Mex Education

Notwithstanding some peculiar (and inaccurate) ad hominems directed at yours truly in the letters section this past week, I'm gratified that the subject of food appears to stir such deep passion and allegiance in the reading -- and dining -- public. For it can only serve to raise standards in the restaurant arena, a goal crucial to the success of the process, and one dear to this critic in particular. Matthew Arnold defined the vocation of criticism thus: "A disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world." Which means that if that elusive "best" isn't forthcoming at a dinner table, it still must be held up as the ideal. Regarding the chronicle of an eating experience, it's useful for the reader to bear in mind that a bad review is no more than a record of a time and place and a call-to-arms for improvement. The written responses defending a restaurant also underline a duty to honor previous expectations. One is a rejoinder, the other a reminder.

As for the slings and arrows, can any critic worth more than the cost of a Coke afford to be allergic to adverse opinion? Obviously not. But a more compelling question is this: Can a critic proven to be allergic to those pungent, parsleylike leaves of fresh coriander widely used in Indian, Chinese, South-American, and more recently, Southwestern cuisine, dine in good conscience at a restaurant named Cilantro?

The answer is a qualified yes. Modest as an afterthought and located in the ever-expanding culinary theater of operations on Giralda Street in Coral Gables, Cilantro is able to accommodate patrons whose biological constitution rejects coriander but whose taste for the Southwest is committed and enthusiastic. The avocado-green interior's atmosphere is pleasingly genial and without so much as a hint of ostentatiousness. The restaurant is owned and operated by chef Cindy Rothman, formerly of Las Puertas, a Mexican facsimile found directly across the street -- literally. The two eateries are not otherwise related, except for the menus, which recall one another with alarming uneasiness. Is there a fajita feud going on here? What a brilliant telenovela it would make -- Chili con Carnage.

Rothman's dinner menu is unassumingly small, but not lacking in its share of piquant appetizers and entrees. Indeed, one of the finest starters I've tasted in a long while was a potato chowder ($4) ladled onto a soup plate bearing queso blanco (jack cheese), laden with roasted poblano chiles and chunks of potato. Most people are apt to describe Southwestern and Mexican cuisine as hotter than a Miami pavement at August noon, but Cilantro's gradations of seasoning heat are intelligent and, for the most part, subtle. The traditional chile relleno stuffed with cheese and served with a tomato sauce ($4) was a trifle bland, though the fried egg-white batter exterior could not have been more ethereal and insubstantial. As for that ubiquitous mexicano dip, guacamole ($5.50), which has so become part of our terminological and dietary culture that people feast on it as often in Omaha and Topeka as in Laredo and Santa Fe, Cilantro's rendition of this great mix was a canyon-size disappointment. For guacamole to sing like the great Lola Beltran the dip must boast chunks of avocado, but this pureed paste gave us the musical equivalent of Paul Rodriguez -- who, mercifully, confines his talents to broad comedy.

But Cilantro's appetizers made amends thereafter. The two blue-ribbon winners were the Anaheim chile relleno stuffed with mushroom duxelle and served over a painted goat cheese sauce ($5.75) and the intriguing snapper hash, a combination of poached red snapper mashed with fresh tomato salsa, seasoned with spices, and served with wedges of fresh lime and warm flour tortillas ($6.25) -- both marvelous. As for the somewhat more regularly available chicken flautas, corn tortillas wrapped and fried, then served with sour cream (sans cilantro, thank you) and guacamole ($4.95), they were better than expected but no more memorable than a mariachi serenade. Other appetizers include steamed mussels with garlic, shallots, and the unmentionable weed ($6.75) and chicken tortilla soup ($4).

Main courses at Cilantro required some brave steering on my part. One of my guests ordered "Southwest Pasta," linguine tossed with a puttanesca-style, tomato-garlic-olives-capers sauce finished off with a cilantro pesto ($10.95). I was able to scrape a taste and am happy to report that I survived. The noodles were commendingly al dente, the sauce expertly flavored. The big loser among the second-act presentations was an order of grilled pork chops ($13.95). Doused with so-called New Mexico barbecue sauce, of which, both in terms of taste and appearance, there was scant evidence, and a sprinkle of a "fresh fruit salsa" that was little more than a clump of chopped mangoes, this pork was tougher than a Serbian sniper and no tastier than detention-camp cuisine (as I imagine it, of course). There's definitely room for improvement here.

However, Rothman's twin medallions of filet mignon ($18.95), stuffed with roasted poblano chiles, onions, and jack cheese, was an innovative approach to beef. The accompanying rice, kidney beans, and jicama salad served alongside were amply rewarding as well. Rothman prepares duck breast fajitas ($16.95) at Cilantro, something quite uncommon to these parts but a growing tradition west of the Mississippi. Possibly the tastiest and most indulgent dish of the evening was a platter of blue-corn seafood enchiladas ($15.50), drenched in molten white cheese and filled with scallops, shrimp, and leeks in a tomato sauce -- here both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border meet and commingle harmoniously. Other choices include snapper Veracruzana ($16.50), steak fajitas ($14.95), and sauteed calf's liver with sherry-flavored onions and pickled jalapenos ($13.50).

I am doubly ecstatic to affirm that there is no cilantro-flavored dessert at Cilantro. But neither is there much in the way of sweet curtain calls. Among the choices are a homemade coconut flan (just about edible), then three pies courtesy of Miami Beach's Simon the Pieman: pecan pie (hard as a motorcycle helmet and darker than Alex Daoud's past), key lime pie (no more authentic than Al Goldstein's run for sheriff of Broward County), and walnut apple pie (roughly as traditionally American as Jorge Mas Canosa's respect for free speech). Not exceptional, then, but not sick-making. As new restaurants go, I'd say this one could do with a shot of culinary steroids to linger longer in the memory, but Rothman's culinary legerdemain shows promise. And yes, where it counts, creativity.

Then again, there's something admirable about a place that, while named after your worst enemy, yields pleasure and gives you the impetus to make a return visit. George Bush, were he a food critic rather than a bureaucratic cryptozoite, would never enter a restaurant named after Clinton or Dukakis.

Or broccoli.

CILANTRO
139 Giralda Ave, Coral Gables; 444-6858. Hours: Lunch Monday -- Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Sunday -- Thursday from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.

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