A fashion adage suggests that jewelry be edited: once all pieces are on, one should be removed at the last minute. I’m not sure I agree about the bijoux, where I’ve always been of the Sammy Davis Jr. school, but it’s a damned good rule for salads. In this era of lunch salads and dinner salads and salad snacks, little plates are getting piled higher and higher with addenda that add nothing to the taste of tender leaves. I’m usually frustrated in my attempts to have a few wonderfully dressed leaves at the end of the meal, French style. Even with my salad as appetizer, I’ve spent enough time off-loading croutons and picking around pecans to draw the line at anything with more than three ingredients above the greens. I don’t mind decking out the rest of my body, but where my palate is concerned I prefer to keep it simple.
I hadn’t fully crystallized my salad theory until a recent dinner at Siena, an up-and-
coming Italianate bistro that for the most part knows not to overdo things. Sara Moulton of TVFN’s Cooking Live suggested that my mother and I sup with her at the Chelsea spot after we’d taped one of her shows. The small dining room was bustling with locals when we arrived, but we managed to garner one of the two choice window tables. The menus were presented and there it was—arugula salad with flaked baccalà, black olives, and lemon vinaigrette ($8). We agreed that the arugula sounded appealing, as did the vinaigrette, but wondered why anyone would want to top those tangy leaves with flaked salt cod. We requested the salad without the codfish and the dilemma was solved. The tender greens arrived glistening under a slightly oily dressing riddled with shards of lemon zest. Perfection. The absurdly foodie notion of a free-range rib-eye steak ($20) evoked comical images of contented cows sniffing daisies in green pastures but produced a chewily tender wonder crosshatched with char. The accompanying sautéed spinach was mined with hunks of garlic, a perfect counterpoint for the massive slab of animal protein. The leg of lamb ($17) suffered from a heavy hand with the rosemary, but the sumptuous steak and the edited salads were enough to place Siena high on my return-visit list.
I was back a few weeks later, this time vowing to sample the arugula salad as offered. A more traditional mélange of mixed greens with crimini mushrooms and pecorino shavings seduced my friend with its simplicity while I struggled fruitlessly for words to describe how garishly the fish clashed with my rocket. So while she savored her dense, silky funghi, I picked out well-flaked codfish and extra-virgin olives that had no business on the plate where they were marooned. But my salad woes were only a hiccup: the kitchen soared with the main courses. An oven-roasted snapper ($19) was spot on, the delicate flavor of the fish high lighted by an equally delicate complement of fresh thyme. The grilled salmon ($16) continued the tour de force, playing the sweetness of the fish against a complex nouvelle slaw of artichoke, radicchio, capers, and a hint of fennel. A side of grilled asparagus completed the palette of spring flavors. Grapefruit-Campari, apricot, and pear sorbets would have been the final grace note to what would have been a symphony of simplicity—if only they’d edited that salad.