YOU see those beautiful lettuces at the farmers market -- lolla rossa, red butter lettuce, soft green Perella -- and you just want to take them home and take care of them. You have to be tender with salad greens. They're easily bruised and battered by over-washing, over-spinning, over-dressing.
Feel like going out for a big salad? It's not hard to find a Cobb made with manhandled mature romaine, flavorless chicken, pallid tomatoes, industrial blue cheese. Or a nicoise that simply goes through the motions.
But if you want a serious salad, one with which real care is taken, you'd better seek it out at a serious restaurant. You'll probably only find it as a first course, and you'll probably pay pretty dearly.
But now there's Tender Greens, a salad cafe that opened last month in Culver City. That's where two chefs who escaped from hoity-toity Santa Monica hotel kitchens (Matt Lyman from Hotel Casa del Mar and Erik Oberholtzer from Shutters on the Beach) have partnered with Scarborough Farms in Oxnard to create something truly original and fun.
It couldn't be more casual. You order at a counter at the front, then go around to the back, past cooks assembling plates and salads, tossing them with obvious care.
At the registers in the back, you order drinks -- minty house-made lemonade or aguas frescas (fresh fruit juice drinks, made here with farm-fresh fruit). There's a modest wine list posted here too. Order a glass or a bottle, and it goes onto a tray with your salads and/or hot plates. Or get one of three well-chosen ales. Find a table inside or out on the shady patio, and dig in.
The menu, posted up front on a huge white board, is divided into four categories. Simple salads are small ones such as Caesar, baby arugula with tomatoes or red and green butter lettuce with Dijon vinaigrette.
"Hot stuff" from the mesquite grill, including Angus flatiron steak, free-range chicken, line-caught ahi tuna and Oxnard vegetables, can be ordered as a sandwich on rustic bread or as a hot plate with Yukon gold mashed potatoes. Either way, it comes with a simple salad of your choice. There are a couple of soups (the rustic chicken is terrific), then 10 "big salads."
Try the Chinese chicken salad with spicy baby greens, pea sprouts, julienned carrots, roasted peanuts and pale yellow corn shoots called "popcorn sprouts" tossed with lovely sesame dressing. The chipotle barbecue chicken salad with romaine hearts, avocado and queso fresco has an irresistibly snazzy lime-cilantro dressing.
Feel like meat? The grilled flatiron steak salad is your ticket, with red and green butter lettuces, red and gold beets, French breakfast radishes and a horseradish vinaigrette.
What's so amazing is the salads are perfectly dressed, the greens treated with the utmost respect. That's a rare thing.
On the patio, where one of the chefs is likely to come out and pinch some herbs out of one of the big planters, a big salad, with a glass of rose, couldn't be nicer.
Where: 9523 Culver Blvd., Culver City
When: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Beer and wine. Parking in structure behind the restaurant.
Price: Simple salads, $5; soups, $4; sandwiches, $9; hot plates, $10; big salads, $9; desserts, $3. Wines, $5 to $8 per glass, $18 to $28 per bottle; ales, $4 per glass.
Info: (310) 842-8300, www.tendergreensfood.com