The best thing about Baltimore's recent explosion as a great food city is not the increase of excellent high-end restaurants. We love the fancy places, but to our minds, the biggest benefit is in the way the city's casual spots have upped their game.
Take Cilantro, a Middle Eastern eatery that opened in November in Owings Mills. It's about as casual as a restaurant can be — but the food is something special.
Scene & Decor Located in the former home of a Quizno's, Cilantro has all the trappings of a fast-casual spot, from spare decor to a counter for ordering. It's cute, though, with bright green walls adorned with large cilantro leaves and the word "cilantro" written in a variety of different languages.
During our Sunday-night visit, the restaurant was consistently busy with families and couples of all ages. Though the restaurant's concept is casual, many diners settled in, chatting and lingering over their fountain sodas.
Appetizers The menu is fairly straightforward, with a selection of falafel, shawarma and kabob choices (including chicken, lamb and beef) available as platters or in wrap form, and a variety of condiments that can be added at no charge. It doesn't include any bona fide appetizers but we started with a Greek salad ($6.45) that, though acceptable, was the least-exciting part of our meal.
We enjoyed its tart and herbaceous dressing, and that in addition to the usual suspects of red onion, feta, cucumber, black olives, the salad included chickpeas. Its only real problem was the balance of ingredients; the salad would have been better with about half as much lettuce and twice as much of everything else.
Entrees With entrees, things took a dramatic turn for the better.
Lafa bread, a puffy Israeli flat bread, is the foundation for many of Cilantro's meals. We liked it both plain and as the outside of a wrap ($6.95) containing crunchy white bean and rosemary falafel, plus chickpeas, bright and acidic tomato salsa, spicy green dressing and a healthy drizzle of cooling tzatziki.
The chicken shawarma falafel combo platter ($10.25) was a mix and match plate including much of what's best on the menu. The chicken was tender and well-seasoned with a mix of Middle Eastern spices. On the side, we added couscous, hummus and a scoop of tabbouleh. The couscous was a bit dry but both the hummus and tabbouleh were fresh, with powerful flavors.
"Spicy" falafel was milder than we expected but an extra spoonful of blazing hot red pepper sauce more than filled that void.
Service Cilantro's organization is something like Chipotle's — though not as efficient. Diners place an order and pay at the counter then sit, while they wait until their orders are called. At that point, there's a choice of condiments, which the chef scoops from his spot behind the counter.
This has its advantages. It's customized and personal, a feature enhanced by the staff's friendliness. But it can also be weirdly anxiety inducing — should I go with tomatoes and cucumber or tomato salsa?— and unlike Chipotle, Cilantro's system is not yet a well-oiled, quick machine.
During our visit, one chef handled all of the cooking and condiment scooping, while another young woman took orders and helped with drinks and desserts.
Ultimately, the meal didn't take longer to prepare than if we'd been in a busy diner. But because of the way the restaurant was organized, our expectations were set to "extremely quick."
A few tweaks could alleviate these issues. Better guidance on which condiments work with which proteins would make those decisions easier. And adding someone to handle condiments, so the chef isn't on his own, would make the process smoother.
Dessert Cilantro's desserts, made in-house, are prepackaged in individual containers and placed next to the cash register, prime spot for a last-minute impulse buy. Grabbing one would be smart; there's a lot to like about them.
Baklava ($2.45) was buttery and sweet, with crispy layers of phyllo. The milky Middle Eastern pudding malabi ($2.45) was more advanced, with floral notes that gave the dish a lotion-like scent. It's not a dessert for everyone but we liked it.
Latest Food & Drink
As we left, diners continued to stream in, placing orders to carry out or eat in the restaurant. Cilantro has already found a lot of fans in the neighborhood; food lovers from the rest of the city would be smart to check it out as well.