Maybe they’d had just one too many plates of mizuna or mesclun, but sometime last summer, chefs began putting butter lettuce on restaurant menus as if they’d just discovered the stuff. Now it seems that every restaurant in town has a salad of butter lettuce.
We’ve spotted butter lettuce salads everywhere -- the landmark Campanile, the new Ford’s Filling Station in Culver City and eat. on sunset in Hollywood. They’ve shown up on menus at places as different as Tower Bar, Ammo, Grace and Jar in L.A., and at Biggs in Long Beach.
Tender and almost creamy in texture, articulated like a large open rose, butter lettuce is a salad classicist’s dream -- substantial enough to carry (literally) the compositional weight of the other ingredients, yet subtle enough to blend into the background when needed.
It has a beautiful purity, which is perhaps one reason why it’s getting more attention lately than its fancier cousins.
Butter lettuce appears under several different names -- Boston lettuce, bibb, butterhead, limestone.
But it’s all the same thing: delicate in flavor, clean and only vaguely crunchy, and enormously versatile.
“Texture’s very important in a one-lettuce salad,” says Ben Ford of Ford’s Filling Station, who has a jazzy BLT-inspired butter lettuce salad.
He notes that butter lettuce has a good amount of flavor and holds up to the dressing he pairs it with, a heady bacon-shallot vinaigrette that he uses almost like a dipping sauce.
“Melted” tomatoes (Romas roasted in olive oil) and shaved hard-boiled eggs are the salad’s other components. The buttery taste of the lettuce offsets the egg and bacon the same way brioche matches up to caviar.
It’s butter lettuce’s texture that chefs uniformly praise. At Ammo, chef Amy Sweeney loves it too. Her salad incorporates Cowgirl Creamery feta and blood-orange vinaigrette. It’s a market salad, with leaves of fresh Coleman Farms red butter lettuce looking as if Peter Rabbit ran with a watercolor brush through the garden rows.
In addition to the tangy feta, there are cool, fresh mint leaves, salty toasted pistachios and velvety golden beets, with pieces of blood orange helping marry the flavors and adding zing.
The red butter lettuce is different not only in color -- it’s also a little softer, with leaves that are more corrugated than the green variety. And Sweeney is certain that it’s slightly more flavorful than the green kind.
Butter lettuce is more durable than it looks, and won’t wilt as soon as it comes into contact with dressing. Which is comforting, really, as some salad greens are so fragile that you have to treat them like fine silk instead of food.
Butter lettuces can withstand some wear and tear, especially if you buy them in hydroponic form -- grown, that is, in nutrient-rich solutions instead of actual soil.
At Biggs in Long Beach, chef Seth Greenburg uses hydroponic butter lettuce in a salad with watercress, Point Reyes blue cheese, thin slices of silky ripe pear, smoked almonds and a rich vinaigrette made with roasted cipolline onions.
Greenburg loves the way butter lettuce eats.
“It’s got a terrific mouth-feel,” he says, with leaves that are crunchy at the center and velvety at the ends, with great grooves in the leaves that allow the lettuce to hold its own with other ingredients. “It’s not fussy or intimidating.”
Whether hydroponic lettuce tastes any different depends on whom you talk to: Growers and sellers tend to split according to the product they have. Greenburg says he did a side-by-side taste test of farmers market lettuce versus hydroponic.
He found that the difference in flavor was actually quite small, but that the hydroponic lettuce stayed pristine so much longer that the choice was a clear one.
Hydroponic or fresh from the farmers market, butter lettuce is a perennial classic. As much as it can be a canvas for the chef’s imagination, it actually requires very little to be table-worthy -- a splash of good olive oil, a drop of vinegar, a few grains of salt. There’s a beautiful serenity in that.