Friday, April 30, 2010

Raising the Salad Bar

It's always that one less than satisfying salad that makes us approach leafy greens with little excitement. The phrase "Oh, I'll just have a salad" makes it sound like you are settling, or you assume that eating a salad gives you carte blanche to be the innocent order of the table.

Well, if you haven't noticed, the modern salad can be a thing of brilliance. Or, as I said vehemently last night in bed while watching Top Chef Masters, "A salad is a song." I was being a tosser, but I meant it. I eat a salad nearly every day and avoid unsavory salads at all costs and measures. I have found a salad for every occasion, an ingredient that is right for every salad, and a way to be sated and romanced by every last sprout.

From cultivating my quinoa obsession to my habit of tossing greens with toasted flaxseeds, it's been a nutritious relationship, although certainly not always cost-effective (sup, truffle vinaigrette and cashew cheese?) or easy (dead of winter and tomatoes are writhing in pain). As for ordering a salad in a restaurant? There are some that I want to have tattooed on my tongue.

Take this unlikely success, for example. The last time I had a salad at Marathon Grill,  I had a terrible run-in with poorly-prepped tofu, during their "Control Freak Salad" days. Well, the casual eatery (with several Philly locations) finally won me back as a customer when they introduced a new, more inventive menu that includes a tofu banh mi, veggie burger with curry ketchup on a wheat bun, quinoa salad, beets with goat cheese, and one heck of a salad in the Grilled Vegetable and Grain entry, seen above. The roasted squash, zucchini, and tomatoes remind me of a summer barbecue, in good company of a tart lemon dressing, meaty portabello strips, and a pearl barley couscous that adds some protein and fiber. I find that grain salads are the most accomplished, because they are more energizing and complete.

The beets held their own and there I was with a completely unexpected A+ lunch. Beet salad is an entire food group for us and we consume beets as often as possible. It's the iron. It's the juicy, rustic quality. It's that 8 out of 10 bars in Philadelphia can make a decent beet salad. It's so Philly. The beet salad at Standard Tap is you-know-what-I'm-talking-about good.

Thoreau has converted me with salads. Their entrees are simply too challenging, both focus-wise and portion-wise. The appetizers are a swell experience, but it's the salads that get it right.The Inverno has its hold over me, an affair of greens and  matchsticked pears that play like sweet carrots in a citrusy vinaigrette, but it's the small pile of roasted veggies on the other side that speaks like a protein. In a caramelized barbecue-style glaze, it's tough to pick the carrots from the sauced beets, but they are prepared so expertly that it doesn't matter. Each mouthful is unsaladlike, but still relates to its neighboring lettuces on the plate. It all belongs.

The Asian-Pacific salad is a shining example of citrus balancing out arugula and is my second choice there. What's not harmonious about cashews, avocado, hearts of palm, grapefruit, oranges, wonton croutons, and black sesame? You could probably leave the wontons behind...and definitely the onions (I am a no-raw-onion woman).

Another salad that I get really nice for is the Ensalada de Col y Garbanzo at Bar Ferdinand, otherwise known as that salad with the crispy chickpeas. It's quite pretty with the bright red cabbage and radicchio, and I love stabbing chickpeas with a fork. There are little bits of squash and toasty cauliflower, and a killer lemon dressing that is added very lightly.

Grocery is my go-to salad bar type of place, as they will often have some quinoa or couscous grains, a vegan tofu salad, and thoughtful ingredients that actually make sense in a salad as a meal.

Farmicia's French Lentil Salad is a particular standout in my mind and those lentils really stay with you. That, with some of the Metro bread, and I defy hunger to even try following you on Twitter.

The Brussels Sprout Salad at a Full Plate is one of the greatest ways to consume brussels sprouts. There's the sweet addition of crunchy apples, the little pleasures that are capers, the girth of walnuts, and shaved parmesan (which I encourage you to leave off and try if you are vegan because it's also good without the cheese).

Here's to hoping that bad salads will wilt away and high-quality vegetables, nuts, fruits, and grains will have the salad-eschewing digging in.


Eric said...

Hmm haven't been to Marathon in a while.. might have to get back there at some point.

Perri Shaw Borish said...

you should go back to marathon - the salads are even better now then they were before and the dressings are now homemade and delicious!