No less an authoritative source than the Larousse Gastronomique, that encyclopedic bible of the cooking world, defines the salad thusly: "A dish of raw or cold cooked foods, usually dressed or seasoned, served as a side dish." But Americans do things differently.
During my childhood years, a salad in America usually meant iceberg lettuce drenched with an oily suspension made from an envelope with the words, "Good Seasons" written on it, that a home cook poured out of a tiny, commercially obtainable cruet.
My working mother made salad in the morning with the dressing on it, and left it in the fridge until dinner. This was not the ideal way to keep a salad crisp. Desire to escape my mom's salad was one of many things that led me to food writing, and it gave me courage to tell her the now infamous words (in my family), "If you put it on my plate, I'll throw it on the floor."
Salads have come a long way since, to the point that anything can be called a salad, at any temperature. We have entrée salads, warm salads, fruit salads and exotic salads from every corner of the world. Mexican cuisine has inspired the taco salad, and Chinese food the now ubiquitous Chinese chicken salad, and so what if no Chinese worth his salt even would consider eating anything other than fruits or nuts raw.
I recently set out to find 10 of the best salads in Las Vegas, with few parameters beyond the desire to include at least one variation on a Caesar, and one high-end salad done by a superstar chef. In doing so, I discovered that Vegas is indeed a great salad town, all credit going to an impressive number of steakhouses, and an equal number of creative American chefs.
This list barely scratches the surface.
1. Avocado and Grapefruit Salad at I Love This Bar and Grill.
When country singer Toby Keith opened his new restaurant at Harrah's, what stuck out on his menu of down-home fare was a fried bologna sandwich on garlic Texas toast, so it is not like gourmets all over town stood up and took notice.
Perhaps they should. The food is quite good here, mostly Southern fare like a terrific pulled pork sandwich, or skillet-fried, corn meal-dusted okra. Keith's avocado and grapefruit salad sounds goofy, but it's amazingly well-conceived. Take meltingly ripe and appealingly green wedges of avocado, sweet pink grapefruit sections and some pale green butter lettuce, and then dress it up a little with candied pecans and poppy-seed dressing.
The result is a delightfully refreshing salad, and it's probably better for you than a fried bologna sandwich.
Inside Harrah's. 369-5000. Avocado and grapefruit salad, $9.99.
2. Thai Chicken Salad at Sammy's Woodfired Pizza.
Sammy's does nice pizzas, but I come here for a wide range of salads based on grilled chicken, my favorite of which is the Thai chicken salad. It is so called because of a spicy, sesame oil dressing that is available by the bottle at the cashier, but there are a number of other things that make it distinctive.
As with all Sammy's salads, it is gigantic. The small serves two as a side dish or makes an ample entrée; the large easily feeds twice that number. Picture lettuces, Roma tomato, toasted peanuts, julienne carrots and zucchini, bean sprouts and cilantro (which they will leave out if you think this herb is too aggressive), topped off with sliced, grilled chicken, redolent of an Asian marinade.
If you aren't dieting, a small Thai chicken salad and a four-cheese pizza makes one of the best informal lunches for two in town.
6500 W. Sahara Ave., 227-6000, and 4300 E. Sunset Road, Henderson. 450-6664. Thai chicken salad, $7.50 (sm.), $12.95 (reg.)
3. Summer Heirloom Tomato and Tomato Confit Salad at Bouchon.
In deepest summer, there is no greater eating pleasure than the heirloom tomato, actually any one of a number of small, specially grown varietals in a rainbow of colors.
Chef Mark Hopper is Thomas Keller's head man at his Venetian Resort bistro Bouchon, and he gets wonderful tomatoes from Napa and other farm towns; Marvel, Brandywine, Four Seasons and Green Zebra being just four types.
They don't screw with the product. Hopper makes a confit, or preserve, from Roma tomatoes, using olive oil, salt and thyme, and then adds the heirlooms, garnishing them with garden mint vinaigrette. Eaten on the amazing house breads, it is awesomely good.
Inside the Venetian, 414-1000. Summer heirloom tomato salad, $11.50.
4. Chinese Chicken Salad at Riva
Wolfgang Puck made the Chinese Chicken Salad a household word in this country, so much so that Chinese restaurants actually serve it today. (Though I defy you to find any Chinese family eating one.)
OK, so it isn't really Chinese, any more than German potato salad is German or a California roll is Japanese. He invented it while at the celebrity hangout Ma Maison in the late '70s and refined it at his seminal Spago Hollywood. Today, it remains oft-imitated, rarely equaled.
Puck's newest restaurant, Riva, is in the newly redone pool area at the Venetian, where a leisure crowd lounges outside, sipping smoothies and staring at all the hardbodies. The salad is chock-full of candied cashews, white-meat chicken, wonton crisps, Napa cabbage and a sesame honey mustard dressing no one can resist.
It's even more delicious in this environment than it was in full sight of Swifty Lazar.
Inside the Venetian, 414-1000. Chinese chicken salad, $13.
5. Caesar Salad with Blackened Salmon at Grand Café
Green Valley Ranch Station recently opened a large, handsome 24-hour restaurant where once, a few slot machines stood, and it is giving the Feast buffet next door and the Original Pancake House, down the hall, a run for the money.
The food is delicious here, from beer-battered cod served with malt vinegar and house-made potato chips, to luscious desserts like a strawberry Napoleon highlighted by a light, Bavarian cream mousse in the center.
Salads are made to order in here, and the Caesar is big enough to share on a huge, oblong platter. It is a masterly assemblage of crisp Romaine, a tangy dressing laced with anchovies, fat, crunchy croutons and not too much cheese, and it is available with either shrimp, chicken or the best choice, a hefty chunk of blackened salmon crusted with spice and bursting with juice.
Inside Green Valley Ranch Station. 617-7777. Caesar salad with blackened salmon, $10.99.
6. BLT Salad at Boa
I've never been much for iceberg lettuce, but it is synonymous with the word salad in this country. However, I'm completely nuts for the BLT salad at Boa Steakhouse, though it should really be called a BLTA, the "a" being short for avocado.
Executive Chef Josh Thomsen has essentially taken an American classic and tweaked it slightly. It's based on iceberg lettuce, all right, cherry tomatoes, avocado and in this case, applewood smoked bacon, the chef's innovation, which adds smokiness and depth to the creamy dressing laced with champagne vinegar that douses the greens.
But two ingredients you do not see, fleur de sel, a mineral-rich sea salt imported from Brittany, and Green Tabasco, are rubbed onto the bowl just before serving, resulting in a salad you'll order again and again.
Boa Steakhouse, in the Forum Shops at Caesars. 733-7373. BLT Salad, $10.
7. Polipo con insalate di fave at Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare
Technically, all salads are antipasti, literally "before the pasta," in Italian, and that is why you'll find this masterpiece in the antipasto column on Paul Bartolotta's menu.
This chef has already gotten national raves for importing the best variety of Italian fish found in this country, live crustaceans like the cicala, toothsome sea bream, and even the rarest of the rare, such as the scorpion fish, scorfano in Italian, and the occhione—"big eye," if you will.
All the ingredients are unimpeachable here, and the chef adheres stringently to the "three-ingredient rule," a tenet of classical Italian cooking that insures the simplicity of anything he cooks. So his salad of thinly sliced octopus with fava beans and cut tomatoes gets nothing more than a kiss of extra virgin olive oil and a squirt of lemon juice, and the flavors come through like a Pavarotti tenor voice in an ancient amphitheatre.
Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, Inside Wynn Las Vegas. 770-7000. Polipo con insalate di fave, $14.
8. Banana Flower Salad at Hannah's Neighborhood Bistro
The Vietnamese are the great salad-eaters of Asia. Pho noodle soup is always served with a giant platter of herbs like mint and basil, and raw vegetables accompany almost everything they eat.
That explains the abundance of salads at Hannah An's grand new west-side place, the most elegant restaurant to open in Summerlin yet. Whether in the sushi bar, on the patio or in the stately dining room, reclining on ornate embroidered cushions, there are several salads to try here, a traditional Vietnamese salad of pickled carrot, jicama and prawns in a garlic lime vinaigrette being just one.
But nothing here tops the Banana Flower salad, and if you see a Vietnamese family, it's the one they are most likely to be eating. It couldn't be simpler: long, dark brown tendrils of the roasted banana flower, which has an almost medicinal sweetness, tossed with lotus seed dressing, poached chicken and roasted peanuts. It's almost as if Dr. Atkins opened a clinic in Saigon.
Hannah's Neighborhood Bistro, 1050 S. Rampart Blvd. 932-9399. Banana Flower Salad, $8.50.
9. Salade Nicoise at Marche Bacchus
Plus ca change, as the saying goes. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Salade Nicoise is the classic luncheon salad on the continent, a mélange of tuna and several other components on a bed of mesclun, baby greens gathered in the fragrant fields near the Mediterranean. There are innumerable riffs on it locally, generally in the key of ahi tuna. But I prefer it the traditional way, based on flaky canned tuna packed in olive oil.
The other components at this comely wine shop and attached bistro are thinly sliced French beans, boiled new potato, Kalamata olives, sliced tomato and hard-cooked egg, all codified by a light balsamic vinegar and olive oil dressing. The anchovies, ever present in Nice itself, are strictly BYO here.
Marche Bacchus, 2620 Regatta Drive. 804-8008. Salade Nicoise, $10.
10. Warm Quail Salad With Sauteed Artichokes and Pine Nuts at Picasso.
Our top chefs all do amazing things with the salad course, but none is more satisfying than Chef Julian Serrano's popular, and utterly arresting, quail salad.
Like all chefs at his level, he relies on the very best purveyors, as a chef's job description may sometimes be turning straw into gold, but only as a last resort. Serrano gets greens from the fabulous Chef's Garden in Ohio, and quail from a boutique California producer.
The rest is easy, if you have Serrano's talent. Section the quail and then pan-saute it in grapeseed oil, chosen for its high flash point, and then do the artichokes in the same oil, with a touch of fresh garlic. Add a sprinkle of pine nuts and voila! A salad is born.
Picasso, inside Bellagio. 693-8105. The warm quail salad is part of a four-course tasting menu at $90.