Tonight we dined at "Cebu" - a restaurant & bar in Old City Philadelphia that advertises itself as "Filipino cuisine with Spanish flair". I learned of their existence late last year as I was finding my way to Cuba Libre. One of Cebu's street team members handed me a glossy half page flyer. I was intrigued - not only because Filipino restaurants are rare in our area, but I was curious to see how it would fit into this location. Old City is known for attracting a trendy crowd searching for the next overpriced hot spot. In my experience with Filipino restaurants, I've only frequented cheap (but delicious) turo-turo or homestyle joints. Perhaps knowing that Filipino cuisine may be a mystery to many Americans (I've fielded many questions as well), Cebu pushes the fusion and tapas aspect as its selling point. This made me skeptical about the authenticity of the menu, but I remained open-minded since I read that the owners are indeed filipino. After more research, I discovered that Jamie Foxx held his after-concert party at Cebu. Hmm...not sure what to think of that...

Upon approaching the location, we see the same street team guy working 2nd street. This time he's handing out menus. As he starts reciting his spiel, I reassure him that we already have reservations. I push through the tall doors and find that its not terribly busy especially for a Saturday night. I wonder if they are struggling to find customers. However, the streets did seem a little lighter in traffic - maybe everyone is down the shore.

I turn my attention to the interior. There is no real sense of identity in its design. The lack of any cultural references (a la Alma de Cuba) was disappointing but it is anonymously pretty and spacious nonetheless. The nightclub-ish lighting actually fits in with the tromp d'oeil accents, sky high ceiling and upbeat Spanish music (what no filipino tunes??). The overall feeling is wonderfully expansive, yet strangely I feel cramped in our immediate seating section. I enjoyed looking around the open spaces in the distance, but the waiters had to turn sideways to walk between us and the next table. I was also disappointed in the small numbers of pinoys in the staff - the service was adequate but lacking in warmth. I wasn't expecting our customary hugs and cheek-kisses, but filipinos are known to be very welcoming hosts. Our latina waitress was professional but her knowledge of filipino cuisine seemed studied and limited. Then I noticed an Italian waiter nearby comparing the tapas to dim-sum. I envisioned the white people at the table spreading another misconception to their friends and co-workers.

I've read some reviews after the fact which trashed Cebu's offerings as non-authentic or suffering from an identity-crisis. It would be foolish to expect authenticity from an upscale fusion restaurant. The overall taste is decent. The one glaring misstep on our selection was our sole spanish selection of tuna ceviche (my wife loves ceviche). However it ended up as three slices of tuna with wasabi sitting on some leafy lettuce. My paella with its assortment of adobo, sausage, mussels, clams and scallops was excellent - the flavoring was spot on.

For dessert, the flan was a little too eggy and hard. It also missed the caramel sauce which adds the necessary sweetness. The halo-halo was tasty...but it was bastardized. It was not served in a tall glass overflowing with shaved ice. No straw either! It came in a short wide glass with the proper beans and ingredients but had more or a milky, ice-creamy feel. It tasted great but I missed the joy of crushing the shaved ice and slurping up the drink. A trio of filipinos walked by my table and made passing comments in tagalog about my faux halo-halo. My rough translation amounted to "Hahaha that's their halo-halo?!"

I can only label my experience at Cebu as uneven. I enjoyed my food, but I can see where hardcore or old school pinoys would be turned off. The small crowd included some young, trendy white people mixed in with a couple filipino families wearing shorts and sneakers. I suspect these pinoys were hoping for a homestyle meal and a tagalog conversation with the waiter. It did feel strange dropping $100 for a fusioned imitation of food that I ate for free growing up at my parents house or at parties hosted by some tito or tita. Maybe filipino food isn't the best fit for an upscale type of joint. Walking out the restaurant past the hardworking Cebu street team dude, I remembered the time when my wife asked my father why there aren't that many filipino restaurants. My dad replied simply that filipino food is best served at home.


kiita said...

Try Cendrillon in Soho when you're in Manhattan. I think you two'll like it.

...So... you understand Tagalog now? :)

What does adobo paella really taste like?

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