I’m a sucker for a great Caesar salad. Call me old school, but there are few things that can beat it in my book. Garlicky, lemony, cheesy, and anchovy-y, if there is such a word. If there isn’t, there should be.
Sadly, a great restaurant Caesar salad has eluded me in San Francisco.
With the possible exceptions of Zuni Café and Tadich Grill (both old school and old guard), I have been bitterly disappointed every time I order a Caesar salad in a restaurant. And the above venues merely create good salads, not, in my opinion, great ones. Yet I keep on ordering them everywhere I go. It’s like forgetting the pain of childbirth or the tragedy of falling in love with a crazy sadist– I fall blindly and hopefully back into bed with the salad section of the menu and think, “This time, it’s going to be good. This time I am going to find the one I’ve been waiting for all my life.” Invariably, I am served a Romaine salad with either a flaccid, mayonnaise-like dressing, or an underdressed, uninspired one with croutons like ship biscuits that leaves me asking my server for a little extra lemon and another napkin with which I might dry my tears.
Perhaps I just live to be disappointed.
And then, when discussing the demise of this salad with a friend over a lunch that included a particularly sorry looking one, I understood what all of these salads were missing, good and bad:
The Caesar salad is a dish that cries out for table-side service. It is, in my opinion if not in fact, the ham actor of the salad world– a fact none too surprising when one considers that it was first created in a pique of impromptu by Cesare Cardini, an Italian man living in the once-glamorous town Tijuana, Mexico. Fortunately for us, Cardini had the good sense (or delicious folly, depending on your point of view) to seek out his fame and fortune in Hollywood, dressing recipe in hand, where the salad soon became a favorite among the local movie stars and luncheon élite. Cesare’s salad soon evolved into Caesar’s salad and, somewhere along the way, the apostrophe “s” was lost, and Caesar salads were being dramatically created in front of and for delighted diners in leather banquetted dining rooms and Danish Modern living rooms across the country.
Sadly, Cesare’s salad is going the way of Banana’s Foster, Cherries Jubilee, and the dodo, thanks to the demise of table side service. There is little room in most restaurants today to manoeuver the necessary salad carts, and diners (with the possible exception of brief fads like the Benihana’s craze of the 70’s, and eating at chef’s tables in the 90’s) seem less interested in having a server who entertains. Lastly, and perhaps most sadly of all, those venues who do still provide table side cooking are often so old-fashioned and unchanging that they have become a sort of dwindling, petrified forest. And those diners who habituate them are either equally as fossilized or, at best, there solely for kitsch.
So what can one do?
I, for one, have started making my own damned Caesar salads. Or Cesare salads, as I prefer now to call them. I can make them as obscenely garlicky as I like and can toss them as high and dramatically as my ceiling and physical abilities allow. I’m a professional waiter, after all, and one with a strong dramatic bent. Just ask anyone. Just don’t ask me to make one for you at my restaurant– there is no way in hell I could ever get that rolling cart past the drunken cougars hovering at the bar.
Lyle’s Muy Fuerte Cesare’s Salad:
Serves 2 to 4
At my birthday party last summer, I had decided that my own contribution to the buffet would be my favorite old-school salad, since I was now, officially (according to some people) old. It was then that I realized that I had never actually made one before. The one’s I had known and loved were always made for me by people who understand gusto like my friend Shan or my ex-boyfriend Paul, who was about as theatrically dramatic as they come.
When I confessed this salad-tossing inexperience to my friend Lyle, he told me he would walk me through the entire process. Being my birthday, I let him take over, while I poured myself another glass of wine and watched him do all the work.
This is a recipe muy fuerte— extra garlic, extra anchovy, extra everything. Brash and unsubtle. In other words, just the way I like it.
I would suggest preparing this dish with at least one other person in the room when you first try it. Talk the entire time you are mashing, whisking, and tossing. Remember: you are the entertainment. If you don’t have anyone on hand to chat with, I suggest, chatting up your pet. If you have no pet, bring a houseplant into your kitchen and talk to that. If you are lacking a house plant, you are more than likely not the type of person who would ever make a Caesar salad and are therefore not reading this.
Two heads of Romaine lettuce, well washed, outer leaves removed, and torn into bite-sized pieces.
About 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese. Please use the good stuff. Nothing that comes out of a shaker will do no matter how good a deal you got with that double coupon.
Whole anchovies for garnish are entirely optional.
For the Dressing:
1 coddled egg. Yolk only.
3 anchovy filets (spanish, preferably)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
A pinch of coarse salt (kosher is excellent)
The juice of one half lemon
4 to 5 drops Worcestershire sauce
4 to 5 drops Tabasco sauce
1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
6 tablespoons (approximate) of extra virgin olive oil
Coarsely ground black pepper to taste.
For two cups of croutons (it is always a good idea to make extra):
2 cups of day-old bread (french, sour, white– take your pick), dried out a touch and cut into 3/4″ cubes.
2 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
a heavy pinch of salt
To Coddle an Egg:
Coddling the egg yolk lends a richer texture to the dressing by thickening it slightly, in case you were wondering. If you want a better scientific understanding of this process, ask a scientist. I prefer to live in ignorance and call it a miracle.
1. Bring your egg (which should be very fresh) to room temperature by placing it in a heat-proof glass of warm water for a few minutes. When this temperature has been achieved, drain water and cover egg with boiling water. Let stand for exactly one minute. Drain. Run cold water over egg. Egg has now been thoroughly traumatized and is now ready for use in your dressing.
Making the Croutons:
1. Preheat oven to 375F. Drizzle butter/oil mixture over bread cubes while tossing cubes with your free hand (if you have no extra hand available, use someone else’s.) Coat evenly but do try to avoid an absolute drenching.
Place a single layer of bread cubes on a baking sheet and pop into the oven on the upper rack. Peek into oven at around 7 to 8 minutes into the process, shake and turn cubes. Remove from oven when cubes have become golden brown and therefore have officially attained crouton status*.
*To my mind, croutons should be very much like Lou Grant from The Mary Tyler Moore Show– hard, crusty exterior, but soft and warm on the inside. They should, however, not smell strongly of bourbon in the middle of the afternoon.
To Make the Dressing:
1. Place kosher salt, anchovy, and garlic in the bottom of a wooden bowl. Mash these ingredients together with the aid of two forks until a rough paste is formed.
2. Next, add mustard, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, and lemon juice. Trade in the two forks for a wire whisk. Whisk until well-blended.
3. Add coddled egg yolk to the mix and whisk with gusto for about one minute to allow the citric acid from the lemon to “cook” the yolk a little.
4. Slowly drizzle in olive oil from as great a height as you dare, for theatrical purposes. Pause occasionally to taste with a clean finger. Make dramatic noises as you do so.
5. Let the lettuce leaves rain down into your dressing-drenched wooden bowl. Do not add any sound effects at this point. With the two forks you had earlier cast aside or with larger, more festive, salad utensils, begin to toss the salad. Sprinkle in a little cheese here, a little there. Hum as you sprinkle. Something lilting and hopeful.
6. Add your croutons, tossing and humming all the more.
7. Now add cracked black pepper to finish both the tossing of your salad and the incessant humming.
8. If serving directly from the salad bowl, sprinkle with a bit more cheese to garnish, if serving individually, divide equally among chilled plates, then add more cheese. Whatever you do, serve and eat immediately.