Cebu

The concept and dishes have promise. But treacly sweetness and frills mar some fine Filipino food.

Posted: March 18, 2007

These days, sushi has become mall fare, a bowl of Vietnamese pho is common winter comfort, and pad Thai has been tamed into ready-made box meals on the shelf at your local Acme. So it's a thrill to encounter an Asian culinary tradition that has yet to be reinterpreted for the American mainstream.

The food of the Philippines remains one of those final underexplored frontiers, at least on the East Coast. But I'm not entirely sure why. There are plenty of Filipinos in the region, especially around Cherry Hill. And unlike the fiery, fermented flavors of Korean cuisine (another misunderstood gem still awaiting its American culi-missionary), dishes from the Philippines are only mildly funky, with a warm salty-sour tang at the base of national dishes like adobo-stewed chicken. It borrows from the Chinese, Thai and Indian palettes, much as nearby Malaysia does. But the added Latin influence of Spanish cooking, due to Spain's long occupation of the archipelago, only heightens the tradition's accessible appeal.

What's not to like about the grilled garlicky sweetness of longaniza sausages, purple yam cake for dessert, and a crisp San Miguel lager to wash it all down?

And yet, when it came time to figure out what to do with the forgettable nightclub lounge that World Fusion had become - its ornate and soaring Old City bank space soggied beneath a steady flow of lurid pink and blue cocktails - owner Wilson Encarnacion was admittedly a bit hesitant to take the chance on interpreting his own birthright.

His family has for several years operated one of the region's only authentic Filipino eateries, Manila Bay in Northeast Philly. But would Old City really take to tokwa? Would it go gaga for seared shrimp Gata?

The answer ultimately lies in the hands of executive chef Guillermo Veloso and restaurant chef Willie Encarnacion (Wilson's brother). And though the notion still seems rife with potential, their early efforts at Cebu are flawed.

Veloso, who also runs Isla Ibiza, Encarnacion's tapas restaurant in Northern Liberties, might seem a prime candidate to conduct Filipino food's upscale face-lift. He spent years as the chef behind Cuba Libre nearby, revamping down-home Cuban cooking for the Nuevo Martini masses.

But updating classic peasant foods isn't always so obvious as it seems. In the pork adobo, for example, Veloso's choice to replace the usual slow-stewed cuts of tougher meat with quickly seared tenderloin sacrificed the soulfulness of slow-steeped flavors for tenderness with no depth. That essential adobo taste was there - a dark soy saltiness rounded with a vinegar tang amped by garlic and bay - leaving the potential for redemption.

In fact, though the intensity of all of Cebu's sauces has been dialed back to borderline-bland mass appeal, there are still plenty of authentic flavors here to build on, from the gingery tokwa gravy enriched with nubbins of pork belly and cuminy chorizo to some outrageously decadent mashed potatoes whipped with creamy, orange crab-fat paste called taba ng talangka.

It's a shame those potatoes, also filled with sweet lumps of crabmeat, came beneath the chewy disappointment of undercooked skirt steak doused in syrupy banana-tinged demiglace gravy. But my meals were filled with good ideas that were squandered with senseless flourishes.

What was this kitchen thinking when it decided to bury a spectacular cut of kobe strip steak beneath a sour pile of onions and shredded veggie-filler? The overly citrusy marinade, reminiscent of a Latin mojo better matched with tough steak, thoroughly obliterated the buttery richness of the beef - which is a big problem for a three-course "experience" that costs $60.

A beautiful whole daurade (a sea bream, not a "sea bass" as our waiter insisted) would have been lovely had it not been served over a ghoulishly red sweet-and-sour sauce that looked like maraschino cough syrup. A duck entree brought slices of notably tender breast, but they were scattered haphazardly atop a clump of mung-bean noodles lubricated in a gluey gray sauce thickened with mashed bananas. A tuna "kinilaw" seviche was more seared than cured, its coconut marinade treacly sweet.

Such unappealing plates might seem out of sync with a room that oozes grandeur and flash, from the undulating bar back to a sweeping staircase that leads to a beaded-curtain lounge. But the bad decorating touches reveal themselves aplenty upon closer inspection, from the clumsily hung curtains near the bar to the enormous foam urns of fake flowers affixed to the wall - with bar-code stickers still on the bottoms.

There were some better efforts on the menu. Among the best were tasty lumpia spring rolls filled with shrimp and ground pork, tender Manila clams roasted with fermented black beans and chorizo, and an enormous bowl of exotic lobster-coconut bisque that had more than enough tamarind-chile zing and lobster meat to compensate for the occasional bit of shell.

But just when it seems Cebu is about to hit a homespun home run with authentically tender stewed kare kare oxtails, the kitchen shyly neuters the peanut sauce to stunning blandness by opting not to add bagoong, a salty fermented shrimp paste that would have lent the dish a crucial spark of funk. It does appear as a subtle undertow in a vinaigrette for the side of green beans. But it was too little bagoong too late.

Filipino cooking may well be ready for its Old City close-up, but Cebu isn't doing it justice just yet.


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.

 

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