03 Jun2007

cen1

It has been many, many years since I have been to Cendrillon. The publication of the book Memories of Philippine Kitchens by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan, which I wrote about a few months ago, and which recently won the 2007 IACP Jane Grigson Award, made me want to see and taste what the food was like at the restaurant these days. So on our third evening in New York, we decided to shoot down on the subway to Soho, walk around for a bit, and have an early dinner at Cendrillon. Here is my review for the benefit of readers who are interested. First of all, let me say I am not a fan of fusion cooking and I will readily admit that is a personal bias. While I understand that some folks don’t really care what goes into a dish as long as they think it ultimately tastes good, I tend to gravitate to dishes that are more naturally made up of ingredients from a particular area or season which I find tend to go well together. So while I completely understand chef tricks such as an Asian dish of clams with a touch of fish sauce being rounded out with a pat of butter (an East meets West Ming Tsai touch for example), I generally seek less fusion type dishes as a matter of personal preference.

Cendrillon, per se, does not strike me as a Filipino restaurant. I think it was originally envisioned, and continues to offer, a pan-Asian menu that has touches of Thai, cen2Chinese, Malay and other regional dishes and flavor influences. However, its menu is heavily influenced by favorite Filipino dishes and it is obviously owned by Filipinos… I think they did a nice job of trying to make Filipino food more palatable to a wider audience, including many non-Filipinos. We arrived promptly at 630 pm for an early dinner. The interesting doorway on Mercer street, is beside an adult toy shop called Babeland, and in the distance one can see the architecturally significant Woolworth building further downtown. When Cendrillon opened more than a decade ago, this was a very hip part of town. We were greeted by Romy Dorotan near the door (he was just finishing up an early dinner or snack) and he showed us to our table at the back of the restaurant under a skylight. I didn’t introduce myself despite both Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan being present that evening. I figured I could come back another evening to say hello. I’ll skip the interior décor, staff and table setting report and go straight to the food… Here’s what we had for dinner and some comments from all of us who tasted the dishes that evening.

Our table ordered two plates of lumpia shanghai to start. Listed on the menu as “Lumpia Shanghai with pineapple sweet & sour sauce – (deep fried spring rolls with pork carrots, mushrooms & jicama), $8.50. Cendrillon’s version had a filling of pork, sotanghon noodles, carrots, mushrooms, singkamas, etc. and it was served with a really pallid looking sauce. I suppose the fusion part of this is the inclusion of noodles cen3and some of the vegetables that you would not typically find in a more pork filled version back home. Perhaps this was meant to be the offspring of a Vietnamese lumpia mother and Chinese via Manila lumpia father? But more than being a bit unusual in its ingredient make up, I found it uninspiring on the taste front, and the cornstarchy looking sauce was frankly, not helping matters any. Everyone thought this was a weak start to the meal.

At the suggestion of our cheery waiter, we ordered a plate of lechon kawali (photo up top) for all of us to share and it arrived along with the lumpia shanghai starter. This dish was excellent! Really good. Nice, tasty, fatty and deep fried pork belly served piping hot with a dipping sauce of light soy and vinegar and various chopped herbs. It came with steamed kalian as a foil to the fatty pork. It’s unusual to find really fatty pork in most U.S. restaurants so this was a nice surprise. If I had only ordered this and a bowl of rice I would have been highly satisfied. The crisp skin and flavorful meat really grabbed at the pinoy pork lover in all of us. One of the diners, a non-Filipino, likewise enjoyed this dish. Probably the best dish of the evening. Not a lot of fusion there.

We ordered five main courses (in addition to the lechon kawali) that evening. cen4First up, was a whole grilled fish special that I ordered. I can’t recall if it was a small sea bass or weakfish (the former, more likely) but it was cooked just right, with the meat moist and flavorful. The spices were probably thai in influence and it had a nice touch of chili in addition to the ginger, lemongrass, etc. It was served with a slice of grilled banana, ostensibly to balance the heat of the dish. This was good; but nothing Pinoy here…unless perhaps it was grilled in a banana leaf, which is a technique several Southeast Asian cuisines employ…

The Kid, seeking something familiar, ordered the Chicken Inasal (listed on the menu as Visayan style barbecue marinated in kalamansi, garlic & achuete, S18.50), which she shockingly noted was priced at nearly $20. A bit of math and her eyes gave me cen5this look like “PHP1,000 for that?” When the dish arrived, it was clearly not what she had expected. We make this dish at home so she has strong views on this but what came were two pieces of grilled chicken with a sugary sweet “lemony glaze” served on top of sautéed escarole or other greens. It also came with rice. The kid did not like this at all. Neither did I. Nor did Mrs. Marketman or my sister. The kid has eaten a lot of different food for someone her age and a wrinkled nose and pouted lips is not a good sign indeed. Two thumbs down on the Chicken Inasal. How they could have so nailed the lechon kawali and so screwed up the chicken inasal is a complete mystery!

Mrs. Marketman ordered the salt roasted duck with mango & tomatillo chutney and cellophane noodles ($21.50) that was crisp and delicious. cen7She wasn’t sure if this was meant to be somewhat Chinese-y (no five-spice or anything that blunt) or more Thai/Malay because of the accompanying sweet relishes. At any rate, the duck itself was first rate, crisp skin and a flavorful meat. Most of the diners that evening felt this was a good choice, but we weren’t quite sure how one would categorize this as far as nationality…who cares, it tasted pretty good.

My sister, the consummate foodie and from whom I have learned a lot, ordered the “paella” that evening. Listed on the menu as black rice paella with crabs, scallops, shrimp and manila clams with green thai curry, bottleneck gour, loofah, mushrooms and eggplant! This was on par with the kid’s inasal disaster (and the photo, my fault, is bad too). cen6What arrived in a Chinese or Indochinese individual clay pot was a beautifully presented paella, made with black rice and topped with a chockfull array of seafood. The problem was the utter lack of taste and flavor. This was simply dreadful. I have struggled with my own attempts at homemade paella but I can say that any of my home attempts (arroz negro, paella a la valenciana) trumped this disappointing example. This was less than tasty shellfish put on top of black rice with some watery broth and covered to steam. With patola and eggplant in the ingredients list, its not surprising it was “watery.” $19.50.

Finally, my brother-in-law ordered a dish of Manila clams (the only Filipino sounding part of the dish, though the Manila clams are likely raised in British Columbia or elsewhere in North America) with a black bean, ginger and lemon grass sauce that was good. The small clams and the heady and flavorful broth seemed to hit the spot. This is again more Chinese or Indochinese or Thai in influence. The bowl was wiped out. Appetizer portion, $10.50, not sure if the dinner portion was larger.

The verdict? Erratic or inconsistent at best. The Lechon Kawali was a home run. The Thai-style fish, the Chinese-y crisp duck and the clams with black beans were very good. But the lumpia shanghai, chicken inasal and paella were surprisingly weak. Oddly, the restaurant scored well mostly on the non-Pinoy style dishes. We decided to forego dessert and get it elsewhere that evening. And the cost of the meal described above? Along with a few softdrinks and a modest bottle of wine, our bill came out to a whopping $230 for five people plus tip! Yikes! That came out to $46-50 per person! Frankly, I thought that was very pricey for the meal that we had. And if you stay tuned I will feature a couple of other New York meals that seemed to be much better value for money (and if you troll back to our European trip last year, almost every restaurant I featured then cost less than this and had better food). At these prices you would expect a fairly dramatic setting, great service and fairly consistent food. We only visited once and perhaps I should have gone again to try more dishes, but at those prices I thought we would rather take our chances elsewhere.

 

COMMENTS:

  1. connie says:

    LOL at the Vietnoy lumpia, although I myself like the sotanghon in vietnamese eggrolls, I never really tried having them added to my lumpias. About fusion cooking, I guess for me, like any other food, it’s either a hit or a miss, Chili’s version of an eggroll that they call Southwestern eggroll is a definite miss, although their Americanized Thai Lettuce Wraps I do like a lot.
    That lechon kawali is drool-inducing. Like you, I would probably just be perfectly satisfied with that.
    About the paella, I think even with a better picture, that paella still would not look palatable.
    Oh, by the way, if in London, try Goya’s restaurant in Belgravia, their Paella Valenciana is out of this world. They boast of having authentic Spanish food, if that was authentic Spanish food, I’m very sold. Just make sure you finish the dish, you don’t want the owner to come to your table asking what was wrong with the dish. I was still having a bit of a jetlag, was not particular famished when we decided to have a dinner there. On occassions I still dream of that unfinished paella. As for the price, it’s only worth than chicken inasal, probably a few dollars more, only I think for the whole dining experience it was reasonably price and I can’t stop talking about it. LOL. Service was great, very small, cozy, we were told it was a converted church, and the toilets are were the crypts used to be.

    Jun 3, 2007 | 1:04 pm

     
  2. MegaMom says:

    I have the same views as yours on the authenticity of the cuisine as being “Filipino” and on the price. Every other Pinoy I’ve met who has eaten there says, no way am I paying $40 for kare-kare that I can make better at home. (And for that price I can have a whole bandehado at that!) “Authentic” and “better” are relative terms of course. When non-Pinoys ask me where to get a a taste of Pinoy food in New York, I actually recommend Cendrillon because it is presentable, even though my three instances of eating there were quite similar to yours. The premise is non-Pinoys don’t know any better. The few I’ve invited to our kitchen though were lucky enough to have “authentic” dishes. The ones who are really in for adventure though, I take to Elvie’s turo-turo (1st ave) and this bbq place in Queens, blanking on the name right now, even though I had kilos of bbq there while I was pregnant with my triplets!

    Jun 3, 2007 | 1:11 pm

     
  3. flip4ever says:

    Your review of the dishes seem to dovetail that of Frank Bruni’s (NY Times food critic) review in 2006; as well as a lot of reviews available for reading on the internet. Mr. Bruni even mentioned that while there were innovative and unique dishes on the menu, there were also a “few too many unremarkable dishes”. The material on the internet also seems to agree that its their brunch menu that is closer to Filipino cuisine. Guess if I ever decide to visit the place; I’ll make a note of the dishes people have generally agreed upon as “worth it”. Thanks for the review, MM.

    Jun 3, 2007 | 1:18 pm

     
  4. emme says:

    i will say as a filipina (or mestiza by heritage, half french and half filipino), who has grown up in paris, manila, london, philadelphia, and now new york — while cendrillon is not necessarily ‘authentic’ in terms of spices, cooking method etc (lots of other places like elvie’s has more authentic cuisine), it does achieve the much needed goal of bringing filipino cuisine to the western palate. many, many, many of my friends, in-laws, and loved ones i have taken with me to filipino restaurants all over the globe — from this one hole-in-the-wall outside florence to dragonfly in nyc’s west village to aristocrat in makati — who do NOT jibe with our mass produced filipino ‘timpla’. but when they try the more subtly, nuanced flavors at cendrillon, they appreciate our food with a whole new relish. i don’t know, but for me — romy and amy have done an amazing job at getting our cuisine into the forefront of culinary consciousness, albeit with some creative license/alterations regarding our own varied individual perceptions of how ‘authentic’ filipino cuisine should taste. considering how thai, burmese, laotiaon cuisine has LAPPED ours internationally, i do think they have made a valiant attempt at getting our dishes some spotlight time, and that is MORE then commendable. Sure, maybe they don’t have dinuguan, but once you chill in soho, live in manhattan, i think you start to realize — that’s not the point! they’re not trying to get westerners to appreciate kare kare from a jiffy peanut butter jar — they’re trying to bring authenticity and legitimacy to our own cusine so that the western world can notice — we were one of the first fusion cuisines; we should be recognized! and how can westerners give us recognition, if our dishes are barely palatable to them. baka grabe ang aking amerikano perspective, pero, seriously — walo akong kilala sa buong western world that has tried something like their endeavor to this acclaim…and i hate to say this, but as far as prices go — they’re place is pretty middle to low-shelf for restaurants in soho. i usually pay $40 for an entree…and i’ve definitely paid that equivalent in my husband’s family’s neighborhood in rome, my parents’ area in normandy and most definitely in london…

    Jun 3, 2007 | 2:42 pm

     
  5. Marney says:

    Hi,

    I totally agree with Emmee, Cendrillon should be commended for their efforts to bring our cuisine to the forefront. If we take their example it can only get better. Its not perfect but its a start.

    Happy eating.

    Jun 3, 2007 | 9:21 pm

     
  6. Apicio says:

    Cendrillon’s approach might very well be the right one. Introducing a new cuisine to a mainstream audience is frought with potencial rejection and the best method of blunting this is via stages of compromises. The Chinese started with eggroll and chopsuey and the Italians with even worse, Chef Boyardee. On the other hand and more recently though, the overwhelming acceptance of Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese food appear to have been achieved quickly and with little if any accomodation at all to non-native consumers. Although it is not apparent with Korean cuisine, judging alone by their variety and profusion in NYC, it too lagged behind in acceptance for the longest time.

    Btw, Frank Bruni’s awarding of three stars to Cendrillon provoked an exception that generated a lot of noise from members of a food forum I use to frequent even though the fellow who aired the grievance has not even visited the restaurant but claims only familiarity with Philippine cuisine.

    The paella of black rice (pirurutong, I guess) sounds to me misbegotten and stillborn, not even the remotest cousin of your paella negra I’ll wager.

    Jun 3, 2007 | 11:20 pm

     
  7. danney league says:

    There is still a big room for improvement for Cendrillon. That is if they listen to gourmet people like most of us. The restaurant itself needs major improvement. I wish the owners will at least try to enhance the presentation, taste and quality. They are almost there so why not go further more.

    Jun 4, 2007 | 1:38 am

     
  8. Katrina says:

    I’ve actually had a lumpia very similar to the one you had at Cendrillon, but here in Manila…and not just once, either. In fact, I’ve seen that sauce many times too, and don’t like it at all. The first time I tasted this kind of lumpia, I was quite surprised to find the sotanghon inside; but I was assured by my companions that this was not that uncommon. I think it serves as an extender. True enough, I encountered this same type of lumpia a few more times on other occasions. I personally still prefer the usual Shanghai filling and sweet-sour sauce, though.

    I like what Emme said about Filipino cuisine being one of the first fusion ones — so true! With influences that don’t just come from this region, but also from as far off as Spain and America, I don’t think there’s a lot about our food that we can call “pure.”

    That said, from your description, Cendrillon’s food doesn’t sound very attractive to me either.

    Jun 4, 2007 | 2:06 am

     
  9. Sister says:

    I’ve had dinner at Cendrillon half a dozen times over the last ten years or more and the food has always been mediocre at best and the service uneven to almost non-existent. I’m not looking for authenticity, just good food. No excuse for a paella totally devoid of any taste. I’ve never been able to recommend it to anyone and mostly my visits have been with cousins who know Amy and Romy.

    Jun 4, 2007 | 2:38 am

     
  10. Jade186 says:

    I’ve noticed that when dining in a Chinese or Italian resto, the chef usually gets informed that a compatriot is one of the clientele thus he/she cooks and prepares the food item ordered in a more ‘authentic’ way for their compatriot’s taste. Moreover, their compatriots even get to order ‘authentic’ dishes not listed in the menu specially made for them. Perhaps one ought to try this little strategy whenever dining in a Filipino resto overseas that caters primarily to local clientele, ie informing the kitchen that the Filipino diner seated would like to have luto at lasang Pinoy pakiusap lang po.
    BTW, California has got more choice Filipino restos, but most of you may already know about this.

    Jun 4, 2007 | 4:21 am

     
  11. pinky says:

    I’ve never been to Cendrillon; honestly I’ve never been to New York at all. I have high admiration and respect for the owners for their innovation and enterprising spirit. If one their goals is to introduce non Pinoys to the different influences that culminated the Filipino cuisine, maybe they are successful and more power to them. With that being said, considering myself a food lover, I also prefer real regional dishes. Personally, fusion food is like introducing Taco Bell or Del Taco to the uninitiated as Mexican food. Taco Bell may be a hit and miss start someone to acquiring the taste for the real deal –my own experience was a hit. I wish there is a good resto in the US offering non fusionized Pinoy adventurous non Pinoys and that it reaches heights for what it really is. But then again food/cuisine just like culture and language is dynamic; it will constantly evolve based on environmental influences and this is inevitable. Hopefully, it doesn’t evolve too fast too far in my generation and the next 5 generations down the line.

    Jun 4, 2007 | 4:30 am

     
  12. pinky says:

    Ooops, sorry for typo. One sentence should have read “… offering non fusionized Pinoy food for non Pinoys …”

    Jun 4, 2007 | 4:33 am

     
  13. Mangaranon says:

    Cendrillon is overrated. You could have had a better meal for less money and more authentic at Grill 21. The only thing I don’t like in Grill 21 is their fresh lumpia. Being an Ilonggo, I know what delicious fresh lumpia tastes.

    Even Ihawan in Queens is good. Their fresh lumpia is good; not quite like what we have at home pero okay na.

    Jun 4, 2007 | 5:48 am

     
  14. Marketman says:

    I never read a review of Cendrillon before I wrote this post. In fact, I rarely read restaurant reviews unless they are put right in front of me. So it is with interest that I now read some of the reviews posted online, including Mr. Bruni’s 2 star rating for the NY Times last year. I think there is a consensus in that Cendrillon has many good points and many disappointing ones as well. Mediocre is the best way to describe the experience. While I completely agree that they have done a good job of introducing Filipino food to foreign palates, I personally think that Pinoy food done well doesn’t need to be “fixed” or “watered down” to be palatable. But that is just my opinion and there are many other differing opinions out there. As Apicio stated, some cuisines have taken off without much compromise while others required a gentler introduction. At any rate, I just called the dishes like they were, and I still assert that the price points were on the high side. I did get to Elvie’s and will do a write up on that as well but didn’t get to Grill 21. With nearly a million ethnic pinoys in the tri-state NY-NJ-Conn area, you would think there would be more choices as far as Filipino influenced restaurants…

    Jun 4, 2007 | 9:59 am

     
  15. corrrine says:

    I also don’t like fusion cuisine however, like what some of you said, I agree that the owners of Cendrillon can be commended for bringing awareness of Filipino food to international audience. They were even featured in Martha Stewart’s show. In Manila, it’s been my long time problem where to bring my foreign guests for really good Filipino food that has good ambiance at the same time. I can only think of Port (?) in Waterfront, Cebu.

    Jun 4, 2007 | 1:20 pm

     
  16. Chinachix says:

    i agree with MM that Pinoy food need not be “fixed” or “watered down” to be palatable. i had lunch at cendrillon once many years ago, and all i can remember is being disappointed at their “watered down” version of adobo. i had specifically sought out the restaurant because i wanted to try pinoy fusion fare, unfortunately, outside of the novelty of the dining experience, there are other places i think i can go that offer better food and value for money.

    Jun 4, 2007 | 10:34 pm

     
  17. flip4ever says:

    Sorry MM, had to correct my post…the Frank Bruni article was actually published earlier, like summer of 2005. I was thinking of Chef Dorotan’s appearance on Martha Stewart when I put 2006.

    Jun 4, 2007 | 11:16 pm

     
  18. MegaMom says:

    Thanks to other readers I now remember that Ihawan was the Queens barbeque place we used to go to. Later, another Queens-based resto, Crystal’s, (or was it with a K now?) opened up in the East Village (1st ave. also) and that is where I had the kilos of BBQ. Must have been postpartum amnesia… Reminds of my first visit to NY many, many years ago, before I even lived there. There was a street fair and we chanced upon a Pinoy food stall. There was queue (A BBQueue, corny, heheheh) “What do you call this in your language?” asked a Kano of the stall owners, pointing to a stick of pork BBQ. Serious answer: “It’s called barbeque.” My husband and I died laughing while waiting in line to get our “inihaw”!
    I’ll wait for MM’s comments on Elvie’s. I have some historical info on the Pinoy food scene in the East Village and Lower East Side which I will share then.

    Jun 5, 2007 | 10:02 am

     
  19. mikelinparis says:

    i think cendrillon is peude na. certainly other places to go for lasang pinoy & inexpensive food. however, i agree that cendrillon should be commended for being there.

    Jun 5, 2007 | 7:55 pm

     
  20. SariS says:

    It’s too bad you skipped dessert – my one very favorite thing at Cendrillon is their version of the French tarte tatin which is made with mangoes and puff pastry. It’s so good – Martha Stewart even featured Romy on her show. I remember they also made a pretty good and innovative Lumpiang Sariwa that involved putting ube powder in the wrapper and using chanterelles in the filling. Mmmmmm….

    Jun 6, 2007 | 3:08 am

     
  21. trishlovesbread says:

    I remember really liking their baby back ribs adobo as well as their cocktails–the buko vodka martini is especially refreshing!

    Jun 6, 2007 | 5:54 am

     
  22. Kid says:

    Well, the Chicken Inasal was really lemon chicken, but I will give them the Lechon and the duck. I think that their efforts to make filipino food more likable to americans is a good thing… but filipinos probably have a better background of what fillipino food really tastes like at home.

    Jun 6, 2007 | 10:55 pm

     
  23. gemma says:

    Seven years ago, I was a culinary student at French Culinary (Broadway and Grand) which is a block away from Cendrillon. Being a foreign student from the Philippines, I wanted to try out the restaurant. An aquaintance’s negative opinion of the restuarant, however, resulted in me having second thoughts about sampling their cuisine. Knowing how disgutingly snotty Filipinos can be to their fellow countrymen (this applies most to wanna-bes), I had major apprehensions. I would like to note that I do not feel the same way with other higher-end establishment (e.g. Nobu Mr. Chow’s, Daniel etc.). I was pursuing a career in the culinary arts so eating out was a major part of my life.

    I bought their cookbook recently and could not help but notice the propensity of the authors to cite sources that make it sound like a litany of the oligarchs in the Philippines. One recipe was credited to the cook of Ms. So and So and the cook’s name was not even mentioned. It wa Ms. So and So’s name that was mentioned!! Makes me feel sick…

    Jun 18, 2007 | 6:16 am

     
  24. kongwi says:

    come to think of it, is there ever a restaurant in manila that serves good filipino food?

    Sep 1, 2007 | 1:45 am

     
  25. jon says:

    Most of you guys are full of crap. lol. All those name dropping and you know what is pathetic. Cendrillon has been in existence for the last 10 years or so. The only Fiipino restaurant that has survived that long and continuously patronize by people from different walks of life. Very homey, beautiful and friendly host. Who the hell cares if its not authentic filipino food and besides there is really authentic filipino dishes for that matter. Sister says,”I’ve had dinner at Cendrillon half a dozen times over the last ten years or more”, if the food is that mediocre, why go back several times unless of course you are a masochist then that explains it. lol.

    i totally agree with you kongwi. Every time i go home to Pinas, i hardly go out to restaurants. my grandparents, mother side is from the mountain province and she cooks the most tasty simple food, organic vegetable, rice from their rice field, chicken from the yard and she just seasoned them with salt and some unknown herbs from her garden and the aroma is delightful. My other grandmother, father side is from Bohol. she is more dramatic in preparing meals. she prefers to cook in the dirty kithchen than using the gas range and double oven in her immaculate kitchen. she uses coal for baking. you can smell the wonderful scent of the banana leaves every time she makes a bibingka lol. These are the authentic Filipino food otherwise everything is fusion. there is no such thing as authentic filipino dishes,

    For those of you loving filipino kababayans who plans to visit New York or if you are already a New York resident continue to patronize Cendrillon restaurant. The food is great, the last time i was there i saw Willem Dafoe and at one time NYC mayor bloomberg [ hugh! what about that for a name droping}

    May 30, 2009 | 12:00 pm

     
  26. Marketman says:

    jon, odd that you would think that the “only Filipino restaurant that has survived that long” doesn’t need to have authentic filipino food, “who the hell cares if its not authentic filipino food”… um, hello? best to call Cendrillion Asian fusion or whatever, but it isn’t very authentic Pinoy food at all. And you must not have been there recently as I understand they have CLOSED shop at their original location, unwilling or unable to afford the increased rent, and instead relocated to Queens or thereabouts, possibly now pitting itself against a market that may be more likely to look for authentic rather than fusion food. I have absolutely nothing against Cendrilon, I just wish there were other options for Pinoy style dining in the city, considering the million plus ethnic pinoys in the tri-state area. President Macapagal Arroyo has lasted some 8-9 years in her position, and that certainly does not mean one should conclude she is good simply because she has been around for nearly a decade… the logic stinks.

    May 30, 2009 | 4:21 pm

     
 

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