The other night I had dinner, a subtle euphemism for blog fodder, with a good friend, her visiting-New York Latin lover (who loves being called that) and my, what I think it is now officially safe to call him, boyfriend. We went to a place called Graffiti, a joy of a dining experience if you’re in the area and are open to not-so-much weird food, as much as weird food combinations, most of which work. From the moment the sweet watermelon balanced perfectly with the salty feta, and cool mint hit my impatient mouth…just kidding–I hate that kind of food writing: the watermelon with feta and mint sorbet tasted awesome. So did a lot of other things.
The chef, Jehangir Mehta, earned accolades as a pastry chef at Jean Georges and some other places that also matter, as it were. We met him quickly (the restaurant is very small) and not sure of what to choose, asked him if he would just send out some stuff. “Allergies, restrictions?,” he appropriately and kindly inquired. “I hate cilantro,” I said, but added: “But I know you’re rocking the Asian thing and I wouldn’t want to destroy the integrity of your cuisine; let’s keep dishes that feature cilantro to a minimum, but do what you must do.” And so he sent lots of stuff out (Graffiti is a small plates concept) and I was impressed that foie gras made the cut; there are people who wouldn’t have been pleased with the assumption involved. I was very pleased.
A pleasant chickpea flour-crusted skate arrived somewhere in the middle of our degustation. What it was served with I don’t really remember except that it tasted good. And also Mehta, bless his heart, brought the cilantro-cumin yogurt on the side. “Mostly it’s cumin,” he suggested, and rightly so. Some waiters will tell you that you won’t really notice the cilantro. This really pisses me off. I will notice the cilantro, while you will not. See, we’re different people with different tongues and everything. (It’s like telling a die-hard right-to-lifer not to sweat the ‘morning after pill’: it’s just a hypothetical, mini abortion, you see) But Mehta was right. Notice the cilantro? Yeah, cuz there was cilantro in it. But, and I’m getting more and more freaked out by this, I didn’t hate it.
I attribute this largely to context. Mehta was explaining the restaurant concept to my ever-inquisitive, ever-gregarious boyfriend using words like “our living room,” “inviting,” “eclectic,” and phrases like “graffiti is an international art and our cuisine is international” to explain the restaurant’s name. But when you name a thing a thing, (a restaurant, a movie, a book, what have you) while your intention and inspiration is valid and, perhaps, interesting or amusing, the audience–diners in this case–gets to interpret the name how they want. I think graffiti and I think punk, as in the punk “Fuck you” or rather “Fuck the man” or rather “Fuck everyone” attitude. Mehta certainly doesn’t have that attitude but his cuisine’s irreverence toward the status quo, toward tired flavors, toward the stuffiness often associated with food as good (if not as inventive) is very punk indeed (by the way, Mehta has a fun quirk of saying “Thank you very much indeed,” whenever you complement his food, or restaurant, which comes across as super genuine and hence super charming).
Anyway, I think because we had all signed up, so-to-speak, for this punk experience (I’m not sure pork-abstaining Latin Lover was ever informed he was eating pork), my palate was more willing to be assaulted than normal. I was so happy Mehta had taken the trouble to put it on the side, I figured I’d give it a taste. Cumin’s a flavor I’ve come to really like, although I associate it with Rachel Ray, so I was cool with that, and because it’s such a warm, if you will, flavor, the very little bit of (soapy) cilantro did cool it down. Now, I wouldn’t say I liked it, because I didn’t, but I appreciated it and said, for a moment “Fuck you” to my cilantro hate. But mostly I appreciated Mehta’s relentless sweetness and attention to detail.