from botecos and samba clubs, respectively, Uma Nota Manila’s look is tailored around the marriage between Brazilian-Japanese culture and Filipino hospitality, evoking the former’s festive spirit while maintaining a sense of comfort and familiarity.

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The space was designed by Dubai-based interior design practice The Odd Duck, whose awarding-winning founder Asmaa Said was gracious enough to take adobo Magazine on an exclusive walkthrough of each of Uma Nota’s four main areas.

Uma Nota Design by Asmaa Said of The Odd Duck 2024 Profile Photo
Uma Nota Design by Asmaa Said of The Odd Duck 2024 sketch collage

The central dining gallery, where the aforementioned tree resides, is known as The Living Room, pairing the welcoming spirit its name calls to mind with a sense of nostalgia for old-world dance halls. Wood shutters lining the walls and cheeky pineapple lamps within the chamber’s smaller details elicit a tropical warmth to the design, underscored by several arches along the adjoining walls that soften the space’s lines.

It’s these very details that make the room feel more like a home which, according to Asmaa, was the intent.

“We didn’t want [Uma Nota] to be your typical nightclub where you walk in and everything’s black and dark,” she said. “The furniture and everything else is set up almost like a home, like a residential living space so it doesn’t alienate people when they come.”

At the same time, it was crucial that the design still feel native to the Philippines. As we toured The Living Room, Asmaa excitedly pointed out the paintings on the wall opposite the drapery, a collection curated by artist collective The Empty Scholar.

“They’re all Manila-based artists,” she shared. “It’s really important for us that, when we create something, it has context and it has relevance to the location.”

“Uma Nota can be anywhere, so [our design] needs to make sense to Manila,” she added.

To strengthen the design’s connection to the Philippines, Asmaa and her team made sure that the Filipino identity could also be felt in the space’s materiality, and how these elements were used to give Uma Nota Manila a distinctly Pinoy sense of hospitality.

“We tried to use a lot of the local stones, the natural timber, and rattan texturing so we [could] give [Uma Nota] the kind of nuances that would be relevant to the context of Manila,” she explained. “But above all, it was more of the actual people that we wanted to capture.”

“We came earlier, we did our research, we went to the different venues in the city and we were trying to cater the space to be quite successful for what Manila needs right now. And that’s how the actual concept came through,” she continued.

“We have a very strong identity with Uma Nota as a brand, what they do, what Brazilian Japanese cuisine is about and the identity of the fact that it goes from restaurant to nightclub. But that can work differently if we’re talking in Milan or in Lisbon or in Paris. For that to work here in Manila, we had to create a sense of intimacy and not alienate people by being too pompous or luxurious in the typical sense, and that’s precisely why the Living Room concept works. You still have the height, you still have the wow factor, but it doesn’t feel cold. It doesn’t feel unapproachable.”

Quietly sitting adjacent to the Living Room, the Bar area is built for conversation rather than raucous libation. The space itself feels cozy yet spacious — while it has decidedly less headroom than its neighbor, the movement across the Bar’s marble surfaces, mirrored ceiling, and colorful bottle collection filling its modest area with vibrance. Tables are designed to bring people closer; ice wells are fixed into the centers of each one, bringing an easiness to the evening’s flow. When the lights come to life at night, the Bar’s reflective ceiling has, as Asmaa puts it, an almost-psychedelic quality that adds to the experience.

Uma Nota Design by Asmaa Said of The Odd Duck 2024 bar

Together, the Living Room and the Bar represent the thesis of Uma Nota Manila: a space evocative of the unique energy of Brazilian-Japanese culture, blended with the accommodating warmth of Filipinos. There’s a strong feeling of familiarity in the space, even underneath the enormous organic centerpiece hanging overhead, and when the room is filled with the bustle of people singing and drinking and dining and dancing, there’s no doubt that any Pinoy who’s ever enjoyed a night in with friends would feel right at home.

The restaurant’s two private rooms, however, are a different story. While the more open areas embody the synthesis of three cultures, the more intimate spaces unabashedly represent the two halves of Uma Nota’s heritage.

The Tropicalia room, named after the 1960s Brazilian art movement, harkens back to the decade through its listening room-esque design. Flirtatiously pink walls serve as the backdrop to wooden panels topped by soft waves, while a cream-colored carpet serves as the deliciously tactile anchor to the room’s color story. As with the Living Room, there are barely any straight lines in the space, save for the shelf wall housing a collection of fluidly shaped earthenware vessels and retro vinyls.

“The vinyls that we have here act as an ode to the fact that Tropicalia was a movement that was expressed through music, so we’ve got all the original vinyls that you can play and the guests can explore,” Asmaa shared.

The room is fitted with a sound system separate from the main area, as well as its own DJ booth and cocktail cart, making it an ideal space for private events, she explained. “That’s why the acoustics here are well studied to cater for this separation. We mindfully lined the walls in timber paneling and the floor in carpeting so all the materials are naturally absorbent. The same applies to the velvets and fur found in the loose furniture.”

On the opposite end of Uma Nota is the smaller Meiji room, envisioned as a space for VIPs. Upon entering, two details immediately catch the eye: a stunning 12-seater dining table set with marble in a nearly hypnotic warped checkerboard pattern; and a custom wallpaper that flows over the walls’ and ceiling’s seamless curves, enveloping guests within its meticulously drawn foliage.

The wooden panels from the Tropicalia room are a recurring motif in the Meiji room — perhaps poetically so, as the Brazilian and Japanese cultures began to intertwine during the latter room’s namesake. It was at the end of the Meiji era in 1912 when Japanese immigrants began to build their community in Liberdade, Sao Paulo, a key inspiration for the room’s design.

“In Liberdade, there was a lot of mixing of food, of music, of culture,” Asmaa said. “And that came through quite beautifully to create what Uma Nota is all about: it’s celebrating the music and food within a vibrant cultural setting.”

After the tour, I thanked Asmaa for her time and decided to stay behind at the Living Room. I wanted to try one of Uma Nota’s signature cocktails: the Kyoto Sour. It was delightfully balanced, with a generous amount of sake tempered by T&T vodka and brightened by a tangy blend of grapefruit and lemon. A splash of green tabasco brought an earthy body to the profile along with a nice peppery kick, while a touch of agave syrup rounded everything out to create a multi-layered experience that tasted both of revelry and familiarity; excitement and comfort.

As I sipped my drink, I reviewed the recording of my conversation with Asmaa and stopped at a quote that seemed apt for the moment. She was talking about the tree suspended above where I sat.

“It’s very raw,” she said of the centerpiece of her design. “Very uninhibited. It’s not very manicured greenery. It’s wild. We wanted to capture that sense of wildness within this space but more in a sculptural art form.”

Uma Nota Design by Asmaa Said of The Odd Duck 2024 floating tree

With its roots sprawling downwards, its branches reaching out towards the ceiling, the tree at the center of Uma Nota is the establishment’s wild heart. The manner in which its lines and textures play with their surroundings seems to have a musical quality to it, as though the entire room were dancing with itself, joyous and unfettered.

And yet, there’s also a quiet sophistication to it all. The meticulousness with which this mise en scène was crafted, technically complex yet undeniably comfortable, makes it so that my surroundings both invigorate and ground me.

I brought the cocktail to my lips and drank in the scenery. It felt foreign; it felt like home.

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