Lifestyle Eat

Vive la france in Manila

Written by The Panda

This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of World Gaming magazine.

Cicou (pronounced ‘see-soo’)
Hotel Céleste
2 San Lorenzo Drive, corner
A. Arnaiz Avenue, Makati, Manila

Manila is the sleeping giant of Asian business and leisure. Attractive business conditions have seen many Asian and Western businessmen travel to the Philippines looking for pots of gold. The city also offers world-class hotels, food and entertainment including great gaming venues like the Metro, Resorts World and the PAGCOR casinos. This makes Manila the perfect place to enjoy the finer things in life, which suits The Panda very much!

The Céleste Hotel is an iconic building situated right near the end of Makati Avenue in Makati, Manila. Around the corner is ‘Greenbelt’, the major shopping and entertainment district. At night it explodes into a hazy, tropical mist of food and entertainment. I often spend time in Manila with my friends from World Gaming and have found the Hotel Céleste provides fantastic facilities, great rates and a very special discovery.

I was checking in and noticed the hotel restaurant ‘Cicou’, just off the main lobby, was doing a roaring trade. It was also obvious to my well-trained eyes that people were clearly enjoying the food. This was not just subsistence feeding after a long day of travel or business meetings.

I questioned the friendly reception staff about Cicou and they told me it was indeed an excellent French restaurant. Taking their plaudits at face value and not fancying a trek into the hot evening streets I took a seat, ordered an ice-cold San Miguel (one of the world’s truly great beers) and took a look at the menu.

The very attractive waitress told me they had a six-course degustation menu that showcased some of the chef’s signature dishes. I was astounded by how cheap it was; it sounded almost too good to be true. The beer was starting to hit the spot so I decided to leave my dining experience in the hands of the chef to see if he could thrill this hard-to-impress Panda with anything interesting.

Many food critics aren’t fans of degustation menus; the food is often too small and too disparate. However I am a big fan – at the right restaurant. I enjoy sampling a wide range of what is on offer and I particularly like this style in good restaurants where I am certain to get some top grade fair. I must admit to some initial scepticism but I later congratulated myself for making such a canny culinary decision. To cut a long story short, I have since ordered the degustation menu at Cicou many times.

I now call chef and owner Mr Cyrille Soenen a friend and apart from being one of the world’s good guys he is more importantly one hell of a chef. French food is one of those things that must be perfect to be any good at all. A bad pasta or a bad stir fry is going to be edible but when you start messing around with crepes, steak tartare and flans you need to have someone manning the pans that knows what he is doing.

24 years after starting his apprenticeship in the world-renowned (two star Michelin) Hotel Ritz in Paris, Chef Cyrille has opened a restaurant to call his own at Hotel Céleste. I won’t bore you with his considerable work history but after stints at over five international restaurants with Michelin Star ratings you can take it from me he knows his way around a kitchen. He has travelled the world from South America to Scandinavia developing his own style before finally arriving in the Philippines. He fell in love twice; first with his gorgeous wife Anna, and then with the country. The rest, as they say, is history.

The French are the masters of creating cuisine that is either extremely complex or ridiculously simple. Cyrille has created some incredibly intricate dishes that would have any Manhattan chef blushing at its creativity. Conversely he has also served up a simple chicken broth that would have taken pride of place at any French peasant table after a hard day ploughing the fields. I don’t care which style of cuisine I am served as long as it is world-class. Chef Cyrille describes his food as “traditional French fair that has a twist of Asian influence designed to delight the palate”. These are big claims but every word in my view is true.

The Philippines is comprised of more than 7,000 islands, so it is no wonder it is famous for its seafood. Chef Cyrille uses this wonderful seafood to produce a vast array of dishes but his cuts of chicken and beef are also top class.

“I was amazed at the quality of produce I have been able to source in Manila. It is one of the major reasons I chose to settle here because I knew I could have a lot of fun working with such fine quality produce. If I can’t get it locally I can bring it in from offshore so I have the best of both worlds.”

The little things here are done well. The décor is black and silver and you can choose to sit in the open foyer or grab a dark corner in the restaurant itself. The staff are all local and even though you won’t get that crisp attention to detail that you might find in New York, Paris, London or Hong Kong you will have a far more relaxed experience at a mere fraction of the price. The fresh hot bread served before your meal is fantastic and a legacy of the host’s early years as a pastry chef. The staff will bend over backwards to make sure you get what you want. You won’t get scoffed at for asking for an extra scoop of ice cream or another glass of water. For most of us isn’t that what we are after? Good food, at a great price, without the pomp or pretention?

The desserts are truly memorable even though I usually struggle to fit them in. The chocolate soufflé melts in your mouth and the ice cream that has been painstakingly made on site is the best exponent of the vanilla bean I have ever eaten. The wine list is extensive and perfectly matched to the food. For the most part I find food and wine matching to be over the top but with the robust flavours of French cuisine it has its place.

When you arrive at Cicou don’t forget to mention World Gaming magazine’s recommendation and request that Chef Cyrille picks a bottle perfect for your budget and meal. I promise you won’t be disappointed and he might even come out and have a glass with you – which will be as enjoyable as the food!