The Bay Ridge dining scene is evolving. Several bars catering to a young crowd, and a few restaurants that dare to break the pasta-and-calamari routine, have recently opened, adding sophistication to the locale’s once staid restaurant mix.
One such restaurant is Cebu, which opened in September and offers a bar scene with dining - and for those who enjoy a late meal, the kitchen stays open until 3 am.
In the front room a young crowd sits at the lavishly carved bar, or has an intimate drink or dinner at one of the tiny tables lit by an assortment of quirky hanging lamps. Behind the bar is a cozy dining room, featuring a fireplace, mustard-colored walls and large bistro-style mirrors. An older, local crowd sits, several couples to a table, talking and laughing; nobody seems to mind the fake brick wall or vinyl-covered banquettes.
Co-owner Gerard "Jerry" Picciarelli works the room, stopping at each table, making suggestions and commenting on his own thinning hair and expanding waistline. It’s obvious that he relishes his role as host and entertainer, and he’s hell-bent on your having a great time. The regulars love him.
Reading Cebu’s menu, (created by co-owner Ted Mann and executed with finesse by Ruben Cazares is like traveling along a super highway of greatest culinary hits - (1990) salmon, (1995) Caesar salad with chicken, (1999) creme brulee.
Greatest hits become greatest hits because people love them, but a "been there, ate this" cloud hangs over the menu. Described as "continental infusion," (why "infusion" and not "fusion" is anyone’s guess, as neither apply), the menu is like the nerdy little guy who surprises you with a wicked sense of humor; Cebu’s "continental infusion" fare delivers much more than I expected.
What Cebu delivers is well-executed cooking with a few pleasant surprises. A mushroom risotto, creamy with an earthy scent, was the best risotto I’ve had (even better then the risottos I loved in Italy) and pastry chefs Nikki Covino and Jacqueline Walby put a new spin on creme brulee, now a tired bistro classic.
There were occasional flaws: one sauce was over-salted, and candy-sweet honey-Dijon salad dressing transformed what would have been a perfectly delicious endive, beet and bleu cheese salad into a dish better suited as dessert.
Order the seafood platter with a couple of glasses of dry white wine and you’ll have a great dinner for two. Casually served on a big, silver tray over ice is an entire perfectly cooked lobster, many large shrimp, Blue Point oysters that tasted like they had just been scooped from the sea and sweet baby clams. Top one of those briny oysters with the house-made mignonette (a French sauce of red wine, white pepper and minced shallots), or dip a perfectly cooked shrimp into the zesty cocktail sauce, and you’ve got an extravagance of oceanic riches.
Entrees spin an especially "retro"
tune. There’s salmon, of course, and there’s fish and chips,
steak au poivre, roast chicken, a seasonal vegetable plate and
the Cebu burger.
We opted for two specials: a rack of lamb and a chicken dish. The lamb was rare and had that mineral tang that good lamb should have. Served with garlic-mashed potatoes and crisply cooked string beans, novel it’s not, but on a chilly evening, novelty takes second place to good, satisfying fare.
The chicken dish reminded me of ladies’ luncheons when anything rolled or served ala king was considered chic. A slightly over-cooked chicken breast, rolled and stuffed with goat cheese and prosciutto wasn’t helped by an over-salted lemon and wine sauce. That amazing mushroom risotto, served on the side, improved matters somewhat, but frankly, eating that chicken was a dull trip down memory lane.
In keeping with the tried-and-true theme of the menu, a flourless chocolate cake was served with a sweetened Bordeaux sauce, and the cheesecake had a black-bottom cookie-crumb crust. There’s also a tiramisu (no surprise there), and a "cookie jar" with an assortment of homemade specialties and assorted sorbets.
The creme brulee flavored with Darjeeling tea was lighter than most and subtly flavored with cinnamon and cloves.
There’s much to like about Cebu. The food is good, even at its most familiar, and as the neighborhood diners become more adventurous, so too will Cebu’s continental infusion cuisine. And remember, Jerry wants you to love his place, he really does, and so do the waitresses who stop to chat, and the bartenders who smile sincerely and even the other diners who did everything short of kissing us goodbye.
Cebu (8801 Third Ave. at 88th Street) accepts American Express, MasterCard, Discover and Visa. Entrees: $9-$20, pizzas are $8-$9, and the market price for the seafood platter is $36-$38. For reservations, call (718) 492-5095