By LAURA REILEY
Times Food Critic
TAMPA — Cilantro is the most divisive herb. Some people can't even be in the same room with it, can detect a single quark of the green herb in a bathtub of salsa. Scientists think there is a gene that causes some people to perceive the flavor as unpleasantly "soapy." Like fruitcake or gin, there's no middle ground (see ihatecilantro.com).
Cilantro Indian Cuisine is a little like its namesake. Among Tampa's Indian food fiends, some say thumbs way up, others "feh." The issue seems to be the lunch buffet, $9.99 during the week, $12.99 on the weekends. Detractors say it's pricier than some of the area's other Indian buffets with a limited number of dishes.
Fine, it's not my favorite lunch buffet, but I think Cilantro's a la carte dinners are some of the best in Tampa. And the setting is absolutely lovely — small dining rooms, each painted a different bright color, crockery all painted with the namesake herb, pretty lamps and table settings.
Dinners start with complimentary classic, peppery papadum and a trio of excellent sauces: a sweet tamarind, a spicy onion pickle and a pale green cilantro sauce (it's the world's most widely consumed herb, despite all the hating). When you order dishes "hot" at Cilantro you get a raised eyebrow and the retort "Indian hot?" This is not an idle question.
Order the lamb vindaloo ($14.95) "Indian hot" and sweat is a certitude. But the slow-simmered lamb and potato hunks are so flavorful and tender that that's, well, water under the bridge. Cool it out with an order of bagara baingan ($10.95), the soft braised eggplant showcased against peanut, coconut and sesame seeds (a winning trio if ever there was one).
Of the appetizers, chili paneer ($7.95) and chicken lollipops ($7.95) are good but reflect a head-scratching Indian-meet-Chinese sensibility, with Chinese chili-garlic sauce flavoring both. More traditional nan ($1.95-$4.50), paratha ($2.75-$4.25) and ballooning poori ($3) are all great bread accompaniments to the curries — tikka masala, korma and vindaloo — all textbook, offered with chicken, veggies, lamb or goat meat. (Don't discount goat — more oomph and richness than lamb because of the accompanying bones.)
Cilantro's biryani rice dishes and Southern Indian crepes, called dosai, didn't cause me to dance any jigs, but they're workhorse. In general, the price-to-portion ratio seems fair-minded, the beer and wine list short but cheap. Service can add an element of surprise, sometimes efficient and friendly, sometimes absentee or zombielike. Even so, when you need a fix of spicy, comforting Indian classics, Cilantro is an herbal remedy.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.