Cendrillon’s Filipino Roots Lend Soul to Trendy ‘Fusion’

Even in New York, where you can probably get any kind of food you want, Cendrillon is a curiosity. Tucked away on the southern end of SoHo, it serves Philippine food, which is not a prospect that brings anything at all to the mind of most New Yorkers. The description of the special the night we went wasn’t much help, either.

“Our fish of the day is yellowtail snapper with coffee beans and coconut,” said our pretty young waitress as she handed us the menus.

“Coffee beans?” I asked, not sure I had heard right.

“The fish is roasted on a bed of coffee beans, which is made into a sauce.”

That sounded interesting, but my friend G. was not convinced. “The only time I’ve had coffee as an ingredient in a sauce was in red-eye gravy in the South,” he said when the waitress had left. “You make it by pouring boiling black coffee onto the fat in which you’ve fried a slice of ham. Then you pour it over the ham.”

Nevertheless, I decided to order the snapper.

We were sitting in a booth opposite the kitchen in the front of Cendrillon, which is a modest, pretty place with dark brick walls, a cement floor in the back and carved polished wooden tables set with candles. As we perused the list of wines and beers-which was strikingly good, with many impressive, unusual choices-we could see the chef and owner Romy Dorotan bustling about. Eventually, he emerged from the kitchen and went from table to table, discussing the finer points of the menu with the customers.

And it is quite a menu. While fusion cuisine-the combining of cooking techniques and ingredients from East and West-is the very latest thing among trendy young chefs, in the Philippines they’ve been practicing it for many years. Their food is a fascinating mixture of Southeast Asian and Chinese overlaid with Spanish. (The American contribution came later in the form of canned corned beef.) But Mr. Dorotan, who has lived in the United States for 20 years, takes it all one step further. While many of his dishes are from his native country, others-like the snapper with coffee beans and coconut-are entirely his own invention.

The snapper was wonderful. It had been first marinated in lemon grass, ginger and garlic, then grilled and finally roasted on a bed of banana leaves with coffee beans, cinnamon sticks and bay leaves. The sauce was made from the coffee beans mixed with coconut milk and chilies. It was rich and spicy, and went beautifully with the moist, delicate fish.

G. liked it, too. “This place reminds me of an Italian restaurant that’s after its second Michelin star,” he said. “They are trying very hard with the nicest staff. In New York, there aren’t that many places where the chef comes out to ask people how they like the food and, if they are interested, warms up to them and tells them all about it.”

Indeed, a lot of careful thinking has gone into the food. We were hard pressed to decide what to drink with it, wine or beer; in the end we opted for a Riesling. The wine went well with another of Mr. Dorotan’s inventions, brandade of cod with taro leaves. In his region of the Philippines, he explained, the leaves are cooked with dried or smoked fish. For the American palate, he substitutes brandade, which is not quite as intensely salty. I also liked the goat curry (a takeoff on the Caribbean goat roti) which was served with a scallion pancake and a pungent quince chutney laced with mustard seeds.

Fresh lumpia (“Lumpia is the generic word for spring roll, fresh means not fried,” said Mr. Dorotan) had a wrapper made with purple yam flour from the Philippines mixed with rice flour and stuffed with vegetables. It came with a sweet-sour tamarind and peanut sauce (I liked this dish much better than the rather bland deep-fried spring roll on the menu). Juicy Manila clams, served in a sauce made with black beans, leeks and shiitake mushrooms, were excellent. But the grilled octopus, served with an airy eggplant fritter, was tough as rubber.

Mr. Dorotan marries Asian and American Southern traditions in his recipe for spareribs, which were marinated in soy sauce and lemon grass, rubbed with spices and-instead of being smoked-were slow-cooked in a Chinese vertical oven with steaming water underneath before being grilled to order. They came with mashed taro and sweet potatoes, a sweet-sour plum sauce and rather gritty greens.

He uses the Chinese oven to make a crispy duck that he coats in a salt crust before roasting. He said he got the idea from a book, now out of print, by Waverley Root called The Best of Italian Cooking . “I added the Chinese way of blanching duck and air-drying it first. This process makes the flesh very crisp when roasted again.” The duck, which came with cellophane noodles and a tart quince sambal, was certainly crisp but didn’t have a great deal of taste.

But I liked Mr. Dorotan’s version of paella made with sticky black rice with crab, shrimp and Manila clams, and his grilled oxtail in a peanut sauce flavored with shrimp paste. A lasagna made with rice noodles in curry sauce, and topped with grilled shrimp, was also pleasant, although the curry overwhelmed the morels which came in place of chanterelles.

The best dessert we tasted was a wonderful caramelized mango tarte Tatin with mango ice cream. We also liked the delicate “buko” pie made from green coconut flesh in a light pastry shell. The chocolate cake I had with my son on another night was rather heavy, but it didn’t bother him.

“All chocolate cakes are like Mount Everest,” he said, finishing the last crumb on the plate. “I eat them because they’re there.”

Cendrillon

*

45 Mercer Street, near Grand Street

343-9012

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Esoteric, carefully chosen and well priced

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Lunch main courses $7.50 to $12, dinner $11.50 to $18.50

Brunch: Saturday and Sunday 11 A.M. to 4 P.M.

Lunch: Tuesday to Friday 11 A.M. to 4:30 P.M.

Dinner: Tuesday to Saturday 6 P.M. to 11 P.M., Sunday 6 P.M to 10 P.M.

* Good

* * Very good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No star: Poor Cendrillon’s Filipino Roots Lend Soul to Trendy ‘Fusion’