Archive for August, 2009

Salad as Theatre

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009
Old Blackhawk

Old Blackhawk

The first time I saw my salad moving was in the early 1960s.  It was at Don Roth’s Blackhawk Restaurant in downtown Chicago, where lucky kids like me went to dinner with their parents on special occasions.  It was there that I witnessed first-hand the wonders of the world-famous “Spinning Salad.”  I don’t recall much  more than deferential and elegantly clad waiters magically whirring around their giant wooden bowls on what must have been Lazy Susan-type turntables. I don’t remember if I liked—or even ate—the salad.

But former Chicago newspaper columnist Bob Greene does.[*] He writes that, after all the ingredients had been brought to the table and a metal bowl was placed on top of a bed of ice:

“The waiter would begin to spin the bowl in a way that would all but hypnotize the customers.  He would present an elaborate, carefully rehearsed speech; as he spoke, and spun the bowl, each of the 21 ingredients … would be added …. It took a full five minutes for the salad to be completed, for the bowl to finally stop spinning…and then, cold and deeply delicious, the salad was dished onto heavy white china plates.”

Twenty-one ingredients?!  Five minutes?!  Another former Blackhawk patron contends that there were 23 ingredients, and that the salad was tossed three times so as “not to bruise the tender greens.”  Nice.

Mr. Roth sold the downtown restaurant in 1984.  But by that time, he had opened a quasi-clone in Wheeling that boasts some menu items from the original place—including the Spinning Salad.  And yet, various internet commenters suggest that the thrill is largely gone.  For instance, from Yelp.com: “Their signature ‘Spinning Salad’ was a gimmick. Supposedly has 21 ‘secret ingredients.’ I only counted 11.”  Barbara now tells me that I can actually buy a bottle of the “Spinning Salad” dressing at Treasure Island;  Debbie says it’s even at Dominick’s.  Oh, well.

Yours till the lettuce leaves,

NJL

Epilogue (added 11/5/09):  Don Roth’s Blackhawk Restaurant to close at the end of the year

[*] Those who were in Chicago in 2002 may remember the saga of Mr. Greene’s impressive rise and meteoric fall.

Salad Bars in the Seventies

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

untitledI set eyes on my first salad bar in the early 1970s. It was at Weber’s Restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Maurine’s father had graciously brought us for dinner.[*] I had been subsisting largely on the carbo-heavy chow then ubiquitous in college dorms, watching the “Freshman 15″ slowly emerge. The only rows of food I had previously seen had been in school cafeterias, where they were largely composed of stiff mashed potatoes, listless pasta and faux meat. In those settings, there was always someone behind the counter judiciously doling out carefully prescribed portions. But this salad bar, this was something else: a big vat of lettuce (perhaps still just iceberg), followed by container after container of fresh salad vegetables, crunchy toppings (like croutons AND bacon bits) and dressings (not just Italian, French and Thousand Island). And the part that blew me away was that you could fill your plate with as much as you wanted–and then return for more!

Back in Chicago, Rich Melman had the same idea at the now-iconic R.J. Grunt’s, just in time for my return to the city for law school.  For most students, an all-you-can-eat anything is always welcome.  But this was a salad bar on steroids: not just vegetables and crunchy things, but items like (canned) fruit and chocolate pudding.  Even soup.  It was amazing.

I haven’t been to Grunt’s in a while.  A few years ago, Melman’s Lettuce Entertain You outfit had actually considered closing the restaurant, only to be met with a barrage of opposition from its many loyal fans.  It looks like the place is still alive and well.  I checked out the website: www.rjgruntschicago.com, “Catering to the Neurotic Compensation of Eating.”   Not surprisingly, it’s creative and funky, blasting out music from the 1970s.  The menu has a prominent all-you-can-eat/no-sharing Salad Bar entrée, with a $10.95 price tag; grilled chicken, grilled portobella caps and a scoop of tuna are extra.  Melman hubristically asserts on his website: “Once you’ve mastered the vast scope of my huge salad bar, you’ll sneer at all those weenie pretender salad bars.”  We shall see,  Mr. Melman, we shall see.

Yours till the lettuce leaves,

NJL

[*] Almost 40 years later, Weber’s remains in business! According to its website, it is still owned and operated by the Weber family and “committed to guest satisfaction.” It no longer appears to have a salad bar, but instead an impressive list of salads that I’d be happy to sample next time I’m in Wolverine country.

Salad in the Sixties

Saturday, August 15th, 2009

Iceberg HeadWhen I was growing up, it was this simple:  lettuce (always iceberg, was there another kind then?), tomatoes and cucumbers.  And then there was the trio of salad dressings:  Italian, French and Thousand Island.  At many of the fancy-schmancy restaurants, you could get something called Roquefort dressing—for an extra 25 cents.  I remember tasting (and smelling!) that topping and wondering why anyone would even eat it, let along pay more money for it.  I also recall my dad annoying more than one waitress by asking her to mix together two of the dressings before putting them on his salad.  I guess he knew, even then, that we could do better.

In those days, salads were solely side dishes.  They had green things in them, so we all assumed that they were healthy, like broccoli.  No one really thought about “nutritional value”; we had no idea that iceberg lettuce lacked it.  Nor did we think that slathering our salad with Thousand Island dressing might possibly result in more calories than a McDonald’s cheeseburger.

Yours till the lettuce leaves,

NJL