Pacific Overtures

For a soup, Wigbert wisely chose "sinigang," "sour soup" with shrimp (Isisinigang Ko, $9.40). A witches'-cauldron-sized bowl contained a light broth tarted up tastily with tangy tamarind juice. Afloat were assorted vegetables, whole jalapenos, and a mob of whole prawns, with heads, feelers, and shells. Wigbert delicately moved the pink prawns to his plate and deftly peeled them with knife and fork; we Yanks less gracefully used fingers or teeth. The sinigang was a great palate-cleanser throughout the meal, between bites of fried appetizers and rich entrees. "I think this is my all-time favorite soup," TJ decided. "It tastes like a Thai lemongrass soup, but better -- it's spicy but not stinging."

Middinner, the 8 o'clock show time rolled around, but we lucked out; instead of immediate disco, we enjoyed watching an hour's rehearsal for "Cotillion," a stately, choreographed ballroom-dance presentation that relatives and close friends put on at "sweet 16" or anniversary parties.

The menu's version of spicy caldereta stew featured beef instead of the more authentic goat, so for a typical meat dish we chose kare-kare ($9.95), bony pork stewed fork-tender in a suave, heavy peanut sauce with string beans and Asian greens. To liven it up, you daub on Day-Glo crimson shrimp paste. "Food coloring," Wigbert explained. "At snack stands," Dave elaborated, "everything is brilliantly colored -- neon orange, red, blue." "They're probably carcinogenic, but it's not a country with an FDA." You've probably encountered the flavor of undyed shrimp paste before, as an exotic aroma in many dishes from southern China, Thailand, and Indonesia. Here, it lent a complex, fishy, richly salty overlay to the simpler nutty flavor of the stew. "In the north, we make this dish with fish sauce instead of shrimp paste," Wigbert observed.

We ordered stuffed milkfish but the waitress sadly returned, saying the kitchen was out of it. We substituted "Coco Loco" prawns ($12.95), evidently a deep-south dish, with a smooth Malayan-style curry undertone. Swathed in coconut milk, with green beans, scallions, red bell pepper slices, and a light but lively dose of hot peppers, the large prawns were still very tender. "What a burst of flavor!" TJ exclaimed, when his teeth encountered crunchy chopped garlic in the sauce. We concluded with "typical" sauteed mixed vegetables (Pinakbet, $7.95). The vegetable array included yam, eggplant, bitter melon, string beans, and okra (among others), and a large quantity of pork slices and shrimps, unpeeled but salt-marinated to turn the shells thin and edible. "Since when is pork a vegetable?" I asked. "Vegetables are never served pure in the Philippines," Dave said. "There's always meat or dried shrimp or both." Our final dish was adobo fried rice ($3.95) -- very nice, lightly fried rice with bits of pork and chicken adobo.

The Cotillion rehearsal ended and the disco session began with a cumbia. It was loud, oh most loud. Up to then, service had been fine (food served pretty quickly, ice water constantly refilled), but now we wanted to pay up and flee, and our waitress had vanished. Accustomed to customers buying dinner in lieu of the cover charge, apparently she couldn't believe we'd just come for the food, not the fun. "The volume level is -- if you eat, and eat well, your stomach is bouncing," Dave said in an interstice between tunes. I fled to the restroom, which reeked of Opium -- not the poppy but the perfume, rising from the decolletage of the Cotillion's glamorous junior vamps. I stepped outside to breathe but met an assault of Whitney Houston blasting from the bar while rumba boomed from the ballroom. Through the front window I watched my tablemates still wriggling slightly but paralyzed by subwoofers, like prisoners in the stocks.

We finally escaped to tell the tale, and the tale is: It was one of the most exciting meals I've had all year. After the overdoses of Caesar salads and crab cakes and white truffles, it was great to get away -- to encounter Spanish, Chinese, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Island flavors all blended into a unique, exuberant, and emphatically exotic tropical cuisine.

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