Wednesday, May 30, 2012

[HOT LIST] Salads

The Arugula Salad at Olga's Kitchen. Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.

Salad. That most underrated course of culinary creations. For too many restaurants, it is merely an afterthought. For too many diners, it is too much filler between the appetizers (small plates! tapas! ...a rose by any other name would surely still be a rose, unless you call it "extra special trendy new never-seen-before rose;" thus how "appetizers" evolved into "small plates") and the entrees. It is usually denigrated to the lowly position of "side," and is munched on seemingly out of pity as the diner patiently awaits his or her "real" food. As an entree choice, salad is a laughingstock and so is the person who orders it - it is considered "girly," often imbued with smug accusations of insecurity over appearance - "diet" is a four-letter word, as is "girl." "Vegetarian" isn't, but it might as well be for all the snide comments that meat-eaters make about them (because meat-eaters eat ONLY meat: every meal is meat wrapped in meat on a meat bun with meat sauce and sides of meat cooked in meat fat).

But a good salad is an art - not merely shredding up some lettuce, throwing on whatever toppings are nearby and slathering it in some uninspired dressing like ranch (*shudder*). A good salad can highlight the very best of Michigan's bountiful produce (second only to California in diversity, and THOSE people know their salads), incorporate unexpected flavors and textures, and be not just the intermission but the highlight of an entire meal. These salads do exactly that, and not one of them is made with iceberg lettuce.  Iceberg has about all of the nutritional value as a handful of wood chips. Which honestly isn't even fair to wood chips, which probably have more flavor. It's time to demand and appreciate a higher class of salad!

Prosciutto Salad at Zin. Photo by VATO.
#1 Zin Wine Bar Plymouth
Still the new guy in town over in Plymouth, which is quickly becoming the new go-to downtown restaurant destination thanks to places like 5ive and the even-newer Sardine Room, up-and-coming Chef Justin Vaiciunas gets the importance of salad, and just how creative a chef can actually be with it. The menu at Zin changes seasonally, but recent salad options included a roasted heirloom beet salad with citrus foam, brussels sprouts salad with black garlic aioli, and a shaved prosciutto salad featuring a pile of prosciutto (MEAT motherfuckers!) over lemon mascarpone and drizzled with Italian white truffle oil. Check your salad prejudice at the door.

#2 The Root Restaurant White Lake
Executive Chef James Rigato (another serious up-and-comer) is passionate about produce, specifically Michigan produce. The overarching ethos of the Root is fresh, local and seasonal, and this is reflected as much in their salads as in any other menu item. Their take on a roasted beet salad includes arugula, goat cheese, pickled onion, orange and marcona almond with a Michigan honey and sherry vinaigrette. For the summer they've got a vegan greenhouse fattoush salad, a strawberry arugula salad, and their signature "Orchard Salad" with green apple, red leaf, marcona almond, dried Michigan cherries, Michigan bleu cheese, pickled onion, crispy house-made bacon (!), and Spicer's hard cider vinaigrette.

#3 The Majestic Detroit
House salads usually suck: "here's a pile of crappy lettuce with chopped up three-day-old tomatoes and canned olives with bottled Italian dressing on top" (and if they're fancy it will be called "Italian vinaigrette"). At the Majestic Cafe, the house salad is one of the best things on the menu, and they've got a damn good menu. Order as a full portion or just as a side (but a side that can certainly hold its own): baby arugula, Saga bleu cheese, candied walnuts and apple tossed in a Michigan maple vinaigrette. And, like, a big-ass HUNK of Saga bleu. No fooling around with this one.

#4 Olga's Kitchen Detroit
Newly opened on the main floor of the Compuware Building in downtown Detroit's Central Business District, Olga's Kitchen was met with a mix of excitement and, to a much lesser extent, disdain. (Disdain: "Waaaaaaaah, it's corporate." Rebuttal: It's a Michigan-based chain! Disdain: "Waaaaaaaaah, you have to order at a counter right inside the door and that's weird and unfamiliar and I don't like it." Rebuttal: this speeds up service by cutting out the middleman and besides, fine dining it ain't; your food is still brought right to your table.) They've got a large selection of salads, but try the one that's inexplicably buried under the "starters" portion of the menu: the Arugula Salad. Baby arugula, tomato bruschetta, candied bacon (BACON!!!), red onions and feta tossed in their signature dressing. They also have a surprising selection of Michigan craft beers (like Frankenmuth Dunkel) - on a recent visit the salad with an order of Olga Snackers (bread + cheese) and a beer was under $11 and the food came out lightning-fast.

#5 Torino Espresso Bar Ferndale
They've got a small but mighty selection of salads to match their small but mighty menu. Their Caesar is made with house-made Caesar dressing and prosciutto bacon, but for something light and simple try their house salad -- arugula, Parmagiano Reggiano, olive oil, lemon juice and balsamic. The best part is you can order one of their outstanding panini and swap out the chips for the house salad for only $2.50 ... totes worth it.

Bubbling under Pizzeria Biga (Royal Oak), Le Petit Zinc (Detroit), Anita's Kitchen (Ferndale), Meriwether's (Southfield), Roma Cafe (Detroit), Mr. Paul's Chophouse (Roseville), Inn Season Cafe (Royal Oak), Big Rock Chop House (Birmingham), 24grille (Detroit), Hudson Cafe (Detroit), Forest Grill (Birmingham), Hilton Road Cafe (Ferndale), Roast (Detroit), Palazzo di Bocce (Lake Orion), Tony Sacco's Coal Oven Pizza (Novi)