June 16, 2004  (STAR) A TASTE OF LIFE By Heny Sison  -  Since it opened in 1998 in the heart of busy SoHo in Manhattan, New York, Romy Dorotan’s Cendrillon has been consistently heaped with lavish praises. And the glowing reviews do not come from Pinoy food connoisseurs but from some of New York’s discriminating and finest food critics, just a few among the countless native New Yorkers who have embraced the charm of Filipino cuisine as if it were their own.

Indeed, Cendrillon is one of the most celebrated Filipino restaurants in New York City, serving nouveau pan-Asian cuisine at its best. Consider the following:

Passport to New York Restaurants: "Dorotan’s semi-open kitchen produces consistent, complex and always imaginative cooking. While respectful of culinary tradition, Romy redefines the genre with confidence. Each plate is a skillful showcase of forthright foods, flavors and contrasting textures…"

Gourmet Magazine: "Cendrillon’s owner, Philippine-born Romy Dorotan – who has been cooking in the US for more than 20 years – is trotting out a staggering array of Philippine specialties, creating one of the most exciting brunches of any kind in Manhattan…"

New York Times: "Cendrillon… a fashionable SoHo bistro, where traditional Filipino fare is masterfully tweaked; where, with a wink and touch of culinary genius, the bibingka becomes a rich soufflé of gouda and feta instead of the traditional water-buffalo cheese, and where the paella is a steaming cornucopia of shrimp, long beans and indigo-colored rice…"

New York Magazine: "My mind was blown by the bibingka… I thought this is an Egg McMuffin in the mind of God…"

Located at 45 Mercier St. in SoHo, Manhattan, Cendrillon has held its own through the years. Owned by Dorotan, who is the resto’s co-chef along with wife, it was put up with the local Filipino community in mind, to offer them a chance to recapture the pleasures and tastes from an authentic Filipino kitchen.

I had the chance to discover Cendrillon’s own brand of Pinoy cooking during a trip to New York last month, and I must say that it was a revelation. Romy and Amy warmly fed me with stories of their struggles in the business. They also shared with me their signature house specialties.

If you walk into the restaurant with a craving for the homemade Pinoy food you grew up with, you could be slightly disoriented with Cendrillon’s offerings. When I eat out, it is always in the quest for something new. That’s what Romy offers – Pinoy food with a wonderful twist.

The lumpiang sariwa is wrapped in the usual lumpia wrapper but in purple ube wrappers, as stated on the menu. The paella is made not with rice but rather pirurutong, the black sticky rice that is often used for puto bumbong.

What Romy does is take the best part or the essence of a Filipino dish and mix it with unique ingredients to come up with a recipe that is truly his own. He tells me that to capture a wider market in New York’s highly competitive food business, he has to adjust the recipes to appeal to the taste buds of foreigners as well.

One of the best meals here is the Philippine brunch, described as being Asian-style breakfast and merienda. It comes with a selection including chicken adobo, black rice paella, lumpia, tocino, suman, halo-halo and bibingka.

My personal favorite on the menu is the mango tart, which Romy had a chance to demonstrate in Martha Stewart’s TV program and has been listed in New York’s 50 Best Places to Eat Dessert. It has been described as a "version of the traditional tarte tatin, with a paper-thin, crunchy, torched crust resting on top of a distinctly spiced sweet mango base.

What is genuinely Pinoy about Cendrillon is the owner’s disarming hospitality. For half a decade now, the Dorotans have built a base of loyal customers, both Filipinos and foreigners alike, whom they know personally on a first name basis. In fact, Cendrillon has been described as "like walking into the home of an old friend for a celebration.

What is surprising is that Romy never had professional training as a chef, considering the professionalism in his high caliber kitchen. He did graduate work in economics at the University of York and moved to Philadelphia for his doctoral in economics at Temple. He did complete the course work, but never got around to doing his dissertation because by then the cooking bug had already bitten him.

And why Cendrillon? It is Cinderella in French. Romy and Amy thought of the name after seeing the Lyons Opera Ballet in a production in New York.

Indeed, with the number of Filipinos who are struggling in America, Romy and Amy Dorotan’s tale is a Cinderella success story. And to use a current catchphrase, if acerbic host Simon Cowell were to hold a culinary competition and sample Romy’s creations, he just might judge him to be the next American Idol! Black Rice Paella

2 cups black rice (pirurutong)

6 Tbsps. olive oil

1 small onion, diced

1 carrot, diced

4 cups water

2 pandan leaves

1 lemongrass, minced

3 cloves garlic, minced

3 shallots, minced

2 green chilies, chopped

1-inch ginger, minced

2 leeks, sliced

1/4 lb. fresh shiitake mushrooms

2 plum tomatoes, diced

1 lb. large shrimps with heads

3 blue crabs, cleaned and cut in half

1-1/2 dozen Manila clams

2 lbs. sea scallops

1 cup coconut milk

2 Tbsps. fish sauce (patis)

juice of 1/2 lemon

2 Chinese eggplants, cubed

5 long beans (sitaw) cut in 2-inch pieces

Rinse the black rice in cold water. Sauté the onion and carrot with three tablespoons olive oil in a small pot over medium heat. Stir in rice, add the water and bring to a boil. Add the pandan leaves and one tablespoon salt, reduce the heat to low, and cover. Simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the water has been absorbed and the rice is almost cooked. Transfer the rice to two clay pots (palayok).

Sauté in three tablespoons of olive oil the lemongrass, garlic, shallots, chilies, leeks, mushrooms, tomatoes, eggplant and long beans in a wok or skillet over medium heat. Add the shrimps, crabs, clams, scallops and coconut milk and stir well. Season with fish sauce and lemon juice.

Add the seafood to the rice in the clay pots and place over medium heat. Simmer and cook for five to 10 minutes until the clams open.

Note: Black rice or pirurutong is the traditional main ingredient for puto bumbong. Pirurutong is mainly used for making native desserts. Fresh Lumpia

For the purple yam (ube) wrapper:

1 cup all purpose flour

1 cup rice flour

1/2 cup purple yam flour

2 eggs

1-1/2 cups coconut milk

2 tsps. salt

For the lumpia filling:

1 bundle asparagus, peeled and thinly sliced

1/2 Napa cabbage

2 cups beansprouts

1 carrots, peeled

1 jicama (singkamas)

12 snowpeas

2 leeks

12 fresh shiitake mushrooms

3 cloves garlic, minced

3 Tbsps. canola or peanut oil

For the peanut sauce:

1 cup peanuts, roasted and ground

1 lemongrass, minced

3 shallots, minced

2-inch ginger, minced

1 Tbsp. peanut oil

1 cup coconut milk

1 Tbsp. chili sauce

1 Tbsp. soy sauce

1 Tbsp. fish sauce

For the ube wrapper: Sift flours together in a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and mix with coconut milk and salt. Add to the flour and mix thoroughly. If batter is too thick, thin with water until you get the consistency of heavy cream. Heat an 8-inch, non-stick pan over medium heat. Pour four tablespoons of the batter into the pan and quickly rotate the pan spreading a thin layer of batter. Cook for a couple of minutes and invert the wrapper with a spatula. Cook for another 30 seconds. Slide the wrapper from the pan to a plate. Cook the rest of the batter and stack the wrappers in a circular manner.

For the lumpia filling: Slice vegetables (matchstick size). Combine all the vegetables and stir-fry with the garlic in a large skillet or wok. Season with fish sauce and black pepper.

For the peanut sauce: Lightly brown the lemongrass, shallots and ginger in a small pot with peanut oil. Add the peanuts and coconut milk. Simmer for five minutes. Season with the chili sauce, soy sauce and fish sauce.

To assemble: Wash, dry and select lettuce leaves (lollo rosso, red oak, baby romaine recommended). Lay out wrapper on plate. Arrange leaves on edge of wrapper. Put filling and fold wrapper. Pour peanut sauce on lumpia and serve.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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