Z: Papillon, French for butterfly, opened its doors just five months ago along a two-block stretch in the heart of the old downtown El Segundo. Though the focus of the menu is vegetarian, the restaurant does list some non-vegetarian dishes. Papillon's cuisine stands apart with Chinese style dishes that are innovatively seasoned with Philippine sauces, fruits, and vegetables. Owner Chris Florido, a vegetarian for 30 years, shared his hope that as soon as the restaurant is able to thrive solely on its vegetarian offerings, he plans to eliminate the non-veg items.
R: The restaurant's bright, cheery ambience is warm and welcoming with accents of red and green against the all-white walls. Tables are dressed in colorful tablecloths with white overlays underneath glass tops, while the chairs, framed in white, have bright green seats and red backs.
Z: More green trim framed the door and the large, dominant picture window that faced the street. The restaurant sports a casual informality with a small counter and bar stools along a mirrored wall, yet we enjoyed the luxury of green cloth napkins and plenty of smiles from the friendly staff.
R: We asked Chris' wife, Sherry, to offer some menu suggestions, since Philippine foods were unfamiliar to us. Learning that we were vegan, she made suggestions from their list of Vegetarian Signature Entrees: Vegetarian Escabeche, Vegetarian Pancit, Papillion's Choice.
Z: We recognized these were hearty dishes and planned to carry the leftovers home. Chris told us proudly that each dish is a fresh preparation made to order, rather than a pre-made steam table item. Our first entrée came quickly, with the others following one at a time, giving us the opportunity to savor the flavors individually and undistracted.
R: SuSu, our server, brought us the Vegetarian Escabeche, an attractive entrée that featured a sizable slice of deep fried coral-colored mock salmon that had a toothy texture. Julienne slices of onion and red and green bell pepper dressed the top, while a plump sprig of fresh rosemary garnished the plate. The highlight of this delectable entr´e was the generous pool of Philippine sweet and sour sauce surrounding the veg fish.
Z: A nicely balanced sweet and sour sauce where neither flavor dominated the savory undertone revealed the skill of a talented chef. The next hearty dish to grace the table was the Vegetarian Pancit served on an oval platter that held a heaping portion of the tastiest egg-free noodles we've ever had. In among the richly seasoned noodles were colorful stir-fried vegetables--pieces of chopped cabbage, long shreds of carrot, scallions, onions, and red and green bell peppers along with chunks of veggie chicken, slices of veggie pork, and whole veggie shrimps. Pancit is a traditional Philippine specialty usually served with meat, sausage, or chicken. We appreciated the compassionate version.
R: Chris spends his days working in airport security on the port of entry anti-terrorism force and his nights at the restaurant. Sherry, his wife, is a pharmacist three days a week and a restaurateur on the remaining days. While Chris was telling us about his days as a yoga instructor, Sherry was serving us the Papillion's Choice.
Z: A stand-alone meal, Papillion's Choice is an ideal combination dish for the robust appetite. Thick wedges of deep fried tofu, a skewer of grilled chunks of veggie pork, and thick slices of fried plantain garnered most of the space on the platter and were smothered in a pleasantly spicy sauce.
R: Additional accompaniments included a bowl with a colorful variety of chow mein vegetables in a flavorful white sauce coupled with a mound of perfectly cooked brown rice. Zel's favorite feature of this dish was the little saucer of spicy, sweet-sour dipping sauce that added a special zest to the tofu and veggie pork. She really warms up to spicy dishes. This sauce came to life with crushed red chiles, sugar, and a touch of oil.
Z: Knowing that Reuben enjoys eggplant immensely, Chris, an avid fan of our restaurant reviews, suggested we order their Eggplant and Tofu, an experience we both found captivating. The brown sauce that blanketed the fried tofu and sautéed eggplant is an aromatic blend of pleasing savory flavors that included a sweetened vegetarian oyster sauce.
R: While the seasonings we enjoyed throughout the meal hinted of Southeast Asia, it was the Philippine influence that added a distinct novelty to the dishes. Because meat dishes are the norm in Philippine cuisine, serving the traditional dishes with a vegetarian approach is quite unusual. The sauces were extraordinary and gave each entrée its distinct personality. We attempted to wheedle a recipe or two from Chris, but he proudly smiled and insisted they remain Papillon's secret.
Z: We learned from him that the vegetarian dishes are prepared on a separate grill, separate cutting boards, and separate fryer from the non-vegetarian items to prevent cross-contamination.
R: Noticing that we had stopped eating, Chris suggested we try the Halo Halo dessert, a true Philippine experience. We were no challenge for his persuasive power and were soon eyeing an awesome presentation. Halo Halo or mix mix in Tagalog is a fitting name for this colorful heaping melange that I might have named Big Rock Candy Mountain. Spoons in hand we shared this innovative dessert treasure.
Z: Piled onto a base of shaved ice were diced fruits including banana, papaya, jackfruit, corn flakes (yes, they really were corn flakes), naturally sweet purple yam called ube, young coconut known as makapuno, red beans, sweet white mungo beans, and pineapple. Topping this medley was a scoop of vegan vanilla ice cream. Accents of diced bits of bright red and green fruit looked like maraschino cherries, but we learned they were palm fruit called ka-ong. This amazing display stood tall in its clear glass footed dessert dish.
R: Itself a grand feast, Halo Halo is a dessert that could lift the lowest of spirits. The dish has lightness with its myriad of fruit flavors and textures that are pleasingly sweet, yet not overly sweet. This is a treat to invigorate the soul.
Z: SuSu packed up our leftovers while we wished Chris and Sherry much success in their new endeavor. Papillon has much to offer adventurous diners who enjoy exploring new cuisines.
R: Most dishes are under $10, making the restaurant a place that offers value for money. There were many more specialties on their extensive menu that will certainly lure us back. You may want to visit their website at http://www.papillonvgcuisine.com/index.htm
Papillon Vegetarian Cuisine and Grill
Reviewed May 2004