Fred Cherenfant had never cooked a meal before arriving in this country from his native Haiti in 1980. But after a stint washing dishes, he got an entry-level job at the French restaurant Alouette in Philadelphia, where he was mentored by gifted Thai chef Kamol Phutlek. Cherenfant eventually became the chef himself, and in 1995 he crossed the Delaware to make Siri’s in Cherry Hill a serious French-Thai outpost. Early this year, after Siri’s was sold, Cherenfant joined forces with another South Jersey veteran, Thomas Chen, who had sold Lotus Oriental in Marlton and wanted to bring a sophisticated Asian option to Collingswood’s burgeoning Italo-centric restaurant row. Cherenfant provided Chen with something even better: a proven chef with a following, who was eager to nudge the balance a little closer to the French side of the menu.
Waterlily opened in February in a space formerly occupied by a gym. The deep-hued room is modern but warmly inviting, with burgundy-and-forest-green carpet and floor accented by booths with brightly striped upholstered backs that curve like giant tuile cookies. Chen is usually near the front door, greeting patrons and keeping an eye on the dining room, where well-trained servers place piping-hot dishes before the right guests without having to ask who gets what. The waiters are charming and enthusiastic; although English clearly is not their first language, they don’t mind repeating descriptions or fetching additional info from the kitchen.
Chen’s decision to invest in elegant Riedel crystal stemware is part of what makes Waterlily a gem among BYOs. On both our visits, we bring a red and a white. The staff promptly ices the white and, at our request, sets out enough glasses for us to drink the wines side by side. If you’re not the one who has to wash the glasses, it’s a funny sight: a table for four set with twelve big glasses, including those for water, facing each other like demented chess pieces.
When you taste the food, you won’t feel pretentious drinking from crystal glasses. Cherenfant is credible on both sides of the map. An appetizer of escargot and minced duxelles in puff pastry with white-wine–butter sauce is meltingly rich and delicious; a nutty-eggy tangle of pad Thai noodles glistening in a classic tamarind sauce available in five levels of spiciness makes an exemplary entrée. And artfully straddling the line is a superb salad of thin-sliced smoked duck breast over baby greens with a soy-balsamic vinaigrette.
Soups are likely a good bet here in any season. A Thai shrimp dumpling soup strikes a note as pure and resonant as a Riedel goblet tapped with a knife. But not every appetizer is off the charts. The apple-and-pork gyoza are fun, as are the seafood wontons. But shrimp balls on sugarcane lollipops, though cute to look at, are spongy, and the crisp oyster tempura needs plumper, less chewy oysters.
Such a piquant and delightful cavalcade, though, deserves a better finale. The house-made crème brûlée is respectable, while the outsourced others—mousse cake, tiramisù, and cheesecake—would be hard to distinguish in a blindfold test.
Reviewed October, 2005.Click here to leave a comment