Lately and in L.A., some great new salads are evolving from the Caesar tradition. An intriguing tangle of frisée, radicchio and wild arugula with a bright dressing — anchovies, olive oil, lemon juice, no egg. Or butter lettuce — yes, butter lettuce — topped with crisp-tender pan-fried cubes of polenta. Whole leaves of romaine with a tarragon aioli-based dressing: there's egg but no anchovies.
At Pizzeria Mozza, the insalata tricolore from executive chef Matt Molina starts with the vivid red-green display of that frisée, radicchio and arugula topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. But Caesar's influence is apparent in a light but assertive combination of lemon juice, olive oil and garlic emboldened with plenty of anchovies.
Vincenti Ristorante in Brentwood also departs from the traditional green, using butter lettuce as a strikingly different base. Pan-fried polenta cubes (crisp on the outside, deliciously tender within) garnish the salad, nestled in among strips of fresh-shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Chef Nicola Mastronardi said he wanted a salad that was more Italian than the traditional Caesar, and the warm polenta croutons do the job.
Which brings us back to tarragon.
AT Opus in Koreatown, they've kept the classic romaine but totally reinvented the dressing.
"I'm a big fan of tarragon," says Opus executive chef Josef Centeno. The distinctive aromatic adds another depth of flavor to the salad. Centeno's tarragon aioli-based dressing lightly coats tender whole leaves of romaine. He's a traditionalist on the point of whole or chopped lettuce leaves; Tijuana restaurateur Caesar Cardini's 1920s original contained whole romaine leaves. (According to legend, it was Wallis Simpson — mistress and later wife of Prince Edward VIII — who popularized cutting the lettuce into manageable, bite-sized pieces.)
But Centeno's a rebel on the dressing and accouterments front. His dressing starts as a thick tarragon aioli, which he says is also great on sandwiches. Throw in a little garlic, olive oil, sherry vinegar and Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses and blend in an assortment of garden-fresh herbs, including dill, chives, chervil, parsley and tarragon. To finish the dish Opus style, spoon some creamy, seasoned burrata on warm, toasted baguette slices and serve them alongside.
It's not as if the Caesar has had a quiet history as a salad. It almost seems as if the one constant is change. The story goes that Cardini threw the salad together from what was left in his kitchen after a bustling Fourth of July weekend. His brother Alex reportedly first inserted the anchovies (instead of Worcestershire sauce).
Guess he hadn't thought of tarragon.
Butter lettuce with Parmigiano dressing and polenta croutons
Total time: About 1 1/2 hours, plus chilling time for the polenta
Note: From Vincenti Ristorante. This recipe makes 1 1/2 cups dressing, more than is needed for the four salads. The extra dressing will keep in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for 1 week. This also makes slightly more polenta croutons than is called for in the recipe.