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French food you can put in the middle of the table and share

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“Eeeh, sardine?” the Digger’s daughter (Deedee) shrieked, as if to say “ang cheap ha!” “Why are they offering sardines in a French restaurant?” she asked, in condescending ignorance. “Fresh ’yan hindi canned!” I explained as I ordered the dish, remembering the glories of fresh sardines. “Hoy, hindi lang foie gras ang masarap sa mundo, ano!” I said laughingly.

The French restaurant is Brasserie Cicou, the latest addition to the restaurant scene of Greenhills in San Juan. The man behind the sardine recipe is chef Cyril Soenen, of Prince Albert fame (remember the steak at the Hotel InterContinental in Makati?). He later blazed his own trail in fine French cuisine with his own Restaurant Cicou at the Hotel Celeste on Pasay Road in Makati. Cicou in Makati closed in 2010, to the disappointment of chef Cyril’s fans, but has happily reopened as Brasserie Cicou in Greenhills.

As a matter of fact, fresh sardines are a much-appreciated delicacy, with marinated sardine recipes featured in no less than magazines like food authority Saveur. If you get them fresh, you are guaranteed deliciousness. And if fresh sardines are on a restaurant’s menu, you can more often than not be sure they were purchased that morning because these rot easily and don’t freeze well.

At Brasserie Cicou, chef Cyril Soenen uses fresh tawilis that he buys from the market. These are served simply in an olive oil marinade, with greens and goat cheese and black tapenade on the side. But it is a burst of freshness in your mouth that you will remember for days and even wish to imitate at home.

Of course, there are more opulent flavors: a terrine of duck liver and pork knuckles, snails a.k.a. escargot, pan-seared foie gras. But while these are all beautifully executed at Cicou, these seem to have become staple “fine dining” options that are no different from one restaurant to the next (along with rib-eye and a mean burger). This time, though, instead of fine dining fare, what distinguishes Cicou are their hearty French recipes.

Food to share

In a phone interview with chef Cyril after three visits to Cicou, I found out why. “We want to show that French food is not just fine dining but also, like Filipino or Spanish cuisine, food that you can put in the middle of the table and share.” This time, chef Cyril shares with his customers recipes from home.

And what a home it must be! Chicken is Coq au Vin. The chicken is marinated in red wine, seared on each side, drizzled with chicken jus and only then slowly cooked in the oven. Duck is Cassoulet, another traditional French dish using duck leg confit, pork belly and Cicou’s own homemade pork sausage, served with braised white beans.

Beef is the peasant (cheaper) yet absolutely pleasant Onglet (pronounced ong-lei), a.k.a. Hanger Steak. Personally, I still prefer a beef tenderloin, but chef Cyril highlights the beef’s flavor, as it requires no sauce with it due to the fullness of the flavors of this particular cut. This point is better made with the beef tartare, which defies its simple raw form and comes alive in your mouth.

But the star of the hearty dishes, to my mind, is Cicou’s version of lengua: Braised Ox Tongue. Traditionally, the chef explained, this is made with harrogate sauce. But at Cicou, chef Cyril makes his own sauce whose secret ingredient is a boiled egg yolk. The sauce that the ox tongue swims in is indeed most deliciously savory but it’s the texture of the ox tongue, cut not in the flat way that we are used to but diced, that makes the difference. The result is bite-sized meat that delivers the full savory goodness of the special sauce.

The parade of hearty meals is capped with a hearty dessert. For some time now, foodies on Facebook have been raving about Kouing Aman. The raves are not without basis. It is a round, crusty cake (looks like ensaymada but is more crusty) but it is delectably buttery and topped with a salted caramel ice cream that beautifully contrasts with the rich buttery flavor of the pastry. Warning, though: it is very rich!

With all this hearty cooking, it is best to visit the restaurant with the objective of sharing your meal. The servings are heaping and even the comfortable wooden tables create the setting for a relaxed, as opposed to a stiff, meal. The low-key setting is also reflected on the prices, which are very reasonable compared to fine dining French fare (range of P300 for appetizers; P400-P500 for mains; P180-P280 for dessert).

Finally, Greenhills is Frenchified—and the right way!

Brasserie Cicou is at 57 Annapolis St. (beside OB Montessori), San Juan; tel. no. 6619200. Open for lunch and dinner; closed on Mondays. Reservations recommended. Major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair-accessible.

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