Leafy greens are the base for most salads, but where chefs go from there is up for grabs. Some are even leaving out the lettuce completely, opting for artfully arranged vegetables, fruits and other raw and cooked ingredients. While Caesars and cobbs are still going strong, restaurants are trying to add a bit of excitement to the salad bowl to set their menus apart and appeal to salad eaters’ more discriminating palates. Each of these chefs composes salads with an eye on its visual effect as well as its taste.
Iceberg Babies Larb Gai. Mini heads of iceberg lettuce make the perfect size salad bowls for a flavorful Thai chicken mixture. Corporate chef Beat Giger of the Pebble Beach Resorts in California likes the contrast of the crunchy lettuce with the savory filling, which is spiked with fish sauce, lime juice, shallots, mint, chili peppers and scallions. “The crisp lettuce leaves cut off the top to form the bowls are served on the side. Guests then roll up the chicken mixture like tacos to eat in the Thai tradition,” says Giger.
Rainbow Tower Salad. Chef Randy Chou builds a vertical salad sans greens at Café Le Jadeite, an upscale Houston restaurant with an Asian fusion menu that crosses borders. Typical southwest ingredients—Mexican Hass avocados, mangos and tomatoes—are chopped, pressed into rings and layered, then dressed with a blend of apricot preserves, hot mustard, rice vinegar, lemon juice, honey and sugar. “This idea came to me when I was creating a party menu and now our regulars ask for it all the time,” Chou says.
Spicy Thai Venison Salad. At his hip New York City restaurant, Public, Chef Brad Farmiere focuses on foods and wines from down under. A favorite protein is farm-raised venison from New Zealand, a red meat usually associated with hearty winter fare. But here, Farmiere fashions a summery salad by grilling the venison and combining it with field greens, roasted garlic and a drizzle of lime-chili dressing. Grilled venison is a lean alternative to chicken and beef, the chef feels. “It provides lots of flavor without much fat.”
Deconstructed Salad. A conventionally composed salad doesn’t fit the style of the unconventional Johnny Vinczencz, executive chef/co-owner of Johnny V Restaurant & Lounge in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He’s known for his bold innovation, dramatic presentation and robust flavors, and this salad exemplifies them all. The elements—baby greens, red and yellow teardrop tomatoes, candied “red hot” walnuts, cabrales blue cheese and poached pears—are deliberately arranged on the plate in distinct sections, tied together with a 25-year-old sherry vinaigrette. With each forkful, it’s up to the diner to mingle the ingredients into one salad.
How to Sell Health. The mission of Fresh City, a 16-unit concept based in Needham, Massachusetts, is to provide fresh, wholesome alternatives to fast foods. So the salads, wraps, stir-fries and other menu options are nutritionally balanced—but they’re not marketed that way.
“Taste is our number one consideration,” says Bruce Reinstein, COO and co-founder of Fresh City. “We buy 12 tons of fresh produce a week, chopping and prepping it daily at each location to maximize the taste, quality and look of our salads.” Choices include Mandarin Sesame Chicken, Tuscany (baby lettuce, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and roasted red peppers) and the brand-new Laguna Beach, a combo of fresh fruit, vegetables and candied walnuts. Dressings are made from scratch and range from fat-free white balsamic vinaigrette pumped up with fresh herbs to a low-fat roasted red pepper ranch and a creamy blue cheese.
Kiosks in each restaurant allow patrons to access the calorie count and other nutritional figures on all of Fresh City’s menu items. This information makes it easy for guests to customize their salads to suit lifestyle and dietary needs. “When a customer orders a Chicken Caesar, for example, he can switch the dressing to fat-free vinaigrette and eliminate the croutons to lower the calories and fat,” Reinstein notes. “Everything is made to order, served in either a bowl or a wrap.”