Say ‘salad,’ and most folks think of a pile of leafy greens, with a cherry tomato or two thrown on top. Though crisp, refreshing, and sometimes squirted with interesting dressings, it’s never been more than a bit player in the theater of repast. But some salads long to be more—charismatic leading men and women who hope to be recognized and admired, ambitious creations that yearn to be in the middle of a meal, rather than on the edges.
These assemblages are called composed salads, and by that we don’t mean they’ve popped a few ’ludes. Originally, these concoctions were carefully arranged to delight the eye, often in tiers, rather than thrown into a bowl and tossed. In practice, this has come to mean any salad in which the solid elements outnumber the leafy ones, providing less air and more nourishment. Some have become every bit as famous as they desired.
The Cobb is one. It was invented in 1937 at the Brown Derby in Los Angeles by restaurant manager Bob Cobb as a way to use leftovers. Typically, it might contain corn, ham, avocado, lettuce, hard-boiled eggs, chicken, scallions, olives, and blue cheese, everything diced. One admirably fresh-tasting version here is found at Westville (10 West 10th Street, 212-741-7971, other locations), where it comes awash in a lemon-balsamic vinaigrette, a full meal for sure. A luxe edition featuring lobster in a buttermilk dressing is offered at New York’s fabled 21 Club (21 West 52nd Street, 212-582-7200), where the façade of the restaurant is decorated with lawn jockeys named for famous patrons. A cheaper, more elemental rendition can be ordered at Williamsburg newcomer B.A.D. Burger (161 Grand Street, Brooklyn, 718-384-7273), where the name is an acronym meaning “Breakfast All Day.” You can indeed get the salad for breakfast if you so desire.
New York has its own famous composed salad. The Waldorf was invented in 1896 at the hotel of the same name by Oscar Tschirky, better known as Oscar of the Waldorf, who was the head waiter rather than the chef. This mayo-drenched combination of walnuts, celery, and apples was first made without the nuts, which were added later. In the 1960s, some popular versions also contained baby marshmallows, which is almost too repulsive to contemplate. Nuts or no nuts, the Waldorf salad has difficulty being regarded as an entrée, which is why chicken is added at Bubby’s (120 Hudson Street, 212-222-0666; 1 Main Street, Brooklyn, 718-222-0666). Lure Fishbar (142 Mercer Street, 212-431-7676) varies the terrain with grapes and shrimp, which is not a bad idea, while ABC Kitchen (35 East 18th Street, 212-475-5829) gooses the salad up with fennel, pistachios, and chicken, in a cider vinegar dressing.
France’s most well-known composed salad is the Niçoise, name-checking the sunny Riviera destination of Nice. Stories abound, but some claim it was invented by choreographer George Balanchine. True or not, its greatest champion was Julia Child, who was fond of making this carefully arranged tableau of tomatoes, red peppers, shallots, hardboiled eggs, and artichoke hearts (some also contain potatoes) topped with canned tuna and anchovies. A good place to grab one is Nice Matin (201 West 79th Street, 212-873-6423), which is like a little piece of the Côte D’Azur on the Upper West Side. Fig and Olive (808 Lexington Avenue, 212-207-4555, other locations) offers a somewhat glamorized version. Plopped on a roll with tapenade, your Niçoise salad becomes a sandwich called a pan bagnat, a Parisian favorite available at weekend brunch at Chez Oskar (211 Dekalb Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-852-6250) and at lunch at Le Singe Vert (160 Seventh Avenue, 212-366-4100).
In Central Italy, the addition of big hunks of sauce-moistened bread to a leafy salad makes a meal, and panzanella originated as a way to utilize stale bread in towns where the communal oven flickered only once a week. A version served at favorite wine bar Gottino (52 Greenwich Avenue, 212-633-2390) arrives speckled with smoked trout—a fish beloved of Tuscany and Umbria—while the recipe at Clinton Hill’s Locanda Vini & Olii (129 Gates Avenue, 718-622-9202) deploys the traditional salt-less bread of Central Italy reduced to crumbs and mixed with tomatoes, cucumbers, and purple onions in a tart red-wine-vinegar dressing. The Middle Eastern equivalent is called fattoush, utilizing toasted pitas instead of yeast-risen loaves. A particularly tasty rendition is found at Bay Ridge Lebanese café Man’ouChe (771 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-200-0150).
The Thai menu is rife with composed salads, often featuring ground meat. Larb is one of the most well-known, a heap of pale ground pork in a dressing featuring lime juice, mint, and chilies, often buoyed up by lettuce and sided with a handful of crudite. The article at Sripraphai (64-13 39th Avenue, Queens, 718-899-9599) gives new meaning to “spectacular,” but equally as good is a papaya salad that comes with ground catfish and cashews, and a duck salad that features pineapple, ginger, mango, and crushed peanuts, making a very festive and fruity main course, especially if sided with a basket of sticky rice. If you prefer not to leave New York’s most self-important isle, content yourself with the pork or chicken larb or duck salad at Pam Real Thai Food (404 West 49th, 212-333-7500), and there’s a vegetarian version of the latter that isn’t half bad.
Grain salads form another branch of the composed family tree, and one of the best is the phreak salad at Druze restaurant Gazala Place (709 Ninth Avenue, 212-245-0709), which also includes tomato slices in addition to the namesake green wheat, served with a bowl of garlicky white cucumber soup, as if a single entrée has been separated into two components. Nearly any grain salad on the menu at locavoric Northern Spy (511 East 12th Street, 212-228-5100) is worth ordering, and novel grain salads are prominently featured at Williamsburg new-wave sushi parlor Bozu (296 Grand Street, Brooklyn, 718-384-777). The place also offers a shiso-accented house salad that’s nearly a Cobb, and a fine tofu salad—but that gets us off on another tangent entirely.
Indeed, when it comes to composed salads, you can feature almost anything as a main ingredient. French-fry salad, anybody?