Thursday, July 16, 2009

The difference between a "salad" and a salad

Last night I sent something back at a restaurant. I really never do this. Was it overcooked meat? Raw chicken? Nope.

Just a really, really crappy "salad."

Now sure, some of you might be saying, "But it's only a salad!" And I get that. The problem is, that was the restaurant's philosophy, too.

We were eating at a perfectly fine local establishment known for pasta that also offers some fairly nice entrees. It's not an expensive place, it's not a gourmet place, but it's a fine place, one that's better than the other food options in the shopping establishment it's located in and is a convenient place to grab dinner before, say, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" begins.

So no, I wasn't expecting culinary fireworks. But when I encounter a salad so carelessly thrown together, so obviously an afterthought on an otherwise well-crafted menu, I find that offensive. Seriously.

I should have known - I'd ordered a ni├žoise salad there several months ago and found it bland and lacking composition. Last night I ordered a glass of wine and a grilled shrimp salad and hoped for the best - I wasn't very hungry and we had movie tickets, after all.

Well.

Composing a salad is one of my favorite things to do in the kitchen. I love coming up with the perfect balance of greens and flavors. Do I want spicy arugula or softer red leaf? If I want the contrasting tones and textures of sweet, soft pear with crunchy, zesty red onion, well what type of dressing would work best? Or do I want an earthy mix of fresh-grilled asparagus with shaved parmigiana? I whisk and whirl away until I have a dressing that brings out the best in the food: a little more salt... a dash of mustard... a healthy squeeze of lemon juice... etc. And dressing the salad properly? Well, that's a whole different post.

I imagine Alice Waters sitting down to a salad like the one I was served last night and turning as green as the lettuce. Her writing on the magic of baby greens reads like romance novels; that prose wouldn't even recognize this dish as one of its subjects. A pile of bland washed-out green mixed with strips of pale apples and celery root that tasted like the same thing, which was to say, like nothing at all. Barely any seasoning or dressing of any kind. A few shrimp thrown on top. That's it.

The problem with a dish like this being on their menu is that is shows a disregard for flavor and a lot of laziness. If "shrimp with lettuce" is the dish, well then, fine. But don't call something a salad and serve something that gives salads a bad name.

When salads are done properly, they can be the most memorable part of the meal. Heck, they can be the meal - which is why we order chop salads with chicken to go from the French cafe downstairs 2-3 times a month. It's why in the dead of a Dallas summer, I crave the cold shrimp and crab salad down the street like no one's business. Those establishments understand the value in doing their smallest dishes every bit as well as their biggest dishes.

9.9 times out of 10, I'll finish a dish that I don't love rather than sending it back. But a plate of bad lettuce with some shrimp thrown on top that's called a "salad?" That's worse than cooking a main attraction badly, and it's unacceptable. And so I told them so.

6 comments:

  1. You write so eloquently about a bad dish - would love to see what you do with a decent one! ;-)

    I haven't paused to think about this before, but I've noticed this as a problem in fine-to-nice restaurants lately & wonder if this isn't symptomatic of the fast food culture generally. How often is fresh produce & the right mixes of same truly prioritized on a menu, beyond the PR?

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  2. This thing really was pathetic. I honestly think that they expect everyone to fill up on focaccia but never consider someone might actually want to go light on dinner. Because the only difference between Maggie's shrimp salad and my side salad (which came with my pasta course) was the shrimp. in fairness, they did take it off the bill, which was a nice touch...

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  3. Actually, F-Word (H-Word?), I've got to disagree with you. See, your side salad was a far better salad than my entree salad. First, it contained flavorful vegetables - there were bright carrots, and I ate all of your tomatoes since you don't like them. Second, it was seasoned with some approximation of a dressing, which differed considerably from my dry, sad lettuce. I felt like someone at least tried to do something oh your plate. PLUS, you were smart enough to have the salad lead into those yummy turkey meatballs, which makes it all-around better (esp since they only intend it to be an after-thought anyway).

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  4. I would send it back too. A well executed salad is delicious and now after reading this I am craving the strawberry salad at my favorite lunch place....

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  5. Uggg. I've had those lazy shrimp on lettuce salads and they are so lame! Loving the new blog!! Keep up the great work!

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  6. Good for you--you were honestly doing them a favor, hopefully they will improve their salads here on out! If they are a smart restaurant they will.

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