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Sunday, March 9, 2008

Threat Level: Orange (Read Cilantro Green)

I have dinner plans with some former food people (as in people who "work in food" as opposed to people who are yuppie, amateur food enthusiasts or "foodies" as they're so often called/call themselves -- I'm not disparaging these people (I love yuppies as much as the next guy) just making a distinction) coworkers tonight at a French Moroccan place, and as much as I'm looking forward to the housemade merguez (love merguez, love it) I'm in a high state of cilantro alert as I anticipate the meal.

I've already had some too close for comfort encounters this week. Wednesday I went to an Italian steakhouse and while the steaks were safely cilantro free, they could have used some salt. Then we went to our favorite bistro on Thursday and the French onion soup/frisee salad with poached egg and lardon/profiterole trinity is failsafe -- cilantro there would be French blasphemy of the highest order. But then Friday I went with a friend to a Cuban restaurant (thank you restaurant for seating us right next to the live entertainment, thank you) and when the empanadas arrived with a vinegary green dipping sauce I knew, didn't think but knew, I was in trouble. I took a quick empanada dip in the sauce to make sure and even my not-as-into-food-but-starting-to-be-into-food friend confirmed (what I of course did not need confirmed) that the sauce was absolutely cilantro to the core.

What came next was a difficult conversation. I speak some Spanish, certainly enough to say "No me gusta cilantro. Otra salsa por favor," or what have you, but see there was this live entertainment directly to our left and if you've ever eaten in a New York restaurant of a popular variety (the line the wall with 2-top banquets and cram them impossibly close together variety) then you can imagine just how this situation is not conducive to communicating with a waiter who, eager as he is to understand is just not hearing let alone understanding what I'm trying to say in English or Spanish. Well, finally somehow I did get the message across, but then I'm left waiting for my new sauce to arrive as my toasty hot empanada becomes less hot and less delicious -- such is the plight of the cilantro hater.

But eventually the new (something roasted tomato based) sauce did arrive and the empanada was good enough and everything was fine. I mean the rest of the meal wasn't great (overcooked lobster tail, not ok) but it was fine and we were drinking sangria heavily so obviously we were happy anyway. But the point is, I can see a similar situation panning out tonight in which a surprise cilantro attack comes to pass and I'm left waiting to enjoy something delicious while something cilantro free gets made. I know what you're thinking, just ask for no cilantro from the beginning. Sure, but that can be difficult in some restaurants, especially when there's a language barrier and you don't want to have a confusing 5-minute conversation if you can just order things that probably won't have cilantro anyway. So for instance I'm probably ok with my merguez, but what of the pastilla or various cous cous dishes I might want? What when the group of 8 or so wants to share appetizers? Will I be the wet blanket of the evening?

Maybe this is why I like going to bistros so much. It's like going to Cheers, except instead of everyone knowing your name you know the menu, er, something like that. But sometimes you want something more interesting than a hanger steak medium rare with frites. Sometimes you want merguez and in that case, the high state of cilantro alert that comes with it is usually worth it; it isn't the cilantro-free status that makes a cuisine good after all (I love myself some green coconut curry sans cilantro), it's the presence of so many other delicious things that makes it stand out. Indeed lots of things don't have cilantro that also don't have flavor -- water comes to mind. So, it is with a high state of alert but an adventurous and hungry palate that I bravely enter my Moroccan dinner.

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