Summer is just weeks away, which means it's panic time for those of us who packed on the lbs. over the winter. Yes, of course, we should've seen this coming, and what the hell happened to that exercise regimen we felt so enthusiastic about back in January? Now there's no place to run and certainly no place to hide, so we're going to look like mastodons in swimwear unless we start eating salads -- and little else -- ASAP.
Of course, vanity isn't the only reason to eat a simple, appealing salad built around fruits or veggies, but it's a bigger motivator than health or longevity any day of the week. Here are 11 gorgeous, imaginative salads to get us through the summer, most of them making use of fresh, local ingredients, most created by the city's most popular chefs. Dig in. This stuff is almost guilt-free.
Southern food specialist Matt Taylor recently added this cool, clean melon salad to his menu at MSK, and it's so much more than the sum of its parts -- which are cantaloupe, watermelon, and honeydew strewn with arugula and mint, dressed with mustard-laced, sweet tea vinaigrette and dusted with grated foie gras torchon. Sweet, juicy, and bright-tasting, it possesses the sharpness of arugula plus a hint of buttery richness from the foie gras. You'll want to eat three at a pop, and why not? It's just melon salad ($12).
As longtime sourcer of local, seasonal ingredients, chef-owner Chrysa Robertson puts together some of the prettiest and best salads in town. Her abiding (and admittedly borrowed) philosophy -- "make it look like it just fell from the tree" -- means every plate looks simple and natural, never over-wrought or contrived. Move from winter's vaguely Caesar-like Tuscan Kale (lightened with escarole, bolstered with crunchy, torn, grilled croutons and tossed in anchovy-less, lemon-pecorino dressing, $11) to early spring's Shaved Fennel and Pink Grapefruit (with avocado, radish, dry-cured Moroccan olives, Parmesan and lemon-olive oil, $12) to summer's elegant Shaved Summer Squash and Burrata (with basil, Marcona almonds, and olive vinaigrette, $12). And the good news: You can eat at the bar, where you won't feel guilty about making a light meal of salads and equally fine appetizers.
Chris Bianco (another past master of simplicity) and his chef de cuisine John Hall make outrageously good chicken salad, the moist, ultra-flavorful chickens sourced from either Ridge View Farms or Josh's Foraging Fowl. Crunchy with sweet red onion, celery, and apple (which is an American tradition) and moistened with olive oil instead of mayo (which is not), each generous hunk of chicken salad is served with equally yummy scoops of skins-on fingerling potato salad (quartered and drizzled with whole grain mustard vinaigrette) and slivered, mustard vinaigrette-tossed radish salad, augmented with carrot and Italian parsley. Who says humble, straightforward food can't be swoon-worthy ($12)?
When it comes to salads, Charleen Badman (known to FnBeesters as Veggie Badman) has her own arsenal of awesomeness, rotating (mostly) locally sourced ingredients by season and whim. At the moment, she's running a feminine little number that could pass muster with the Arcadia Farms crowd if it weren't for the rhubarb, which Badman leaves in its raw, naturally tart state, treating it as a vegetable, not a fruit. Composed of mixed greens, strawberries, rhubarb, Black Mesa goat cheese, and cashews, lightly tossed in molasses-pomegranate vinaigrette, it's a salty, sweet, tart, buttery, crunchy-creamy combo that gets a wee bit up-in-your-face, which is fact, not criticism ($12). Then again, startling but well-reasoned mash-ups are SOP at FnB.
Having the steak in your steak salad marinated in Fernet Branca -- an herbal, almost medicinal liqueur with notes of eucalyptus -- might sound a bit odd at first blush. Mentholatum belongs on your chest, not your greens. But chef and co-owner Bernie Kantak knows what he's doing when it comes to both steak and Fernet, and the delicious result is a hearty Big Boy of a salad that plays to anyone who loves red meat far more than a girly salad. Generous hunks of smoky-sweet, charred beef tenderloin taste more like teriyaki than anything else, pairing perfectly with mizuna, kale, faintly sweet beet chips and spiced pecans, all of it tossed in blue cheese dressing ($14). Kantak says he invented the salad to get his bartender-partner Richie Moe to eat something healthy, and it's been on the menu ever since.
Bernie Kantak created this similarly manly mix of greens at Cowboy Ciao many moons ago, but it was surely named the Testosterone Salad by Ciao owner Peter Kasperski, who's famous for his Moby Dick-length wine list and the clever turns of phrase therein. This go-around, the combo consists of port-charred beef tenderloin, bourbon-soaked cherries, Maytag blue cheese crumbles, Maytag blue cheese dressing and potato chips a salty, sweet, boozy, crunchy toss you won't soon forget ($16). It barely qualifies as a salad at all, but who cares when it's so deliciously fun?
Insalata di mare (seafood salad), also called frutti di mare (fruit of the sea), is a classic dish in Italy's coastal towns, where ingredients may vary a bit from place to place but often include mollusks and crustaceans. At Noca, chef Claudio Urciuoli makes a simple, supremely elegant version composed of pristine, carefully sourced, and lightly poached calamari, baby octopus and blue prawns, enhanced with potato, celery, taggiasche olives, parsley, EVOO, salt, and a touch of lemon. That's it, nothing elaborate, nothing crazy. Just a simple (and simply irresistible salad) for a hot day.
At his namesake restaurant, Mark Tarbell takes the classic French bistro salad -- frisée with lardons (bacon) and poached egg -- and gives it a modern American tweak. For his warm Bacon Candy salad, he chars frisée (curly endive) and radicchio on the grill, drizzles them with black pepper vinaigrette and places them atop two fat rashers of maple syrup-marinated, wood oven-baked Tender Belly bacon, sided with a still-oozy, cut-in-half, soft-boiled egg. Oh, my! The bacon -- so good with a swish in the yolk and eaten with a forkful of bitter greens -- will be gone in seconds, and you'll want more, guaranteed. You've been forewarned: It's bacon-crack, and you'll be thinking about your next fix before you're even out the door ($16).
Kevin Binkley has earned a reputation for his meticulously curated ingredients and fanciful flights of molecular gastronomy, but he's never hung his hat on salads and vegetables in the way that Chrysa Robertson and Charleen Badman have. Maybe he aims to change that at Bink's Midtown, offering small plates of beautifully composed cold vegetable courses that could pass for mini salads. One won't be enough, so order two or three, including the super-simple citrus salad in the opening picture ($7), and the terrific beet situation pictured directly above. Beets have been done to death, but this compilation of super-sweet roasted beets, sliced jalapeño, cashews, and toasty-tasting wild rice, given a drizzle of hibiscus-lime dressing, feels fresh and new ($8).
Like Bernie Kantak, Jared Porter understands that straight-up veggie salads seem a bit unsubstantial to the average, red-blooded guy. So he's added crispy breaded and fried boar cutlet to a shaved asparagus salad, strewn with sweet pickled grapes and walnuts. Tossed in peppercorn-buttermilk dressing, it's a yin-yang thing -- hearty and satisfying but not without its feminine side ($12.50). Better get the MIlanese soon. Porter plans to put a new seasonal menu in place any minute.
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This corporate restaurant gets a lot of things right: the cheeseburger, the Osaka-style pressed sushi and the seared ahi tuna salad, which has recently morphed to a seared ahi tuna entrée, served with mixed greens, avocado, and mango ($23 at lunch, $25 at dinner). But never mind nomenclature. It still tastes and feels like a salad with pan-seared, sushi-grade tuna on the side, rosy in the middle and sprinkled with green onion and sesame seed. The greens (which include Napa cabbage) are tossed in ginger dressing and sprinkled with more sesame seeds, which add a warm, toasty quality to a dish I consider damn near perfect for having three of my favorite ingredients: ahi, mango, and avocado. Expensive but worth every penny for a luxurious salad-y splurge now and then.