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 donâ€™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, Chinese, Malay and other regional dishes and flavor influences. However, its menu is heavily influenced by favorite Filipino dishes and it is obviously owned by Filipinosâ€¦ 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 didnâ€™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. Iâ€™ll skip the interior dÃ©cor, staff and table setting report and go straight to the foodâ€¦ Hereâ€™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. Cendrillonâ€™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 and 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. Itâ€™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. First up, was a whole grilled fish special that I ordered. I canâ€™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 hereâ€¦unless perhaps it was grilled in a banana leaf, which is a technique several Southeast Asian cuisines employâ€¦
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 this look like â€œPHP1,000 for that?â€ 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 sautÃ©ed 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. She wasnâ€™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 werenâ€™t quite sure how one would categorize this as far as nationalityâ€¦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 kidâ€™s inasal disaster (and the photo, my fault, is bad too). What 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.