Archive for July, 2010

Desperately Seeking Spinach Salads

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

Good spinach salads are hard to find.  Perhaps it’s just more challenging to make spinach leaves taste good.  They don’t have the crunch of iceberg or romaine, the smooth texture and sweet taste of spring greens, or the tang of arugula.  And they’re not as adept as some of their lettuce cousins with the ever-important task of dressing absorption.  Maybe these are greens that just need to get dolled up a bit before going out?  If so, which Chicago-area restaurateurs have figured out the best accessories?

I started with three Lettuce Entertain You restaurants:   L. WoodsMaggiano’s and Wildfire, all of which rely on bacon–and excellent vinaigrettes.  At L.Woods, the spinach is accompanied by roasted red peppers and hard-boiled eggs.  Wildfire’s additional toppings are mushrooms and radishes–which, for some reason, actually work.  Maggiano’s salad, however, has the most additions and taste:  roasted onions, red peppers, Gorgonzola cheese and toasted pine nuts.  But I wonder if it’s counterproductive to put those relatively fattening toppings on such healthy greens.

Surprisingly, Hackney’s, the old-time hamburger haven, actually has some spinach salad savvy.  They top the leaves with chicken that truly tastes freshly grilled, caramelized walnuts and hard-boiled eggs; both raspberry vinaigrette (a bit gelatinous) and poppy seed dressings are available.

I also feasted on the spinach salad at Feast.  It was a bit fruity for my taste, adding pears and dried cranberries to the spinach, along with candied pecans, Gorgonzola and sherry vinaigrette.  But I would definitely order it again.

A super City spot is Lula’s Café, whose menu boasts a number of organic options.  These include the spinach salad made with dried cherries, walnuts, red onions and creamy goat cheese.   Special thanks to Lora for introducing me to this Logan Square treasure!

I was delighted to see that Sopraffina has added a strawberry spinach salad to its summer selections.  In addition to the strawberries, there are dried cherries, marinated red onions, pecans and a pomegranate dressing.  I was a bit disappointed; maybe too much fruit?  Or perhaps it was the pomegranate vinaigrette, which seemed somewhat lackluster.  But Kasey, another salad aficionado, writes that she loved the salad, especially its “wonderful fruit-nut-light dressing combination that goes so well with the spinach.”  Hmmm.  We both agree, though, that a mild, soft cheese should be added.  Maybe they could use some of the crumbled goat cheese that they put in their fabulous Farmstand Salad.

You can count on Nordstrom to come up with a good solution to the spinach salad quandary:  mix in romaine lettuce with the spinach and call it a Mediterranean Salad.  To this hybrid base, they add chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, basil, feta cheese, kalamata olives and a balsamic vinaigrette.  It’s one of my favorites.

But the fairest spinach salad of them all can be found at Ceres Café, tucked away on the first floor of the Chicago Board of Trade Building (141 W. Jackson).  Someone in the kitchen figured out that you can mix together spinach, shaved Parmesan, sun-dried and fresh diced tomatoes, black olives, capers (I know!), chicken and lemon vinaigrette–and come up with a sensational salad, one that Popeye and Olive Oyl would eagerly  “finich.”

Yours till the spinach leaves,
NJL