Thursday, November 29, 2007

Searching for the Perfect Caesar

A few weeks ago, I was sitting at a new “old” restaurant, one of those places we used to eat at then just stopped for some reason, and I was poking at a quarter heart of romaine lettuce still on its stem. Someone had dribbled a white vinaigrette dressing across the lettuce in a zig zag pattern and little clumps of homemade croutons hung from the sides. This Caesar salad was served on a white oval plate.

For seventeen years, my wife and I have been searching for the perfect restaurant Caesar salad. We had it once, actually a few times. When we were first married and my wife was expecting or our daughter was very very young, we used to go to a steakhouse called “Alfred’s”, which was somehow related to the more famous Alfred’s in San Francisco though no one ever explained just how close the connection was.

The Caesar at Alfred’s was part of a show with the salad cart, the big silver bowl, the salad guy mixing the dressing by your table, and the waiter circulating at the end with the pepper mill the size of a baseball bat. I don’t normally respond to restaurant service as circus act. I don’t like flambed desserts, refuse to call Benihana food, but there was something mesmerizing about the Caesar salad show at Alfred’s.

The actual salad was always memorable as well. The romaine leaves were hand ripped. The dressing was just spicy and oily enough. My wife even got to the point where she didn’t order an entrée. Naturally, Alfred’s closed down. The 1980’s were not a good time to be a steakhouse in Sonoma County, the center of the gourmet-vegetarian universe. I imagine that pregnancy-influenced food craving also played some role in our fixation with the Alfred’s Caesar Salad, but ever since they closed we’ve been looking for a replacement.

Yes, one day we did get the waiter at Alfred’s to give us the recipe for the dressing. The key ingredients turned out to be Dijon mustard, cream of tartar, and worchestershire sauce. Fancy salads just happen to be one of those things that never taste nearly as good when you make them yourselves. Oysters tend to be the same way. It’s simply better not to know what all the parts looked like pre-assembly. In any case, we’ve been searching for a restaurant that makes our ideal Caesar salad ever since. Just in case you’re wondering, we’ve never solved the problem by simply going to the Alfred’s in San Francisco.

In the process, we’ve learned that “Caesar salad” is a label that’s very loosely applied. I’ve even been offered bleu cheese dressing on a Caesar salad. One particularly unhappy experience involved an upscale restaurant where the chef decided to dose the Caesar salad with ginger. At its worst, it’s a collection of wilted romaine, sometimes mixed with other lettuces, packaged croutons, seemingly thrown in a food processor with a jar of mayonnaise. Dressings range from nearly transparent to textures stiffer than yoghurt. Some places toss the salad while many leave it on the leaf and hand you a fork and knife. Anchovies are one of those religious questions as is the application of grated parmesan cheese. There even seem to be debates about the use of an egg white in the dressing or the addition of items like red onion slices, hard-boiled eggs, and jalapeno peppers.

The whole Caesar salad issue got even weirder in the middle of the nineties when it became trendy to turn the thing into a “meal” by adding chicken, salmon, strips of tri-tip, and I’m probably hallucinating but do vaguely remember bits of meat loaf. In the process, it became a standard boxed lunch choice. They’d get one of those big plastic salad containers, stick the dressing in a plastic container, dump some chicken strips on it, and “god only knows for what reason” tell you it was a chicken Caesar. If I ever run for office (there’s no chance of it btw), one of the first things I’d do is pass a law to change the name of some of these variants to “Caligula”. “Nero”, or “Messalina”. That poor guy Caesar gets enough blame.

Actually, one of the odder aspects of Casesar salad lore is that many people assume that the name refers to Julius and that the dish is therefore Italian. There are a couple stories about its origins, but the Caesar Salad is most likely Mexican. Caesar Cardini was a chef in Tijuana. Much like chop suey, also a North American dish, it’s believed that the salad was the result of a culinary emergency. The ingredients were basically what Cardini had available when a customer came in late one night and demanded a special salad.
I rather liked the image of Roman legions marching on the Appian highway then breaking for lunch with clear plastic containers filled with romaine leaves and croutons. I’ve also never seen Casesar salad on the menu of a Mexican restaurant, yet oddly it does show up at any number of faux Italian restaurants. Food is weird that way. Fwiw, the evidence suggests that Cardini’s version was not tossed nor did it include anchovies except for the traces of anchovy in the Worchestershire sauce in the dressing. The Alfred’s version that we came to think of as real “Caesar Salad” isn’t all that close to the original.

I imagine that somewhere out there someone’s come up with a taxonomy of food. As in when do you abuse the notion of a Casear salad so badly that it become say a variant of the Chef’s salad, the cob, or just a bunch of stuff mixed with some romaine leaves? The other thing is that restaurant’s generally charge a slight premium for a Caesar as opposed to a generic “tossed” or “dinner” salad, yet hardly anyone still makes the stuff table side any longer. I’m not sure why this is or why we accept it. I think it has something to do with the notion that the Caesar is vaguely continental and somehow more gourmet, but I doubt that anyone really knows. In the meantime, the evolution of food and/or specific dishes remains fascinating. If it were up to me, I'd merge the food network with the history channel. btw I think the Caesar really hit bottom when McDonald’s started selling them.

My wife and I continue our search for our perfect Caesar. We have our template in mind, whatever we had at Alfred’s in Petaluma more than fifteen years ago. We’ve had versions of Caesars that have been good even great, but because of that template we consider Caesar’s that aren’t tossed or that have a creamy instead of a spicy dressing impostors. A few weeks ago, I figured out why we simply don’t go to the real Alfred’s in San Francisco. Even if it’s the same as what we remember, we’re bound to be disappointed. The pleasure we took in the salad back then is tied to our having the baby, it being early in our relationship, etc. We know no restaurant can reproduce those parts of the recipe, yet we keep looking because it reminds us of those times and the search more or less maps the entire history of our marriage.

I kind of think of it as the Decline and Fall of the Romaine Empire.



At 12/01/2007 04:51:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm happy to vigorously applaud D&F of the Romaine Empire, but have to say that you will never find a *real* Caesar again because the real deal required whole raw egg which no restaurant is even allowed to serve any more.

ps. Why is blogger suddenly not allowing our links anymore unless we're bloggerites? Piffle. Small cheese.

At 12/03/2007 10:12:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

don't know the answer to the blogger question.

I believe the state of California changed the law back a few years ago.

At 12/08/2007 04:41:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

My perfect Caesar is a much different thing.

At 12/10/2007 02:26:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I had no idea that Bloody Marys were called Caesar cocktails. The things one learns blogging :}


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