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Archive for the ‘I was Just Trying to Eat…’ Category

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.

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While 2 of my Brooklyn friends trek to the East Village to enjoy a nice, healthy Saturday night dinner at Caravan of Dreams, a lovely near-vegan restaurant run by spacey for real and would-be rastas, (consider the dialogue “I’m sorry, I forgot what you ordered. Could to tell me again?,” followed by an overheard conversation between our waitress and another table “I’m sorry, I forgot what you ordered. Could you tell me again?”) I decide to stay home, pack for ‘Home for the Holidays, 2.0,’ finish some work, and make myself a delicious salad with goat cheese.

Of course, I’d have to go to the store to buy some greens and goat cheese, since I don’t have anything but Christmas cookies and pantry goods in the house. So, I go to the store and throw the requisite Earthbound Farm Organic mix in my basket, but, as I’d feared, my just-down-the-street store doesn’t have goat cheese, the official cheese of gentrification. They do, however, have that delicious ‘no bread needed to fry it’ Queso Para Freir cheese. Being flexible about these sorts of things, I’m thinking I’ll make a mixed green salad with toasted almonds and some of that fried cheese with a nice super acidic with a little bit of honey vinaigrette.

I heated some canola oil in a pan, or started to, when I lifted the pan to, I don’t know what now that I think about it, and promptly burnt my chin on contact. Ouch. I’m already thinking this was a bad idea. I should have just gone to Caravan, but, I’m rolling with the situation. The pan is definitely hot, and that’s all I needed to know, so, you know, mission accomplished. I fry the cheese, drain the cheese, bla bla. Then I throw together a quick vinaigrette (dijon, balasamic, olive oil, honey, salt, pepper) and toss it with a large handful of greens and the almonds (bought them toasted; yes I’m alright with that). It’s at this point I notice sparse pieces of what would seem to be dill (it was) and think I might be in trouble. Yeah, there are more green things in the salad that aren’t lettuce.

I go for the fridge, find the package, “Fresh Herb Salad.” Shit. I’ve bought this before, a long time ago, and seem to remember this is not a cilantro-hater’s friend, this “Fresh Herb Salad.” Indeed, there is cilantro throughout. It’s unavoidable. I can’t pick out all the pieces, especially now that it’s been tossed together, and it’s all variations of the same color — even if I wanted to extract each piece of cilantro, finding them all would be a huge chore unto itself. And, I’ve stayed home to save time and get some stuff done, not spend an hour removing cilantro from my salad.

So, I eat the salad, doing my best to avoid the cilantro pieces. I fail. The salad was terrible. I got nice almondy-cheesy bites, but what I wanted was salad with stuff in it, not stuff with salad garnish. I realized I haven’t actually eaten cilantro in awhile; I do try to avoid it. I became mesmerized, focusing intently on a single leaf. How far away could I smell it from? (not that far, maybe 6 inches) How large was each piece in the salad? (ranging from 2-square millimeters to 1-square inch) What did it taste like? (terrible, just terrible). Did I still hate it? (yes, as much, if not more, than ever).

What gets me is how ubiquitous it’s become, cilantro. There are exactly three herbs in the Earthbound Herb Salad: parsley, dill and cilantro. Parsley seems a given — most people I know like it or are indifferent to it; you can put it in anything. Dill, I have to say, is an odd choice — I love dill, but I’m pretty sure not everyone does. This is a salad mix, I would assume, meant to please the general palate (I did purchase it in a store that doesn’t sell goat cheese). Cilantro, well, there’s just no need. I’ve come to expect it in my guacamole, salsa, saag panir, etc, but not in my supermarket salad mix. Between the dill and the cilantro, I would guess Earthbound is making some enemies with this salad.

But, the joke’s on me. I need to return to checking all labels, being more mindful, asking more questions in restaurants, lest another slip-up like this occur. As cilantro is more and more absolutely everywhere, I need to up my defenses against it, otherwise cilantro will have won.

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One of the nice things about hating cilantro so much is that it serves as a convenient benchmark for dubious or relative hatred of other things. Do I hate midtown? Yes. Do I hate it as much as cilantro? No, not even close. But, when the two come together, a funny things happens: somehow, neither seems as bad. You can feel the universe working in some sort of sick harmony, if only for a frenzied 20-minute at my desk lunch.

When my new (and dear, vegan) coworker suggests taco salad as a reasonable midtown lunch choice, I don’t have to think twice. Hale and hardy as early winter midtown soups may be, they get a little old. The taco salad offers a cornucopia of foodie wonderland ingredients: farm-to-table (farm’s in California, but I hear sustainability is going out of style) iceberg lettuce, canned supermarket black beans, anemic diced tomatoes, hormone and/or antibiotic treated sour cream, flavorless but high-fat pre-shredded “cheddar” and “jack” cheeses, overly acidiulated “guacamole,” and then there’s that beautiful brown slice of Tex-mexamericana, the fried taco salad shell. Well, obviously I couldn’t say no. Hell, it’s Thursday.

What’s more, as new coworker described said taco salad and it’s “delicious” “tomato and basil” component, I was intrigued. This is where I made my fatal error, which I only realized too late. No self-respecting vendor of authentic Tex-Mex midtown cuisine would bastardize the genre’s standards so much as to put basil in a taco salad — this isn’t Little Italy and it’s not Thai either (a cuisine that interestingly holds my greatest friend and greatest foe herbs in equal esteem). But, I didn’t second guess.

I walked into the “Bagel” shop on 48th street with authority, heading straight to the Tex-Mex section (south of salad bar/bagel/panini/, east of sushi and make your own udon) like I’d been doing it for years. “Taco Salad, black beans” was all I had to say. The guy knew what to do, like he’d been doing it for years. It’s when he started spooning on the tomato/basil concoction that it occurred to me, “You know Erin, that probably isn’t basil in there. Your sweet but innocent coworker meant miscellaneous herb when she said basil, not basil as you understand it.” But, I figured, any opportunity to keep trying the stuff — who knows when the magic day I quit hating it will be. Plus, this didn’t exactly promise to be the best meal I’d ever had in my life, although it would, of course, come close.

Well, as I eat my taco salad, yes, right now, the cilantro really isn’t too noticeable. It’s more a sporadic annoyance between inoffensive if underwhelming bites. I can see a tiny piece sitting on a tomato dice right now. Ok, that tomato piece has been discarded, that’s one that won’t sneaking onto my palate of hate.

The total effect of the dish is actually to fit perfectly in its time and place, which is all you can really ever ask for any dish, ever. In that sense, it’s the perfect midtown lunch. A basically neutral, but protein rich, combination of textures and flavors that don’t distract or get in the way of the busy workday. The slight annoyance and, in this case, depth of flavor the cilantro provides, reminds me of where I am, the most annoying and crowded area of Manhattan. It’s only fitting that my lunches here should contain errant or apropos cilantro (cilantro is never apropos to me, but it is to various cuisines, like Tex-Mex, maybe my new favorite) in sparse but consistent quantities and manifestations.

Today’s lesson: Cilantro isn’t basil. Basil does not go in taco salad. When you hear “basil” and “taco” in the same sentence — buyer beware.

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