I’ve written about hamburgers, steaks, pasta and pastrami, but what about what the ladies eat for lunch — salad? After all, 50 percent of my readers are ladies.
But there is one complication with this topic, and it’s a significant one. See salads have radically changed over the past year or two in West Los Angeles, which makes it difficult to actually determine what makes a salad a salad.
I used to think that a salad was lettuce with something on it. It could be chicken, seafood, even steak. But lately I’m seeing a lot of salads without any lettuce. Take, for example, the tomato and burrata cheese salads now popular in Italian restaurants. And many restaurants are serving grains, fruits and vegetables in various combinations as no-lettuce salads.
There are still a lot of traditional salads being served. The Cobb salad, made famous at the Brown Derby in Hollywood, is still served all over town. But the Cobb salad at Tavern, in Brentwood, is nothing like the traditional Cobb: it has corn and vegetables instead of bacon and turkey.
And what about that Caesar salad of yesteryear, made famous by a waiter in Ensenada, Mexico. In the good old days of tableside service it was so much fun to watch the waiter mix the anchovies, garlic and olive oil, then the egg yolk, and finally the pulled lettuce. Does anyone even eat anchovies now, except on pizza?
Having realized that I was out of touch with the times, I asked West Los Angeles folks where to go for the best salads. Many said Farmshop. A few said Tavern. A few, knowing that I consult to it, said Maison Giraud. And a few, knowing I eat there often, said Riviera Country Club. Surprisingly, few named anywhere else. Then a friend mentioned Loews Hotel on the beach. And yes, these are places where I do see a number of slim, attractive ladies having their luncheon salads. So I went to each one and ordered all of the salads on the menu, took pictures and made notes. I don’t think my editor realizes what a difficult task it is to write these articles.
As a 1950s guy, I was quite comfortable with the salads at Riviera Country Club. The Cobb salad was of the traditional kind (too much to eat, so I ordered a half salad, which was plenty). I had them mix it, because otherwise I get stuff all over the table. There was bacon, turkey, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs and lots of lettuce. There was a choice of dressing. It was the same as I remember in the ‘50s.
The salmon salad, the seared ahi tuna salad and the steak salad were equally traditional, although no one I knew ate almost-raw tuna in my childhood. The Bombay chicken salad was really a fruit plate plus a delicious half papaya filled with chicken bites and sliced almonds in a lightly curried mayonnaise. But these were all lettuce-based salads with the star of the show on top of mixed greens.
There was a similar Cobb salad at Maison Giraud, but smaller. The star here, for me, was the smoked salmon Caesar. I like Caesar salads anyway, and I love smoked salmon, but never had the two combined before. It was a really nice combination. Chef Giraud also serves a traditional Nicoise salad, with special canned tuna from Italy. My son Spencer’s favorite here is the duck prosciutto, melon and fig salad — sounds delicious but I haven’t tried it yet. And finally, in keeping with the modern times, there is an all-organic vegetable salad — without lettuce.
The salmon salad at Tavern in Brentwood was about the same as the one at Riviera, but the salmon was much less cooked — almost raw — and the dressing had more vinaigrette. There were undercooked (crunchy) green beans, hard boiled eggs that were better than most because they were not overcooked, and tender beets. But the greens looked a little tired, and the vinaigrette was a bit acidic. There was a farro salad on the menu, and I saw the Cobb, which looked better, with corn, chic peas, no turkey or bacon, and lots of seasonal veggies. I love the big, spacious room with the glass ceiling, but in general I would skip the salads here and order the hamburger with onion rings. That’s what the fellow next to me had and it was hard for me not to reach over and try to exchange plates with him. And at Tavern you are really shoulder-to-shoulder with the people at the next table, and it’s easy to join in on their conversation. But it would be gauche to reach over and exchange plates.
The star of the salad adventure was Farmshop. Here is a large selection of unique and wonderful combinations, called salads. I started with the crispy, smoke-flavored artichokes, with soft burrata cheese, roasted peach quarters, lemon cucumber, toasted almonds and pea shoots. What a wonderful combination of flavors. This was one of my best salad experiences.
The corn and avocado salad was equally creative: a mix of very ripe avocado, nicely acidic cherry tomatoes, some kernels of corn and smoky farro grains. Another great combination of textures and flavors.
The albacore tuna salad was a bit less to my taste, and I would consider it more a canned tuna open-faced sandwich with coleslaw on the side. The tuna was of excellent quality (American brand canned tuna), but it’s not a salad.
And the poached chicken salad was also made from excellent quality ingredients, but was neither as creative nor as flavorful as some of the other dishes. I am not a fan of large heads of lettuce that require a lot of cutting on the plate, and this was a head of romaine lettuce with a nicely sliced chicken breast down the middle of the plate. Again we have a definition issue; I would call this sliced chicken breast with romaine lettuce on the side, not a salad. But if you cut up the lettuce and mixed it up with the chicken, it would be, to me, a salad. It’s a subtle difference.
Finally I got to Loews where Chef Keith Roberts came over to explain his philosophy of salads. They should be fresh and each should have some special identifiable flavor that is out of the ordinary. Before we got the salads, we were served “swizzle sticks,” delicious thin wonton skins wrapped around chicken and vegetable pate, fried and served with a red pepper paprika dip. You see what I mean: it started off with something different.
Each of the four salads I had at Loews was excellent. The Cobb was traditional, not mixed and not chopped, but very good — just not out of the ordinary. The other four salads were in fact unusually creative and delicious.
The spinach leaf and grilled scallop salad is dressed with a ginger soy dressing, and decorated with wedges of mandarin orange. The combination of all these flavors makes for a fine taste experience, a bit reminiscent of India.
Next was, perhaps the best of all the Loews salads, heirloom tomato slices around a large half of an avocado, filled with crab salad. Something about the seasoning of the crab salad made it wonderful, and I love this combination — a new take on the traditional crab Louie.
Next we were served a tamarind marinated shrimp and papaya salad in a mild curry dressing, slices of cucumber, lime and yogurt in the dressing and Indonesian papadum chips — very much like being in a first-class hotel in Mumbai.
Finally, my friend John’s favorite, chilled rock lobster and melon martini salad, made from Tehachapi sweet summer melons with a yogurt glaze, which reminded him of the ambrosia salads of yesteryear.
All of the salads were priced between $12 and $19, with the seafood salads the most expensive.
So what did I learn from all this? We’ve come a long way baby! Once you set your sights on salads in West Los Angeles there are a lot of possibilities. And I haven’t even begun to talk about all the Middle Eastern salads with hummus, eggplant, etc. Another time perhaps.
If you go
Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel
1700 Ocean Ave.
Santa Monica, Calif.
11648 San Vicente Blvd.
Los Angeles, Calif.
1032 Swarthmore Ave.
Pacific Palisades, Calif.
Riviera Country Club
1250 Capri Dr.
Pacific Palisades, Calif.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org