Tuesday, June 21, 2011
By Frank D. Quattrone, Ticket Editor
Even after 15 years of world-class hospitality and inviting pan-Asian cuisine, Chestnut Hill’s CinCin Restaurant maintains its sweetly playful sense of humor. It all began in 1996, when the restaurant described its distinctive place in the region’s culinary landscape as “Chinese kissed by French.”
That promise, never broken, has lured the curious to this simple but sophisticated dining haven. Now the menu teases, “Give in to CinCin” and “Repent tomorrow. CinCin tonight.” These culinary come-ons are amply justified when guests consider the delectable fare before them.
So what’s in a name? CinCin, whose name translates into “delightful spring,” is one of the four fine restaurants owned or co-owned by gentle, beloved restaurateur Michael Wei. The others are Willow Grove’s popular Mandarin Garden, one of the area’s first Chinese restaurants to offer fusion food; Bryn Mawr’s Yangming, which this year was named the Best Chinese Restaurant in America by the national Chinese Restaurant News; and Nectar (which was the food of the gods in classical mythology), the dramatic French-Asian restaurant in Berwyn.
According to Wei, a former journalism major at the University of Missouri who knows a thing or two about the power of words (as well as food), “Cooking is an art, like music. But globalization has created a desire for customers to try something new. They love mixture.
“Yangming has an Italian cook [as well as a Chinese]; Nectar has Patrick Feury [formerly of Le Cirque 2000]; and people travel more than ever and watch cooking shows,” said Wei during a recent interview at CinCin.
“When I came to America in 1970,” the Taiwanese native continued, “it took 26 hours to fly to the U.S. from Hong Kong; now it takes 13. I have guests who visit all of my restaurants or who have relatives or friends who live nearby, but they also come because of the distinctive cuisine available in each one.
“I have always enjoyed dining out,” he said. “Food is one of the most enjoyable things in your life. And I love trying different cuisines, whether it’s here or in New York City or fine restaurants around the country.”
As far as CinCin goes, Wei said there would be no special celebration for the restaurant’s 15th anniversary.
“I’m just fortunate to have so many wonderful guests and to have so many good people working with me, like Jim Huang, from Shanghai, my chef here, who studied at the CIA and before that worked at Yangming, and especially Henry Lee, my partner, who is originally from Malaysia, who first worked as a server at Yangming, and stayed there for five years before joining me as my partner at CinCin for the past 15 years. He is very nice with customers. They like him very much.”
For his part, the soft-spoken Lee says, “I really love it when the regulars we’ve had from the beginning bring their adult children with them. But I’m just happy to be doing what I do.”
At CinCin, that results in an extremely loyal customer base, which enjoys the restaurant’s seasonal menu specials, as well as the mainstay items they’ve been ordering for years.
Among the latter are popular appetizers such as Steamed Crabmeat Saumai ($7.95), dumplings filled with crabmeat, fresh water chestnuts and herbs (one of Wei’s personal favorites), Barbecued Spare Ribs ($8.95), and such international fare as Satay Lamb Sticks ($8.50), tender, char-grilled lamb with a Malaysian-satay barbecue sauce; Pad Thai with Jumbo Shrimp ($8.95, appetizer; $14.95, entrée), a spicy dish with basil, vegetables and crushed peanuts in a spicy squid sauce; and Spicy Rice Vermicelli Singapore Style ($11.95), with shredded chicken, snow peas, wild mushrooms, carrots and a touch of spicy curry.
The Spring Specials also have an international touch. Witness Pan-seared Tuna Sashimi & Crispy Avocado ($13.95), another spicy appetizer, served with baby greens and a ginger-cucumber-wasabi-yuzu sauce, and the Vietnamese-flavored Grilled Lemongrass Chicken Tenders ($7.95), served with basil, bean sprouts and rice noodles; and the entrées Mango Chicken Tenders ($13.95), marinated chicken pan-seared, then woked with kimchi and asparagus in a mango-tomato sauce — a Korean-style fusion dish; and Shell Fish and Calamari Combo ($17.95), a huge bowl of jumbo shrimp, scallops, little neck clams, calamari, snap peas, shiitake, basil, carrot and baby bok choy in a coconut-galangal sauce.
CinCin dishes that maintain their original Chinese-French character are the appetizer Wild Mushrooms & Goat Cheese Strudel ($9.95), served with vegetables and a confit of sautéed red onions; and the entrées Jumbo Lump Crabcakes ($20.95) served with fresh basil in a French white wine mustard sauce; and Pinot Noir Veal Escallops ($15.95), served with sun-dried tomatoes, pearl onions and sugar snap peas in a Pinot Noir sauce.
And the desserts, which include the likes of Crème Brûlée, White Chocolate Mousse and Strawberries in a Pastry Shell, have a decidedly French/European character.
But at this point in CinCin’s history, guests know that whatever they order will be mouth-wateringly fine fare — including Brandy-infused Szechuan Beef ($12.95), a spicy entrée made with julienned beef with shredded celery and carrots in a brandy-infused hoisin sauce; Orange Lobster Tail & Scallops ($24.95), another spicy entrée, served with sugar snap peas in an orange peel garlic sauce; and the beautifully presented Seafood in a Flower Basket ($19.95), fresh lobster meat, jumbo shrimp, scallops and vegetables sautéed with ginger and garlic and served in an intricate noodle basket.
Guests enjoy their meal in a nicely muted décor of warm peach tones (including the linen napkins) under modern exposed wooden beams. One of the two dining rooms is separated from the bar and lounge by a richly textured etched glass window depicting a graceful fairy hovering over a goldfish pond, and the room is brightened by big windows with broad lattice-like patterns and fresh flowers at every table.
The service is polite and unhurried, even on a busy Saturday evening.
But as Michael Wei explains, so simply, “The common denominator for a good restaurant is good food and good service; ambience is in third place.”
He would be pleased to know that CinCin’s regulars can find all three working admirably in one of Chestnut Hill’s finest restaurants.