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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Funny Thing: When I Say Cilantro, I Actually Mean Cilantro

Went to dinner with a few former foodie work colleagues Friday. We went to New York's (consciously) coolest new restaurant, The Smith (owned and operated by the folks at Jane, where I worked for a period of time, and the Neptune Room, where I didn't). First let me be clear about something: the food at The Smith is very very good, at least what we had, which, as is the joy of dining with 3 or more food enthusiasts eager to try and share, was a decent cross-section of the medium-sized menu. Brian Ellis, a chef worthy of serious respect, delivers a casual (casual in a New York way where blue cheese fondue is not taken for mysterious but instead for granted, here smothering house-made potato chips in a decadent dish that is actually better than it sounds (and trashier)). The short ribs are killer, the mac and cheese is real good, the list goes on. It's a good restaurant. But this isn't meant to be a review of the restaurant, but a gripe I have with service in general (and I empathize, I worked as one).

The Smith has an avocado salad with chipotle vinaigrette. I asked the server after my friend ordered the salad (we're sharing everything remember) "Does the avocado salad have any cilantro?" He said, "No, it doesn't." I said, "OK, cool, cuz I really really hate it." He said something like, don't worry about it. Fast forward some mac and cheese and potato chips later, arrives avocado salad with large leafy pieces of herb. I'm in a high state of alert and simultaneous indifference (I'm having so much fun with those goddamn delicious chips) about this leafy herb.

*I'd like to say that the visually suspicious herb dotting the otherwise beautiful, simple salad was actually parsley, but, self-fulfilling prophecy be damned, this was, no-doubt-about-it cilantro. If I wanted to be positive here, and I will again for a moment because I do like the restaurant, at least it was in huge pieces that could be avoided (much how Mario Batali always cuts his garlic in large pieces for those who don't like it (but who doesn't like garlic?)). But in fairness, I did ask in an unmistakable and polite enough way.

See the thing that has me annoyed here is that there's no shame in asking the kitchen a question if you aren't sure about a question a difficult or not difficult diner has asked. If I ask a yes or no question, in life in general, but let's start with food and restaurants, the acceptable answers are "yes" (which means yes), "no" (which means no) or, "I'm actually not sure, I'll find out," (which means I'll come back with an informed yes, no, or actually in this case there is no yes or no answer (although in answering the "Is there cilantro in this?" question there is always a yes or no answer)).

The answer to these questions, see, is sort of irrelevant. It points, I'm sure, to a larger issue I take with the idea of testimony, with truth, with knowledge. We all give inaccurate information to other people, inadvertently, from time to time. But, maybe one of the things that's important to know is what's important to know. So, for instance, when you're a waiter, it's important to know what's in food or to know when you don't. Then again, other people would argue and say what's important is to know how to kiss not just one kind, but all kinds of asses (Guess which kind of waiter I knew how to be). That's why I give this guy and other's like him some slack; everyone wants something different out of you and what you probably want is a part in a play, an audition for anything, a clue as to what it is you want or how to go after it and get it -- that is, not to kiss asses or tell people what's in their food.

But inasmuch as what I think and what I want matters, I want to ask "Is there cilantro in this?" and get an answer that corresponds to, you know, whether or not there's cilantro in it. I can say, with absolute assurance, however, that there is no (at least to date) cilantro in The Smith's very excellent potato chips with blue cheese fondue and that avocado salad, with some careful maneuvering, was actually really good.

* Cilantro left, parsley right: valuable tool for waiters everywhere.


calyn said...

This is awesome. I think this is just wonderful, what a beautiful project to dedicate yourself to.

Erin Hollingsworth said...

Why thank you calyn. It's a joy to write, really. Keep reading, or whatever ;)

Theo Bromine said...

I went to an Indian restaurant with my family, and we explicitly asked the (Caucasian) waiter to request the kitchen not to sprinkle cilantro on anything. When the food arrived, I was dismayed to discover a liberal sprinkling of cilantro on everything. When I asked why, he told me that they used coriander, not cilantro. (A bit later I saw the proprietor explain to him that cilantro=coriander).

I will eat just about anything, EXCEPT...cilantro. Interestingly, everyone else in my family is a very fussy eater, with respect to both textures and flavours, although none of them passionately hate cilantro the way I do. So just imagine my horror and dismay when my spice identity came up as cilantro in this test

Erin Hollingsworth said...

I'm garlic! Thank god!