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December 17, 2009

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Every night is New Year’s Eve at Cin Cin
Chestnut Hill restaurateur always does it his Wei

This quintet of customers prepares
to consume some cin-ful delights at Cin Cin, which is beehivebusy every New Year’s Eve.

There’s an old Chinese saying (are there any new Chinese sayings?) which maintains, “You will never stumble upon anything good while sitting down.”

One Chestnut Hill businessman who appears to have lived his life according to this adage is Michael Wei, owner of Cin Cin in our town (7838 Germantown Ave.) as well as Yangming in Bryn Mawr, Nectar in Berwyn, Szechuan East in Northeast Philly and Mandarin Garden in Willow Grove. Until recently he and several partners also owned Maia in Villanova, but Maia was a casualty of the dismal economy and other factors. Wei, whose restaurant empire might warrant the title “The Chinese Stephen Starr,” somehow made a detour into the kitchen while on the road to a career in journalism. A newspaper reporter in Taiwan, where he was born, Wei (pronounced “Way”) earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri after immigrating to the U.S. in 1970. “I dreamed of being a reporter for a great paper like the New York Times,” recalls Michael, “but I could not get a job with a major newspaper after graduation.”

Like countless students before him, Michael worked his way through graduate school by working in restaurants — washing dishes, busing and waiting on tables. After graduation, Michael moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for a law firm by day and continued working in restaurants at nights and on weekends.

In 1977 Wei moved to Philadelphia to be near his brother, a statistics professor at Temple University, and to open his first restaurant, Ming Garden, in Elkins Park. “My brother told me it was a great business opportunity because we were able to buy the place so cheaply,” said Michael. “I still hoped to pursue a journalism career at a later date, but in the meantime I had to earn a living.”

While a journalism career eluded Wei, his restaurant accomplishments have been the culinary equivalent of a Pulitzer prize. After Ming Garden became a success, Michael sold it and opened Mandarin Garden in Willow Grove, which is currently celebrating more than 20 years in business. Cin Cin and Yangming are consistently rated among the finest Asian restaurants in the Delaware Valley in the Zagat Restaurant Guide, and the spectacular $5 million Nectar, which serves Asian Fusion cuisine, has been garnering rave reviews from both customers and food critics alike. The Chinese Restaurant News recently named Yangming one of the “Top Chinese Restaurants in the U.S.” It’s been said that the economy is so bad that McDonald’s is now selling “The Quarter-Ouncer,” but you’d never know from this entrepreneur’s five restaurants that the economy is in the dumpster.

The food at Wei’s restaurants always sparkles with creativity, aesthetic presentation and an exotic palette of ingredients blending textures and a rainbow of colors. They are composed as artfully as an Old Master’s painting. There are always daily specials in addition to the menu and an impressive wine list. Prices vary significantly from Cin Cin and Wei’s Main Line restaurants to Mandarin Garden and Szechuan East.

To welcome in the new year 2000, 10 years ago, several of our family members selected Cin Cin Restaurant, 7838 Germantown Ave., for the final dinner of 1999 and of the 20th century. It was crowded with adult and children celebrants and take-out-order pickups. After we were seated, we donned 2000 paper hats, trumpeted the momentous occasions with toy noisemakers and ordered wine to salute prospective good health and good fortune for us, for the region, country and world.

For the next few hours, before going home to watch the historic ball fall at Times Square, we savored a great dinner on this unique evening. For all the New Year’s Eves that followed, every one of them, we have reserved a table at Cin Cin with managing partner Henry Lee, for yet another memorable feast-ivity on the last night of the year.

Not one of these New Year’s Eves was marred by snow or sleet or any other precipitation because there is no way Henry would permit it.

A few months ago I (Bennett) planned a dinner party for October 3 for my daughter, Dr. Nancy Cohen, to celebrate a landmark birthday, number 60. Again I chose Cin Cin’s culinary creations for this special occasion. There were 13 of us, and on this evening, 13 was a lucky number. Our waiter, Jacky Chu, was peerless, as usual.

In between bites and swallows, we chatted about Leno and Letterman (One wise guy remarked, “Did you know that NBC executives are pressuring Jay Leno to have an affair and then tell all, so his ratings can soar, just like David Letterman’s?”) health care and health foods and health clubs, the economy (“The economy is so bad that Dick Cheney just took his stockbroker hunting”) and Obama administration big-wigs and small-wigs.

A “fall special” appetizer of Grand Marnier prawns ($8.95) had a truly magical mayo-orange sauce that could easily go into the space capsule. This should be a permanent fixture on the menu. For the main course I ordered pan-smeared rosemary pinot noir duck ($19.95). It was marinated with pinot noir, rosemary, fennel and anise, then pan-seared with a pinot noir/apple sauce. The taste was divine.

One of Nancy’s friends ordered pan-seared bacon-wrapped red snapper with mango, shiitake mushrooms, sweet peppers and a Korean hot pepper sauce ($18.95). This was an interesting balance of flavors, although the spicy red snapper would have probably been better off without the bacon. One sublime spicy entree was the wok day boat scallops and beef tenderloin with fresh corn, onion, baby bok choy and a hot bean sauce ($22.95). It was appealing to both the eye and palate. Another guest chose the salmon and said it was the best she had ever tasted.

When I made my reservation with Henry last June, I asked him to serve a small cake with one candle after the main courses were eaten. I once read that after age 50, too many candles on a cake could activate the sprinkler system, so one candle it was. A few of us, wound up with doggie bags of leftovers.

Jacky delivered a small cake with one lit candle. After a chorus of “Happy Birthday,” Jacky served a half dozen other desserts to be passed around our table. “On the house,” our waiter said. Henry Lee’s generosity included fresh strawberries with cream, mud pie (not a dab of mud could be found) and several Cin-ful cakes, one with chocolate, one with peanut butter. The chorus of “Oh my’s” swelled with moans of complete taste-buds contentment. In just two more weeks, we’ll be back for the New Year’s Eve banquet, of course.

“I’m glad to know that so many people seem to like the food in our restaurants,” said Michael Wei, “because it looks like they will not be seeing my byline in the New York Times, after all.”

For more information, call 215-242-8800 or visit www.cincinrestaurant.com


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