NEW YORK — Tsismis is the opposite of a speakeasy. It isn’t hiding anything; its glass facade on Orchard Street wants to strike up a conversation so badly that it almost follows you home. The windows are stenciled with cartoon characters and with text-message bubbles that call out in English (“Hello! New York”), Spanish (“que rico!”), French (“bon appétit”) and Tagalog (“masarap,” for delicious).
The language lessons continue on the front door, which gives translations for “tuloy po kayo” (welcome) and the restaurant’s name (gossip), pronounced chiss-miss. In case you miss all of this, a sandwich board straddles the sidewalk, advertising discounted beer, wine and wings at the bar during happy hour (“5:thirsty”).
If you accept the facade’s invitation to benaquitodits (come here here, a repetitive bit of Tagalog slang), the conversation will continue inside. Tsismis, which opened in June, is a chatty restaurant. At times, when one of the owners pulls up alongside your table and expounds on how the chef’s interpretation of the dish you’re trying to eat differs from what you might find in the Philippines, you may find yourself eyeing the exit. If you’ve found your way to the menu’s strengths, though, odds are you won’t want to go anywhere.
Kinilaw, a Filipino ceviche in a piercingly sour calamansi and cane vinegar marinade with a jab of bird’s-eye chile, is worth sticking around for, especially on those nights when it’s made with bay scallops instead of fish. After that, you might look into the fried pork-and-carrot won tons called pinsec frito (or, as the menu has them, pinsit frito). They are typically folded into triangles, but the ones at Tsismis are twisted into little cones that look like Hershey’s kisses, though slightly bigger and golden-brown. Once they stop steaming, you can hold them by the cowlick of fried wrapper at the top and swish them around in the sweet chile sauce.
Won tons with the same filling flop around in the soup called pancit molo, although these are boiled. There is almost as much ground pork inside them as outside in the broth, which is thick with garlic and chopped scallions.
Even if it’s well after 5:thirsty and you’re not sitting at the bar, Jappy’s wings are worth considering. Jappy is the chef, Jappy Afzelius, and he fries those wings with thinly sliced garlic and sends them out to the dining room with a salsa of raw mangoes, charred onions and chiles. The heat of the salsa will not cause your shirt to burst into flames, but it is hot enough to make your memory of Jappy’s wings a lasting one.
Afzelius is a native of the Philippines and a graduate of a cooking academy in Manila, which shipped him off to Paris to intern in one of Alain Ducasse’s bistros. The Ducasse masterminds then sent him to work at Benoit in New York, after which he turned up as the sous-chef at a Filipino restaurant in Brooklyn that was best known for its $100 doughnut — ube-filled, Cristal-frosted and gold-leafed.
Happily, nothing at Tsismis approaches that level of look-at-me desperation. Afzelius’ cooking is loose, unfussy and liberated. He tosses tradition under the bus when it suits him. The result is Filipino-American drinking food that tends to be charmingly offhand.
From time to time, it can lean toward sloppiness. One night the fried milkfish in pritong isda was so overdone that even topping it with calamansi juice, fish sauce and a crisp, juicy spoonful of marinated chayote on top didn’t revive it. A version of adobong manok, which Afzelius makes as a roasted chicken plus a soy-turmeric sauce rather than an all-in-one stew, would have been more successful if the smoked eggplant hadn’t been so undercooked it squeaked.
But the grilled eggplant on top of the kare-kare was as soft as warm marrow, and the other vegetables — crisp green beans, bok choy, enoki mushrooms — made a refreshing counterpoint to the stewed oxtails in thick peanut sauce. Already pungent with shrimp paste, the kare-kare comes with extra on the side that you can add to your heart’s content.
As they do at Bad Saint in Washington, probably the country’s most talked-about Filipino restaurant, Tsismis makes its laing by simmering local kale, rather than the more traditional taro leaves, in coconut milk. And if this version doesn’t have the perspective-altering funk of Bad Saint’s, it still draws plenty of depth from the shrimp paste and smoked fish in the milk and the big handful of dried baby shrimp dropped on top.
By this point, you will probably want to have a glass in your hand. Housemade calamansi soda sounds lovely, but mine was a little flat and weak. In lieu of hard spirits, sake is the backbone of most of the cocktails. They are typically fleshed out with half a dozen other ingredients — vermouth, Aperol, artichoke liqueur and bitters, in the case of the A La Bira — which sound at first as if they had been assembled by walking through a liquor store blindfolded, but which after a closer look reveal a degree of inner logic. If this does not pique your curiosity, the list of wines by the glass is almost long enough to qualify Tsismis as a wine bar, although the choices are not as outré as they are across the street at Wildair.
In a city crazy for kakigori, patbingsu and other varieties of flavored snow, Tsismis’ halo-halo will probably be an instant hit. Afzelius has the very good idea of putting coconut sorbet where the shaved ice would usually go; from there he goes to town with coconut jellies and what seems like every fresh fruit he can put his hands on.
But discerning collectors of Filipino sweets should note that Tsismis serves excellent silvanas. A silvana is either a shrunken cake or a cookie with big ideas, depending on your perspective. It is made of two cashew meringues that are sandwiched together with buttercream and then painted with more buttercream, which holds cashew crumbs to the outside of the whole package. Once frosted and crumbed, it has to be refrigerated or the buttercream will melt before it gets inside your mouth. No gold leaf adorns the silvanas. It would only get in the way.
143 Orchard Street (Rivington Street), Lower East Side, New York; 646-329-6875; tsismisnyc.com
Atmosphere A small and energetic little spot animated by comic-book art and, along one wall, a miniature gallery of paintings by Jeanne Jalandoni, a Filipino-American artist in the Bronx.
Service Welcoming and enthusiastic.
Sound Level Generally manageable, but challenging on weekends, like the neighborhood itself.
Recommended Dishes Kinilaw; Jappy’s wings; pinsit frito; pancit molo; adobong manok dilaw; kare-kare; halo-halo; silvanas.
Drinks and Wine Care has been taken with the drinks list, which includes custom tea blends, sake-based cocktails and a dozen or so good, inexpensive wines by the glass.
Prices Appetizers, $7 to $14; main courses, $16 to $28.
Open Tuesday to Friday for dinner; Saturday and Sunday for brunch and dinner.
Wheelchair Access The dining room and accessible restroom are on the sidewalk level.
What the Stars Mean Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction primarily to food, with ambience, service and price taken into consideration.