Customs and custom

Cebu, which specializes in Filipino food, only takes 10 reservations each night. The restaurant has become so popular that there is a waiting list. (Photo by Laura McKenzie)

It's work to get into Cebu, but the reward is sensational Philippine fare

Cebu is an island smack in the middle of the Philippine archipelago; most of us will never go there. Cebu is also a Philippine restaurant on Nacogdoches; given their reservations policy, most of us will never get there, either. I can't speak for the island, but I can say this about the restaurant: Update your shots and put on your best demeanor to get past customs - figuratively, of course.

I was admittedly put off at first by the reservations-only rule, the fact that I couldn't get a live body on the phone during business hours, and the requirement of a credit card number to assure my reservation. With some trepidation, I left a number - phone, not credit card - and when I received a return call the next morning, all was revealed to me. "There are only two of us," said the perfectly pleasant voice. "We take your reservation and then we shop for the food." Accordingly, my credit card would be assessed a $25 charge for each no-show, and I had until 2 p.m. to make any changes. Not without some effort, we all made it at the appointed hour.

Only to find a restaurant that appeared closed. Tentatively, we tried the door: It opened and, finally, there we were in Shangri-La. The lights, shaded in copper mesh, were low; the walls, decoratively painted in shades of beige, created a warm envelope; the tables, adorned with roses and scattered rose petals, were expectant - and empty. The four of us, we soon learned, were to be the only guests. (Despite the table count, only 10 reservations are taken on any evening.) The chef would be cooking for us exclusively.

As had been explained to me by the voice, there are two basic formats: the $45 prix fixe dinner with choice of entrée, and a $75 tasting menu consisting of whatever the chef feels like sending out. To ensure proper pacing, the entire table must choose the same format. We picked prix fixe, $75 being a little over the budget, had our first wine put in an iced container (bring your own; the corkage fee is $5 per bottle) and settled back with a sense of expectation tempered by the anxiety of the unknown.

Many familiar with Filipino food may think of the yaki-mandu that are a staple of the King William Fair, or maybe an adobo associated, in name at least, associated with years of Spanish influence. Be prepared for a surprise. Garnished with a red bell pepper cut to resemble an octopus, the first appetizer arrived looking spectacular. "Cooked without fire" was its translated name, and this is the most exotic "ceviche" you have ever tasted. The main ingredients were scallop, salmon, pineapple, bitter melon, mango, and caraway, all scented with coconut "cider" and a rare lime, the marinating medium. Prudence (and heavy breathing) demands I move right along to appetizer two, a less passion-provoking but no less rewarding combination of toasted-garlic rice and fried plantain served atop an Iberian pepper leaf, a recipe the chef had learned at the feet of his grandmother, once chef to Ferdinand Marcos. You can and should use the rice leaf as a wrapper, especially since traditionally all foods are eaten with the fingers.

Cebu Philippine Restaurant
13032 Nacogdoches
Dinner: Tue-Sun;
reservations required
Price range: prix fixe $45, tasting menu $75
Major credit cards
Handicapped accessible
Results may vary, but I suspect our enthusiasm for digital dining led to an extra appetizer or two; next to arrive was an exquisite grilled scallop topped with toasted sesame seeds, served over a fan of sliced mango, lightly napped with a sweet chili sauce, and accompanied by small cups of a kick-ass Philippine saké. And then - spoons encouraged here - there was the soup, or sinigang. Similar in its basic flavors to a Thai thom yum with kaffir lime leaf, this elixir was further perfumed with tamarind, garlic, and peppery watercress; large pieces of "milk fish" emerged like improbable icebergs in a tropical sea. The layers of flavors were sensual and provocative. Quick, a sip of icewater from my orchid-adorned glass.

The evening's two entrées were tuna "lightly braised" in coconut milk and whole sea bass. The tuna came crowned with seaweed salad and marinated squid, with slivers of Asian eggplant and more garlic rice served alongside. It was sensational. Even easier to attack with fingers was the sea bass, its skin crisp as parchment, its flesh as sweet and succulent as, well, perfectly cooked sea bass. Though advertised as chipotle, the sauce was more like a sriracha, but not to worry. There was pickled green mango, and, strangely (but not inappropriately), dill made an appearance. The fado music playing in the background at this point seemed especially poignant with its combination of yearning lament and suppressed passion. Cooling desserts to the rescue.

The voice brought out four different sorbets, each in a stemmed glass adorned with more orchids. Three, including mango, were identified; we were challenged to name the third. Not that we could have pinned down taro and jackfruit, but corn and cheese? It was pleasantly enigmatic, I swear. We stood to applaud when the diminutive chef then appeared, bowing and barefoot. And a pact to return for the tasting menu, cost be hanged, was forged. •