I'll Have the House Dressing -- at My Own Table, Thank You

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 11, 2007

When my father used the word "vinaigrette" to ask a waiter about a restaurant's salad dressing, I knew that a significant shift had taken place in the American dining public's level of sophistication. At 77, Dad had left the Thousand Island behind him.

A salad is like Eliza Doolittle: common, but with the potential to achieve greatness. That's where the vinaigrette comes in, and all the better when it's designed by chefs who in true Henry Higgins fashion pay attention to the details. The oil provides the richness; the vinegar and flavorings add personality.

Why even bother ordering it on the side? We are powerless against the lure of a superlative vinaigrette and can only resign ourselves as the contents of ramekins disappear spoonful by spoonful until all is gone.

Vinaigrettes are easy to prepare, but first things first: Any vinaigrette must start off with high-quality oil and vinegar. Not so long ago, the only oil and vinegar available to restaurant diners came in matching cruets of bitter unctuousness and turpentine. Today, cruets have given way to tasting "flights," and serious consideration takes place before chefs decide which oil will anoint their bread.

The success of the widely hailed house salad at 2 Amys in Cleveland Park and the Horiatiki Salata (Greek salad) at Zaytinya downtown rests firmly on the quality of the oil used to dress their components. Likewise the champagne vinegar that serves as the base for the vinaigrette on Nathan Beauchamp's mixed baby-greens salad at 1789 in Georgetown.

So don't skimp on the basic building blocks, and don't even think of ruining the lovely produce we buy at farmers markets every weekend by drenching it with bottles of xanthan gum, propylene glycol alginate and polysorbate 60. Do as today's chefs do: Revitalize the salads of our not-so-distant past by enhancing them with the vast variety of flavorful ingredients now at our disposal.

"I just put four new salads on the menu," says Daniel Bortnick, the recently installed chef at Dupont Circle's Firefly restaurant. At first glance, iceberg with blue cheese, Waldorf, bibb with ranch, and spinach with bacon might not seem so new, but look again.

That Waldorf salad is made with organic watercress and endive, cashews, dried cranberries, celery root in citrus aioli, a transparent tumbleweed of Granny Smith apples cranked from a Japanese food slicer, and a sherry vinaigrette. The bibb lettuce comes with whole-wheat croutons, organic carrots and radishes, and a buttermilk herb dressing that traveled a long distance from Hidden Valley.

"More than anything in a restaurant, the house salad should reflect the seasons," asserts Frank Morales of Alexandria's Rustico Restaurant and Bar. "If it's cool outside, I may want to do something with raisins. Now I see the sun outside and think rhubarb. In the summer? Watermelon. The fall, root vegetables. Maybe sweet potatoes and molasses."

So the raisins become what Morales describes on his menu as "mixed greens and reds: fire-roasted grapes, radishes, Bailey Hazen blue cheese and Muscat vinaigrette." For chef Richard Hamilton of Restaurant Local in Easton, Md., a 1970s mainstay turns into "young spinach, gorgonzola cheese, cremini mushrooms and warm shallot-pancetta vinaigrette" on his menu.

Creamy Gorgonzola is a favored stand-in for crumblier blue cheese. At his eponymous Bethesda restaurant, David Craig uses it for a refreshing take on a head-lettuce standard. His butter lettuce with fried green tomatoes, applewood-smoked bacon, Gorgonzola and pecans is already intriguing, but the lush nuttiness imparted by brown butter in its vinaigrette makes it something otherworldly.

I wish I had thought of it, but even Henry Higgins didn't know everything.

David Hagedorn, professional chef and former restaurateur, writes the Food section's Chef on Call column. He can be reached atfood@washpost.com.

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