Saturday, January 21, 2006

Filipino High and Low New York Entry #60

Without intent I enjoyed a pair of Filipino meals back-to-back. Filipino cuisine does not have the charisma of Chinese, Thai, or Vietnamese cuisine. Its hominess seems more attuned to a family dinners. Yet, the Philippines with its layered textures, including native cuisines, Chinese, Spanish, and American seems poised for a gustatory explosion.

My two meals could hardly have been more different. Cendrillon is an elegant decade-old pan-Filipino establishment that describes itself as an "Asian Grill and Merienda Bar," located on the southern edge of SoHo (soon to be labeled So-So Ho). The next day I traveled to Woodside, Queens, the old Irish redoubt that is now Little Manilla, for lunch at Ihawan, a bustling local restaurant that describes itself as "Home of the Best Barbecue in Town." Those descriptions tell the story, that and the clientele, Prada princesses and Luzon ladies.

Cendrillon is still basking in the two star review that Frank Bruni awarded last August. If that review was generous, Bruni's assessment was well within the margin of error. Cendrillon, named after a French ballet, serves Filipino-inspired cuisine, much in the way that Aquavit is Nordic-inspired, a nip here, a tuck there. The owner-chef Romy Dorotan, a charming host, was trained at French and American restaurants in Philadelphia, and his training shows. His dishes edge towards a Filipino sensibility, but are recognizably modern, just as is the restaurant design, not out of place in SoHo, but with Filipino accents and art.

We began with spring rolls with pork, mushrooms, and cabbage. They were attractively presented, but were reminiscent of those crispy cigars that served at upscale Chinese or Thai restaurants, not as thin as the more Filipino versions I have been served. Our other appetizer was more creative, a goat curry, served with plantain and a tangy fruit chutney. The best feature was the light rice pancakes that permitted the belief that one was treated to Moo Shu Goat. It was the high point of the meal.

My main course was a Salt Roasted Duck with Mango and Tomatillo Chutney and Cellophane Noodles. Both the noodles and the duck preparation winked at its Asian origins. This was a sturdy and fatty duck for which the chutney was a necessary accessory, and an addition it was. Should Cendrillon bottle the stuff, I will be lining up for my portion.

We also ordered Lamb Shank Braised in Coconut Milk, Lemongrass, Kaffir Lime, and Galangal (nouveau ginger, now epidemic in Haute Cultureburg). This was a powerfully robust dish, but the meat was too heavy for my taste and the fruits and spices were too light.

Desserts were a winning pair of tarts: Apple with Macapuno Ice Cream (a native coconut sib) and Blueberry and Purple Yam with Coconut Sorbet. I enjoyed the sweetness of both, but I particularly admired the deep sweetness and vivid violet of the Blueberry-Yam. The yam and coconut recalled the culinary heritage of the islands, but the tart crust revealed Chef Dorotan's training.

Ihawan was local to the core, a plain white dining hall with simple, functional tables and chairs, even if the menu was rather more elaborate than what one might expect in a community restaurant in the live heart of Queens. Once we persuaded our waitress that we didn't want the rib-eye steak, we got along famously. We ordered quite a spread, and discovered that the lunch for two was only a bit more than an entree at Cendrillon.

Filipinos, along with the French, treasure organ meats. This being Saturday, we started with soup of the day, Batchoy ("Pork Internal Parts in Ginger Soup" - no galangal). I wished that I had a hangover. This rich, piquant soup would have cured it. As much as I enjoyed the kidneys and liver, I found myself drawn to the broth, as rich as what might be at the stockpot at La Grenouille. This was Elysian bouillon.

Ordering a barbecue stick I imagined a small satay. What was served verged on being half a pig on a stick. The stick must have measured close on two feet with a large fillet of sweet and zesty thin cut pork.

The crispy pata was described as deep fried pork knuckles, a cut - ham shanks - more often linked to German cuisine. It was hunks of huge cracklins. This is not a dish to eat if you dream of defibrillators. One could find the meat shrouded under inches of crispy pork skin. In small doses, it is to be treasured, although like Pork Rinds, it is easy just to eat one.

Our final dish was Laing (Gabi - taro - leaves sauteed in coconut milk). It looks like creamed spinach and tastes like paradise. The shrimp perched on top was less ornament than the finishing touch for a dish that was nearly too rich for its own good.

A glass of pure, sweet, chilled cantaloupe juice was a simple reminder of a simple, profound restaurant.

I admire Cendrillon's attempt, creating a global cuisine in which nothing is out of bounds for trendy omnivores. But restaurants such as Ihawan remind us of what can be lost if recipes are placed in the blender.

45 Mercer Street (at Grand Street)
Manhattan (SoHo)

40-06 70th Street (at Roosevelt Avenue)
Queens (Woodside)

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