You can tell a restaurant by its salad greens. All those little leaves in your bowl will reveal whether you are eating in a real High Church establishment or a low-life dive. Learn your lesson now, lest you be embarrassed later. The top green you can find on your plate in Dallas this year (it has already passed the peak of chic in faster places like New York) is arugula (uh roo’ gya la), alias “rocket,” though you won’t find anyone in these parts calling it that. Arugula looks as though it grew in your alleyway (like a skinny, upstart early dandelion, in fact). But it tastes like Bugs Bunny heaven, and if it’s on your plate you are in a place that has arrived.
Lamb’s lettuce (also known by its French name, mache) tastes almost as good. But it’s a little commoner, and that of course means it’s, well, commoner.
Radicchio is the stuff that looks like red cabbage but is much softer in texture and slightly bitter in taste. It’s been around a couple of years, so radicchio’s newness may be wearing off. Okay for now, but in danger of becoming last year’s lettuce.
Curly endive (sometimes known as chicory) is starting to get some play, and watercress and Belgian endive are always safe, conservative lettuces to put in an uppercrust salad (kind of like your basic black and pearls for cocktail wear). Romaine, Boston and field lettuce have become so commonplace they might even begin to come back into fashion.
Iceberg? Don’t let the word pass your lips. The only use is at Chinese restaurants, as a kind of taco shell for exotic minced-squab appetizers. Then again, will iceberg win out as anti-chic chic?
Since domestic lettuce varieties have pretty much been exhausted by our local eateries, the trend for the future might have to be greens gathered from the wild. Fiddle-head ferns, anyone? And on the West Coast, flower petals are popping up in salad bowls everywhere. The first one to get a nasturtium blossom or a rose petal in his salad gets extra points.
Of course, salads do not live by greens alone. A couple of years ago exotic vinegars and salad oils were de rigueur. Of late we have noticed a return to simpler things (a fine, fruity olive oil and a vintage vinegar). The friskier chefs are still futzing around with the likes of grapeseed oil and passion-fruit vinegar.
Garlic (and lots of it) is back in this year, but among cheeses only chèvre (or an equivalent American goat cheese), preferably warmed, is really worth considering, and that is quickly becoming dated.
Sprouts, seeds, and nuts are for salad bars-they go right next to the iceberg.