Could it be a conspiracy?
Who (or what) is preventing Angelenos from being allowed to enjoy the lunch that better suits us than anything in the world?
That lunch would be a salade composee. Think of it: a beautiful main course salad composed of various mini-salads -- celery remoulade, for instance, next to roasted red peppers with capers, tuna and white bean salad and cucumber-red onion salad. Or an arrangement of lobster salad, heirloom tomato salad with mint and baby frisee with goat cheese and walnut oil. Each bite is different and delicious, yet the various elements are fabulous if they happen to mingle in one bite. Try that with your iced tea.
Unlike in Paris, where you find composed salads on the menu of every little corner cafe, it’s almost impossible to find one in this town. Even in the swankiest joints.
OK, there are salades nicoises galore, that’s for sure. The nicoise is a textbook salade composee: dressed potatoes, sliced tomatoes, a bouquet of string beans, slices of hard boiled egg, nicoise olives, tuna in the center, all drizzled with vinaigrette. But tire of the nicoise in L.A., and you’re reduced to chef’s salads, Caesars and Cobbs. Honestly, how many chopped salads do we have to eat? Cut into tiny bits, all tossed together -- every bite is the same. And the salad goes on and on and on.
The Cobb salad, by the way, with its stripes of diced turkey and bacon and chopped egg and tomatoes and blue cheese, looks like a salade composee. But that’s a masquerade: You don’t want to eat it until you toss it -- at which point, it loses its composure.
Weirdly, you’d have to go to Las Vegas to find a chef who thinks composed salads worthy of a place on the menu.
At Daniel Boulud Brasserie, there are four appetizers listed under the heading salades composees: lobster, cantaloupe and watermelon with hearts of palm, basil and curry-lime vinaigrette; roasted beet salad with Cabrales blue cheese, endives and walnuts; beefsteak tomato with cervelle de canut tartine (Lyonnaise-style herbed farmer cheese on toast), radishes and fines herbes; and mesclun and crudites with herbes de Provence vinaigrette. In this case, “crudites” means endives, cherry tomatoes and curls of shaved fennel, baby carrots, radishes and asparagus.
A phone call to Boulud in New York reveals why he features composed salads on his menu: He loves them. “I eat it every day,” he says, describing his standing lunch: a salad composed of “smoked salmon, avocado, a lot of greens, lemon juice, olive oil, herbs, crudites, a little bit of chopped eggs.”
Boulud says salade composee can be a mix of hors d’oeuvres. “If you go to Lyons,” he says, “they’ll do a salade composee with all the different hors d’oeuvres you have, from shredded carrots to lamb’s feet in mayonnaise.” That would make it a mixed antipasto’s kissin’ cousin, but usually with some kind of greens.
You’d think they’d have composed salads at La Cachette, the Century City French restaurant that does a brisk lunch business. But though chef-owner Jean Francois Meteigner offers a rotisserie chicken salad with papaya, corn, carrot, red cabbage and avocado with harissa dressing, it’s tossed, not composed. Ditto the warm Maine lobster salad with artichoke hearts and white truffle dressing. House-smoked whitefish salad with potato, caviar and baby greens? A red herring. (There is, doncha know, a nicoise, featuring house-poached albacore, white anchovies, heirloom tomatoes and pomegranate dressing.)
What gives, chef?
“Well,” says Meteigner, “we do one for Thanksgiving” -- a crudite plate of beet salad with raspberry vinaigrette, carrot salad with cumin and raisins, celery remoulade, cannellini bean salad with mint and -- in the middle of the plate -- deviled eggs.
Hotel restaurants seem like prime composed-salad territory. But after visiting dozens of websites to look at menus and calling around when an item looked promising, no luck. Pedals Cafe at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica has a long list of main course salads -- a great excuse to swing by and sit on the patio on a Saturday afternoon. But alas, none are composed.
It all felt very suspicious. Especially when I found that though there’s an entry in the French edition of Larousse Gastronomique for salade composee, the English translation has excised it.
I finally thought I’d found a hometown salade composee at Patina downtown. On the menu under second courses, there it was: “Jidori chicken breast salad with braised and raw baby vegetables, a Banyuls and smoked tomato vinaigrette.”
I asked the waiter: Tossed, or composed on the plate?
Oh, it’s composed, he said.
It was composed, all right, but it wasn’t a salad, rather a sliced, sauteed chicken breast sitting atop some braised vegetables. There was a puddle of vinaigrette and a splash of sauce. But where were the raw vegetables? Where was the salad?
Then, suddenly, there it was, at Spago -- a lovely Japanese barbecue salmon salad with Japanese cucumbers, romaine, avocado, pickled ginger, daikon sprouts and ponzu sauce.
Still, as delicious as the Spago salad is, one measly version in a city of salad lovers is a sad, sad thing.
The solution? If we can’t find composed salads in restaurants, at least we can make them at home. Last weekend I topped a few tender romaine leaves with some leftover sliced leg of lamb, a dollop of leftover ratatouille, a spoonful of hummus, sliced tomato and cucumber, a couple of sardines and dolmas from a can, freshened with lemon and vinaigrette drizzled over all.
Why don’t we see more salades composees here, especially from French chefs, who ought to know better? You’d think they’d be as appealing to chefs, who can approach them creatively, as they are to diners. I asked Meteigner why he doesn’t have one other than salade nicoise.
“You know what?” he said. “Maybe I should!”