These are good days for the lettuce-obsessed.
Salad greens used to be something to dress up -- with smoked salmon, candied nuts, goat cheese, cherry tomatoes. A salad would no sooner be seen without some kind of recherche ingredient tossed in or worn proudly on top than it would go out to the table completely undressed.
But lately, L.A. chefs seem bent on sending out plates of unabashed, unadorned, perfectly dressed gorgeous greens. Unadorned, that is, till you stick in your fork and pull out a treat. Chefs these days are using heaps of delicate lolla rossa, tender baby lettuces or peppery young arugula to bury everything from prosciutto to braised vegetables to lobster carpaccio.
At Beechwood Restaurant in Venice, a so-called Italian parsley and escarole salad surprises any diner who neglected to read the fine print with a plate lined with thinly sliced prosciutto. Likewise, Beechwood’s smoked salmon carpaccio is hidden under a mound of apple cider-dressed mizuna.
But Beechwood isn’t the only place you’ll find treasures buried under a field of greens. At Patina, mixed baby greens, lightly dressed in a citrus vinaigrette, look like leaves fallen from a tree -- revealing underneath a meadow of beautiful braised baby vegetables. In a menu twist, though, it’s the salad that’s barely mentioned: The dish is called seasonal vegetables raw and braised with organic greens and citrus vinaigrette.
At Axe in Venice, the antipasto plate (which includes goat cheese, creamy polenta and the day’s selection of market vegetables) is covered with a tangle of mixed salad greens, as if the chefs tossed them there as a fresh, light bonus to an already finished dish.
Dig into a pear and goat cheese salad at Water Grill downtown and not only will you find the hazelnuts promised in the menu description, but deeper down, a pool of silky pear puree surrounded by a drizzle of thick cider reduction.
“I wanted it to look like something you might see in nature,” says Water Grill chef David LeFevre of his extravagant salad. He designed it so that as you dig into it, “you find little surprises” (specifically hazelnuts, poached pears and a crisp pear “chip”). When you push down on a forkful of lettuce, he explains, you dip the greens into the sauces. By the time you’re finishing, the goat cheese and sauces have blended into a creamy amalgam. Meanwhile, the watercress, arugula, treviso and frisee -- greens chosen to stand up to the other ingredients -- are still deliciously crisp. Which is how LeFevre intended it.
That’s just one of the reasons this goods-on-the-bottom presentation makes sense. Brooke Williamson, partner and co-chef of Beechwood Restaurant, explains that she got the idea to lay the prosciutto directly on the plate because, were she to lay it on top of the greens, it would be impossible to cut. (Case in point at Jar, where a chopped salad is shrouded in prosciutto with only a portion of the salad visible at the top, as in the opening of a volcano, inviting the diner to do the only thing she can: pick up the prosciutto and eat it with her fingers.)
So why does the prosciutto get the lesser billing at Beechwood? “I wanted the focus to be on the bright, fresh crispness of the greens,” Williamson says.
The idea of topping rich, often warm, ingredients with garden-fresh greens is not entirely new. After all, what is a tostada but a salad hiding a layer of warm refried beans and a fried corn tortilla?
One of the most popular lunchtime offerings at Osteria Angelini is Scortichino al Pepe Rosa, slices of grilled beef fillets covered with arugula dressed in olive oil and lemon juice, topped with shaved Parmesan.
Though not part of the original version invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice, carpaccio in this country is, more often than not these days, topped with such a heap of arugula that it begs the question: Where’s the beef? Angelini serves it that way, as do BOA Steakhouses. At Hollywood & Vine, steak and lobster carpaccio is buried under a veritable mountain of microgreens: surf and turf under grass.
Although the concept seemed upside down at first, using lettuce as a duvet rather than a bed for other ingredients makes good sense. Braised or roasted vegetables, when tossed into a salad, weigh down the greens -- and they’re difficult to get your fork into. But scatter them on the plate in the style of Patina’s salad and you can grab them, along with some of those nice greens, with one easy swipe of the fork. In warmer weather, dressed greens offer just the necessary flavor and texture to dress up a paillard of chicken or sliced Italian meats.
Regulars at the Palm Restaurants often request the Palm’s classic breaded veal Milanese to be topped with one of the restaurant’s famous salads: the Gigi (an Italian-style chopped salad), the chopped tomato and onion salad, or mixed greens.
Who knows where this could lead? At home, it’s led me to a new salad frontier: sandwich salads. Preferring a sandwich with a lower bread-to-filling ratio, I recently added so much lettuce to my BLT that I was forced to do away with the top slice of bread altogether. Such a substantial amount of greens naturally had to be dressed, and suddenly it was no longer a sandwich; it had metamorphosed into something different altogether: the BLT sandwich salad. That’s a slice of toast onto which thick slabs of bacon and slices of juicy tomatoes are buried under what looks to the naked eye to be a simple tossed green salad. Tomorrow: tuna salad sandwich buried under arugula. Then Gruyere cheese toast under a mountain of baby spinach. For the lettuce-obsessed, these are but salad days.