Friday, January 2, 2009

Husband-and-Wife Cuisine, Haute and Otherwise

PINOY FOOD IS A HARD SELL to American palates, so when Cendrillon, a Filipino restaurant opened in trendy SoHo and got rave reviews from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, I had to see, and taste, for myself. It may have been a timely decision; the restaurant is going to close in April and will reopen in Brooklyn as Purple Yam because, according to its owners, the new location will be closer to where they live. So, although I am no food (much less haute cuisine) critic, I boldly took the R train to Prince Street in Manhattan to see what's going on. Owned by husband-and-wife Romy and Amy Dorotan of Manila, the restaurant (Cendrillon is the title of a Massenet opera; their choice of name puzzles me) has been cited as one of the best Pan-Asian restaurants in New York City, and perhaps for a reason. Imagine, who else can sell kare-kare with pungent side dish bagoong alamang to Americans? It is a feat the Dorotans have achieved. The restaurant seems to attract a clientele of curious first-timers, and I wonder how many of them return to become regulars. Maybe a lot, at least in the beginning. Cendrillon has been in existence for thirteen years, but I suspect that the recent economic recession and SoHo's astronomical rent contributed to its owners' decision to move.

So what makes Cendrillon tick? Well, aside from what the reviews say on the website, the trick seems to be the American twists the couple have ingeniously put on Filipino staples, and the Filipino twists on Western ones. For example, they use feta and Gouda cheese instead of quesong puti for rice cakes (bibingka), a combination that is pure heaven, at least according to one critic, Peter Kaminsky of New York Magazine, who called it "an egg McMuffin in the mind of God." The couple also substitute trout for bony milkfish daing. The messy-to-eat dish ginataang alimasag at kalabasa has been refined into crab dumplings with squash puree and coconut milk soup, while still retaining its island flavors. For Pinoy ingredients, they use taro root and purple yam (camote) for mashed potatoes, and pirurutong, a native Philippine rice variety for black paella. (By the way, the dish derives its color from the pirurutong, not from the squid ink as done in Mediterranean cooking.) Another rice cultivar endemic to the islands they so cleverly use is diket, a purple variety of glutinous rice cultivated by upland farmers who inherit the heirloom seeds from their ancestors in the Mountain Province. It is supposed to be organically grown, the perfect ingredient for suman with an intriguing color. For dessert, how about coffee ice cream using Batangas kapeng barako, or lemon meringue pie using calamansi? The list of "fusion" dishes goes on. Being a noodle soup guy, I ordered udon in broth with roasted duck and leeks, a dish neither Filipino nor American, for a price that could buy me two bowls of pho in nearby Chinatown. I did not get disappointed, but did not get wowed either. I spent most of the time perusing the menu, more to satisfy my curiosity than my stomach. Overall rating? Four out of five, mainly for effort.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town in the hospital area of Gramercy, another Pinoy cuisine was stirring a different kind of talk, and controversy, in the neighborhood, according to articles in The New York Daily News and The New York Post forwarded to me by friend Afel Inlong (Click on the newspaper). The Cabrini nuns of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus have filed a lawsuit against Michael and Gloria Lim, a Filipino couple who live in their building, for frying and/or smoking dried herring (tuyo) and infesting the pristine air of their enclave with an unholy aroma that, I imagine, ruined their vestments to an extent that no amount of Downy or Snuggle could restore to their former fragrance. These nuns may have been trained for missions in stinky third world backwaters, but hey, this is Manhattan. The air you breathe is different from mine. (Ironically, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the religious order's founder whose supposedly incorrupt body is enshrined in Washington Heights uptown, is the patron saint of immigrants. I wonder what her nuns would hear from her if she were alive.) The damages the sisters seek? $75,000. Maybe it's time for the Lims to take little trips to Queens and buy their tuyo from Phil-Am Food Mart already fried instead?

Photos: Black rice paella and Cendrillon sign above; tomatoes and tuyo, and making diket suman below.

Cendrillon, 45 Mercer Street (between Broome and Grand Streets), New York, New York 10013, Phone (212) 343-9012
In April: Purple Yam, 1314 Cortelyou Road, Brooklyn, New York 11226, phone pending

No comments:

Post a Comment