I remember Caesar salads the way other people recall first dates. I can recite for you my best Caesar, and my worst; can list for you the most disappointing Caesars in my life, and how they fell short. I especially recall my first Caesar, prepared by my paternal grandmother, Giovanina, when I was 7. It was dressed with long, flat croutons, each of them cradling an oily black anchovy. I stood and watched as she grated Parmesan directly into her dressing.
I've had kale Caesars, and Caesars with chopped tomato, and Caesars loaded down with steak and fish. I've endured grilled Caesars, a new form of torture; eaten Caesars at country club restaurants and pizza joints and even, as research while preparing to write this essay, one of those make-it-yourself bagged Caesars from the grocery. (It tasted like a plastic bag.)
The joy in a good Caesar is the combination of texture and taste and, for those of us who love all things salty, the pleasure of eating anchovies with cheese (a combination verboten in Italian cuisine). This staple salad is the invention of restaurateur Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant who reportedly tossed the dressing's ingredients together on a whim in 1924 after his Tijuana restaurant ran out of traditional salad fixings. A well-made Caesar involves whole leaves of romaine dressed with oil, garlic, lemon, anchovy paste (or Worcestershire sauce, made from anchovies) and either raw or coddled egg. (I've been known to whisk in a dollop of Dijon mustard when making my own Caesar dressing.) The best among them are topped with anchovies, homemade croutons, and one or more grated or shaved hard cheeses.
Preparation is everything: Garlic is first rubbed into the perimeter of a large wooden mixing bowl, into which the ingredients go, one at a time. Dried leaves of romaine lettuce are slowly tossed into the dressing, and the finished mélange — and this part is imperative — must be served on a chilled plate.
If I come to your restaurant and order a Caesar salad, I am there to judge you. Does your chef tear his romaine or serve it whole-leaf? Does he offer anchovies on top? How cold is his salad plate? While there are many ways to prepare this classic salad, there's really only one way to do it right: by the book, without adornment or additions.
More and more, the people who write restaurant menus appear to disagree with me. Kale has crept into Caesars in recent years — occasionally to good effect. Seasons 52 and Harley's have better-than-average kale Caesars, and Windsor's is by far the best — a generous pile of romaine and chopped kale, tossed with tangy garlic dressing — very nice, but an aberration. Caesars are made with romaine.
They also are, I am sorry to report, increasingly served with piles of grilled meat on top. The chicken Caesar is a travesty, "an emblem of the mediocrity of American cuisine," as food writer Michael Ruhlman wailed in a 2007 rant. Yet most restaurants that offer Caesars want to up-sell us, offering chicken or salmon atop our salad. A good Caesar is a blessing, not a bed of lettuce for grilled meat. It doesn't need to be augmented or topped with anything, as if it were a hot fudge sundae. A well-made Caesar is a meal.
Still, I have tried the delicious pesto Caesar at Fez, served with toasted pistachios: Lovely, but pesto on a Caesar is not a Caesar. And my friend Carolyn swears by Hillstone's Caesar, and while I agree that it's near perfect — the dressing tangy and slightly sweet; the rustic croutons a nice touch, as is the Reggiano cheese — I wish Chef had forgone the spoonful of roasted corn sprinkled on top.
I do like Caesar variations, within reason. One dressing might be more lemony than garlicky; the cheese that tops it might be a tissue-thin shaving of Grana Padano rather than a grated Parmigiano. Croutons are sometimes toasted cubes of bread; other times crispy wedges of foccacia. Lettuce might be whole leaf rather than chopped.
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In search of the properly prepared Caesar, I've eaten my way across town. I can therefore warn you away from the Caesar at Spinato's, a local chain that serves the city's most flavorless Caesar dressing. I can caution purists that the very tasty Caesar at Tempe's House of Tricks involves capers and kalamata olives — ack! And I can share with you my surprise that Morton's, an upscale steakhouse that should serve a fine Caesar, does not. Drenched in creamy dressing, it manages to be bland and flavorless and is topped off with a single, rock-hard crouton.
No one who's lived in Phoenix for more than a week will be surprised to read that Durant's offers one of the best. A straight-ahead Caesar, its greatness is expressed simply with the proper dressing ingredients that coat crisp romaine with clean, cheesy flavors of Parmigiano and whispery accents of lemon and garlic. For decades, Durant's prepared its Caesars tableside; for that privilege, one must now head to Scottsdale's Palm Court, where a salad chef tosses romaine in what turned out to be rather too much of a creamy, lemony dressing (a side of romaine fixed that problem).
The Caesar at Switch is commendable, with a good black-pepper kick and crunchy, housemade croutons crusted with cheese. And the one at the Parlor surprised me. Usually, salads at pizza places are poor second cousins to a main course pasta or pie. Not here. The dressing had a wonderfully briny, fishy flavor and a robust kick of fresh garlic. Even better was the liberal heaping of boquerones — fat, tasty Spanish white anchovies. If they'd served a salad this good back when this place used to be a hair salon, I'd have been by for weekly trim.
And yet it's the Caesar at Alexi that remains my favorite. Perhaps because it's so unpretentious (the waiter always looks surprised when I request anchovies, as if they're de rigueur) or because its dressing is both sweeter and more tangy (is that lemon juice or vinegar?) than any other I've eaten. This cold plate piled high with shiny romaine leaves, drizzled with an anchovy-rich dressing and showered with Parmesan, is the one I am always trying to emulate in my own kitchen.