Archive for the ‘Restaurants’ Category

African Peanut Stew with Cilantro

African Peanut Stew with Cilantro via alaskavegan.wordpress.com

A few weeks ago Dave and I shared dinner with a group of Kenyan expats at 4-Course Vegan. It’s a place where you either go with a group of 8 and take up a whole table, or you share your table with strangers. We shared with strangers and had a wonderful evening. After the perfunctory questions such an occasion calls for–what do you do?, what’s your name?, do you live in Brooklyn?, are you vegan?–were out of the way, we got to talking about Kenya and what our new friends missed and didn’t miss about it. We talked a lot about food. Much to my surprise, cilantro is an absolute staple in Kenyan cooking.

But it took some time to figure this out because Kenya, like much of the world, does not call cilantro cilantro. In Kenya, cilantro is dhania, the Hindi word for cilantro. (There’s a large Indian population in Kenya which I only know because one of my best friends is Indian with a lot of family in Kenya.) So if you’re someone who likes to travel or eat “ethnic” food (that term sounds so vaguely offensive to me, but I don’t have a better one) and hates cilantro, you’ll want to know what the locals call it, especially in cultures that eat a lot of this horrible stuff.

Cilantro: English, Spanish, Italian. Used in the US and much of Western hemisphere and apparently Italy (Cilantro pizza anyone? Gag). This covers Latin cuisine which is of course a red flag cuisine for cilantro haters, but at least you can use the word with confidence that the restaurant will know what you’re talking about. Indeed we get the word in English from the Spanish.
Dhania: Hindi; used in Kenya, India
Koriander: German (I find going for cilantro and coriander both in a restaurant situation where the waiter doesn’t speak really great English to be an effective communication strategy, though for Indian food they use a lot of coriander seed which is delicious to most cilantro leaf haters I know, so if you can successfully clarify you mean the coriander/cilantro leaf and not the seed you’re all set).
الكزبرة: Arabic. Pronounced “el-kez-bur-uh.” You know, the next time you order Falafel in Dubai.
Coriandre: French. Even cilantro sounds beautiful in French, though they don’t have too much cause to use the damn word since the French (at least historically) favor sophisticated herbs like tarragon to horrible ones like cilantro.
Shiang Tsai: Chinese – Mandarin. I have not discovered a lot of cilantro in Chinese food, but then again I’ve never been to China and the cuisine is so diverse there, I wouldn’t put it past one or more of the regional cuisines to rely heavily on cilantro.
Yim sai: Chinese – Cantonese
כוסברה: Hebrew. Pronounced “koos-uh-bur-ah.” Latkes with cilantro-infused applesauce. Mmmm…
Koyendoro, Koendoro: Japanese

Source: Google Translate where you can find the word for cilantro in virtually any language you’d ever want to. I know the next trip I take or ethnic meal I eat, I’ll have the right word ready to go. And depending on the language, learning “no” or “without” is just as important, lest we end up with a generous extra portion of Dhalia with our samosas.


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I’ve been getting annoyed a lot recently, not that me getting annoyed is in anyway anomalous. I am someone who gets annoyed: whether a person (or group) is being a jerk or too nice (in a an ostensibly genuine but upon closer inspection not altogether genuine way), too loud or too soft spoken, too dumb or too erudite, admittedly there’s a thin tipping point in my book where something goes from just right, to just not. But I’m not a hypocrite–(or at least not an unknowing hypocrite, we’re all hypocrites after all) I’m annoying too.

But getting annoyed is not, you know, a trait I’m interested in nurturing. I’m self-aware enough to know that an over abundance of getting-annoyed-ness has more to do with me than with the world around me, that I have some power in getting annoyed less and that getting annoyed less would probably have the effect of, rather intuitively, me being less annoyed, which seems pretty good.

So I’ve done a bit of science on this situation. Having a predisposition to getting annoyed, I’m going to need somewhere to channel this propensity. And that’s where you, neglected cilantro hate blog, come in: nothing is more reliably, even comfortingly, annoying than cilantro, and unlike say republicans hellbent on stopping health care reform, cilantro being you know an herb, as opposed to near-half the American population, seems like a healthier, easier and altogether more fun place to direct my annoyance.

There are other reasons, too, why I’ve come to think revisiting this blog might mitigate this annoyance phase (don’t we all live in phases? I know I do.). Principally, I very much miss writing and not just writing, but writing about something that is so uniquely mine, not the hate of cilantro–we’re a large, vocal group–but the whatever unique blend of memoir, personal philosophy and of course cilantro hate encounters this blog evolved into. In no uncertain terms: my blog is way better than ThisIsWhyYou’reFat, however fun it is (I guess), but rather than be annoyed with how much better my blog is, it seems a better use of time to write my blog than be annoyed that other people are writing (popular) stupid ones. With that I bring you….

The Week in Cilantro Hate:

1.) Thank you Vanessa for your tip on McDonald’s’ new salad, the Southwest Chicken Salad, which features cilantro lime chicken and some sort of Ranch dressing with cilantro in it. Now, call me a snob if you will but Ranch dressing isn’t my first choice, and McDonald’s chicken belongs in a group (with say haggis) of “meats I don’t want to eat” (As a side note, I’m dabbling in veganism at the moment), but McDonald’s: consider yourselves removed from my cilantro safe-restaurant list, a blow certainly as detrimental as Fast Food Nation, Super Size Me and Food Inc. combined (oh wait, McDonald’s is doing better than ever?)

2.) This morning I had a falafel platter at Miriam in Brooklyn that came with a green tahini sauce. I of course asked if it was green from the addition of parsley or cilantro. “Both,” said the waitress, “but you really can’t taste the cilantro.”

“But, I really hate it.”
“So do I, you can’t taste it.”
“Is it on the side?”
“Cool, I’ll try it.”

Guess what? I couldn’t taste it. I didn’t eat much of it, but I really didn’t taste it. This leaves me wondering if there was actually cilantro in it or if the amount was so small that even I couldn’t taste it (this doesn’t seem likely, haters know even the slightest amount is totally egregious). In any case, the waitress was surprisingly right, and it was great to not be annoyed.

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It appears I have “fans,” and these fans, if you will, have grown agree with me, disappointed, nonplussed.

Well, we can’t have that, can we?

I remember the feeling, when a certain friend of mine named James had quit writing in his always entertaining blog, I went through all, not some, of the 5 stages of grief. To review, they are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. I have accepted that my friend James’s “career” has replaced his “blog” (indeed he did just help to elect our new president–an achievement that’s sheer awesomeness is ironic retort-proof, an achievement in its own right), but I cannot accept that mine (career) has replaced mine (blog). (It’s funny, I was complaining to my boyfriend how much David Foster Wallace’s () annoyed me, and yet...) Please loyal fans, go through but 4 stages of grief, rest on your depressive laurels and be ready for what I have to say next–I’m back and so too is my deep, serious hate of cilantro.

Perhaps an anecdote is in order.

Recently, in the blogless month of October, I took my first excursion abroad. I went to Paris, which is apparently the most touristed place in the world. Who knew? Apparently my friend’s father who was nice enough to share his apartment with us for a week, apparently he knew, pretty awesome.

What would stand out to many in Paris is how awesome the food is, and certainly this was not lost on me. Practically the entire purpose of my trip was to go to Paris, eat croissant and not check my email for 9 days. On all accounts, the trip was a success. But there is more to Paris than croissant of course–there are also macaroons (the best are at Pierre Herme), pan au chocolat, steak frites, everything in the world you could ever want with ham and cheese (omelet, croque monsieur, sandwich mixed, quiche, dear god it’s so good), and the list goes on. Of course there’s the cafe and the champagne and the wine and the wonderful fact that to imbibe is to live, to not hold your liquor a little is ok, and to not hold it a lot is just, well, it’s gauche, ok.

But it’s what Paris is not, of course, that makes it awesome. Paris is not a place one goes to feast on cilantro, though it disappointingly if not completely predictably is now present in the newer, nicer restaurants, the kind that are just like the newer nicer restaurants in New York except the menus are in French and the people are too. Since all the fancy New York places are run by chefs from France, well, it’s like buying Chanel shoes in Paris–sure you can, but what’s the fucking point? Which is to take nothing away from probably the best meal I’ve ever had and certainly the most expensive, the 12+ course affair at Pierre Gagnaire–Yummo! It was a pleasure to explain in broken French, oh who am I kidding, it was in English, when the waiter asked:

“Do you have any dietary restrictions, things you won’t eat, etc.?”
“Just hold the cilantro, please.”
“But you don’t have a problem with say foie gras, or frog legs or lightly poached oysters?”
“God know, what do I look like a freak?”
“Thank you madam, Chef will be most happy to prepare your meal sans cilantro”
“Merci monsieur.”

And so the meal was divine and, my friend Margaret did have a course featuring cilantro, while mine sported sorrel–cilantro haters really do win sometimes.

But it isn’t just the Michelin 3-stars that know how to cater to cilantro hate, it’s more importantly the bistros, the cafes, the brasseries (the real French food if you ask me) where you don’t even have to ask Chef to prepare you a special course, there simply isn’t any of the stuff in the house to begin with. So thank you Pierre, thank you nameless cafe and thank you Paris for nine days without an email, without a worry and without a trace of cilantro.

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Sometimes things like our jobs, personal relationships, and constant inner-monologues get in the way of what really matters: blogging. Dear readers, I apologize and will not soon let you down again.

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 internatio
nal” 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.

The skate with cumin-cilantro yogurt certainly didn’t come anywhere close to converting me, but it was a nice reminder that cilantro lovers, while morons, can be very nice folks indeed.

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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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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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In the spirit of year-end top 10 lists and holiday giving, here’s my Christmas gift to cilantro: the top 7 things at Cosi in 2007 that are (perhaps) more annoying than cilantro.

7. The tagline, “Simply Good Taste”

6. The use of the word traditional in the Traditional Cheese Flatbread. (In case you were wondering — traditional cheese is mozzarella cheese.)

5. The way the soup guy stares at me when I order a tomato soup, rather than ask what he’s really thinking, which is “What size (eye roll) of tomato soup would you like (eye roll) ma’am?,” until I say say, “Um, small?”

4. The worst incarnation of lunch salad-ready factory farm chicken ever known to man, and at a premium price.

3. The inconsistency in flatbread salt level. It’s immeasurably better when well-salted.

2. The very very small print on everything (especially the overhead salad menu) rendering it impossible to determine what you might want in advance, giving you nothing to do while you wait in line, except strain your eyes in vain.

1. The expression “Nothing Says holiday like eggnog (we don’t know why either).” Ick. Is there anything more annoying than cold calculating corporations trying to seem ironic or hip or coolly ignorant? No, there isn’t. It’s very annoying. Furthermore, the reasons eggnog say holiday are obvious:

i. Eggnog is served always and only during the holidays.

ii. Does nothing, in fact, say holiday like eggnog? What about mistletoe, snowflakes,
Christmas trees, menorahs, turkey, ham, family, red and green together, peppermint sticks, the calendar months November and December, presents, mulled red wine, Santa Claus, reindeer, etc., etc. These take nothing away from the eggnog/holiday association, (in fact my coworkers have confirmed that eggnog is on their top 5 list of holiday word associations) but would question the superlative “Nothing” says holiday like eggnog.

iii. People love eggnog, even if they don’t love eggnog. It makes you feel warm and nostalgic. The corporate suits have absolutely, deliberately chosen eggnog as the symbol of the holidays to make you (the consumer) associate warm, nostalgic feelings with them (Cosi) and, you know, buy more stuff, and then backed away from this deliberateness by suggesting the eggnog reference is innocent, accidental, organic. We could all learn a lot from Starbucks.

See you in 2008, earnestly back to the business of hating cilantro.

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