One of the many delicious food revelations during our road trip through Marin County and Napa Valley were the salads. From place to place, we ate salads as part of every meal we were served, and together they formed a master class in salad making. Both Tim and I couldn’t get enough of them (meaning these were not girly-girl bowls of frisee). It didn’t hurt that we were traveling during the late spring, when there is an abundance of asparagus, peas, beans, carrots, leeks, radishes, and broccoli (or rather a broccoli from Bolinas that resembled more broccolini). The deluxe beauty of a salad above was from Redd Wood restaurant in Yountville. It contained shaved spring vegetables with green goddess dressing and the plumpest, most beautiful peas. What I learned from this salad was that fresh peas should be served with their pods—some removed, some still clinging— because they’re perfectly edible and give a verdant crunch and look to the salad. Shaving the vegetables— the carrots and asparagus longways—and radishes, also added to overall look and feel, like a garden tangle. And also I loved how the salad wasn’t over mixed or chopped (I’ve ranted before about the trend in salad places that insist on Edward Scissor-handing your roughage into pieces the size of confetti). It was just lightly tossed with dressing and then very gently piled on a plate. Perfection.
Another extraordinary salad was given to us at Manka’s Lodge in Inverness. They don’t have a restaurant any longer (it burned down in a fire) but on weekends they serve dinner in your cabin–it’s called a “fireside dinner” because you can eat it with a fire crackling in your fireplace, lending a mood that was very Bon Iver. I would literally eat this salad every day if I could. There was asparagus and shredded celeriac (I think this was blanched first) sauteed sweet onions (why do I not add silky, warm, caramelized onions to my salad more often?!) and grated sheep’s milk cheese. It was all beautifully rustic and unfussy.
Now I don’t know if this vegetable dish we had at Marin Sun Farms—a butcher shop and cafe in Point Reyes Station— is technically a salad, but I will give it that distinction because we ate it before our meal and I loved everything about it: Bolinas broccoli cooked in pork fat (did I mention that my pants became tighter after this trip?) and topped with olive oil aioli and espelette pepper. They normally make this dish with brussel sprouts, but I’m so glad I got to try the local broccoli. And it also reminded me how lovely it is to serve aioli on top of warm greens for a vegetable dish.
And then there was the salad at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc Restaurant in Yountville. There is no menu at Ad Hoc, the meal changes daily and everyone gets the same thing—a salad course or antipasti, an entree with a vegetable and a side like polenta, maybe a second smaller entree to try, a cheese course, and dessert. Our dinner started with the salad of petite romaine hearts (above) presented family-style on a long Heath platter with a pepper-leek vinaigrette served on the side in a tiny pitcher. Mixed gently with the lettuces was carrot ribbons (again with the long shavings for texture and prettiness), toasted pine nuts, spinach chips (roasted?), golden raisins (I’m going to start putting golden raisins in more things), black olives, fried chickpeas (crunchy, wonderful), a sliced hard boiled egg, and bacon lardons from Hobbs’ Smoked Meats. We ate it in like two seconds. As I was pulling my bread through the remaining dressing on my plate, I implied to the waiter that it wouldn’t be so bad if more salad happened to get lost on its way to someone else’s table…and end up on ours. He said it could be arranged if we ate the rest of our meal and still had room. Very clever, that waiter. The rest of the meal was so wonderful, that I was fully sated by the end of it. So now I just have to make that salad for myself at home. Or move to Yountville.
Obviously Keller and Marin County have the benefit of an amazing growing season and lush farmland so that they can make these masterpiece salads. Above and below is the mini-farm for The French Laundry, which is located right across the street from the restaurant itself.