The Neighborhood Restaurant That Was Never in Our Neighborhood

While still in New York over 10 years ago, Annie handed me a review for a restaurant in SoHo.  It was actually a review for noodle places in New York.  The restaurant was called Cendrillon, Cinderella in French, and the review touted their pad thai as being one of the best they had ever eaten.  Being foodies early on, we couldn't resist.  Annie and I had a passionate hobby of restaurant-going.  We would go on special occasions, birthdays, anniversaries, but we would also go for weekend meals, brunches, and Friday and Saturday evening dinners and drinks with our friends.  For some, it was the movies, for Annie and I, it was restaurants.  Very New York....

At the time, we lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  A borough in Brooklyn with 100 year old brownstones, one of the largest contiguous open park spaces in the country with Prospect Park, a mixture of old Brooklynites and 20-30 somethings making their way in the city or starting to have a family.  It's home to author Paul Auster and was the inspiration and location for the movie Smoke.

Only 20-30 minutes from the city by train, it was also very convenient for heading in to the city at a moments notice.  The restaurants in Park Slope were just ok, not like today, and had your ubiquitous Japanese, Mexican, Thai, Chinese and Pizza joints.  They were good enough to handle the occasional mid-week take out, but to satisfy our hobby, we always ventured into town.

When we first approached the restaurant walking down Mercer Street, you could see the small cluster of red christmas lights entangled with a sign and the glow reflecting off of the sidewalk below.  It was towards the end of the street near Chinatown, kind of the left back pocket of SoHo.  Rarely used for retail or for restaurants for that matter.  Two blocks away to the west was West Broadway, and a block to the east was lower Broadway.  Both bustling retail neighborhoods.

Like all neighborhoods in New York, there is this symphonic mixture of old and new, light and dark.  SoHo was once a beaten down neighborhood of old textile mills where artists were the only denizens brave enough to venture.  As the art scene migrated into SoHo in the 80s and 90s, it was infused high-end retail, art galleries, and European-style restaurants and bars.  Cendrillon fit right in.

As we got to the door the warm glow of the restaurant illuminated the glass door and adjacent windows. We entered into small foyer and walked in.  There was no formal host station at the time and seating began just as you walked in.  The tables were at first glance just like any other in an asian food restaurant.  But as we looked a little closer, there were delicate inlays carved into the tables.  Beautiful designs reminiscent of Indonesian hand puppets or hand carvings.  There was a long brick wall on the right, and a bar and kitchen on the left.  The rear of the restaurant opened up to a large room with skylights at the very back against the wall.  This light well created a meditative glow during lunch time and was a welcomed respite on a busy afternoon shopping.

Amy Besa, the owner and hostess, greeted us with a warm familiar smile.  We told her that we had read about her restaurant in the Times and wanted to try their noodles.  She was ecstatic and seated us gleefully.   We of course ordered the noodles, but we also ordered their black rice paiella with seafood.  Both were absolutely devine.  Romy Dorotan, the chef, husband and co-owner, came by and asked how our meal was. This was a treat.  Romy is a shaggy looking guy, but reminded me of an artist.  You could tell this was is art and that he was so very personally invested in pleasing your palette.

The restaurants surrounding Cendrillon were often so overly image conscious that the food and service suffered.  Here was an understated diamond in the rough.  Their approach to the restaurant experience reminded me of the, now infamous, Panda Inn - the same Panda Inn that is more commonly known in malls and fast food staples as Panda Express.  Back in the 70s and 80s, Panda Inn was a neighborhood Chinese restaurant in Pasadena.  My parents were friends with the owner, Andrew Cherng.  I'm not sure if they new Andrew before or after they began going to the restaurant, but the owner visit to the table was such a critical element to his success.  I really wish more high end restaurants would adopt this aspect of their experience.  It takes the edge off and makes the food even more accessible.

Needless to say we kept coming back to Cendrillon, we began going for New Year celebrations and shared it with our friends and family at any opportunity.  Liem's first birthday party was held there, not a kids gym or party place, but a Filipino restaurant in SoHo.  How New York is that.  Romy and Amy became very good friends and I remember one night in particular that Romy came out and shared a glass of wine with me.  It was that neighborhood moment you rarely get these days.

When we left New York, we were mixed emotionally for a number of reasons.  One of them was leaving friends.  The other was leaving all of the great food.  With Romy, Amy and Cendrillon it was both of those.

The year we left, Amy finished her book, Memories of a Philippine Kitchens.  It's a beautiful book that is almost more a story of food than a recipe book.  We later sadly learned that Cendrillon closed, and immediately emailed Amy to find out what happened.  They decided to start over, I think for the best.  The art galleries had all left SoHo and moved to Chelsea, and the sneaker and clothing shops were all that were left.

Their new restaurant, the Purple Yam, was just reviewed in the New York Times.  The review and the fond memories it brought, inspired this blog entry.  If you are in New York, or travel to there, please visit our neighborhood restaurant and tell them that John and Annie sent you.

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