Malcolm Jolley would like to eat his salad with a spoon.
If you have school aged children, then you know that this week is March break and you have made plans to occupy them in some way. The plans we made this year have been particularly good because they included an invitation offered and accepted to stay with good friends in Los Angeles. It’s not March break in LA, so while our friends do boring things like go to work and school, our family are living the life of flâneurs, exploring the many neighbourhoods and main drags of this city made up of cities by the Pacific Ocean. Naturally, a big part of our day is lunch, and because we are a largish group (there are five of us), some care must be taken to find a place that can take us, and will appeal to everyone’s palate. Luckily, so called ‘California cuisine’, with it’s nods to the Mediterranean, Mexico and classic American food, is both reassuring to the more timid tasters among us, and just exotic enough to be interesting to the more adventurous. A case in point of the latter, at least for me, is the chopped salad.
If you Google ‘chopped salad’ you might find a lot search results that includes the words ‘quintessential’ and ‘LA’. They are correct; it’s hard to imagine a more LA dish. And, like so much in this city, the chopped salad has a mid-century creation myth. Born in Beverly Hills in the early 1960’s at the celebrity haunted restaurant La Scala, restaurateur Jean Leon is said to have told his kitchen to chop up La Scala’s ‘gourmet salad’ so patrons in fancy evening wear could safely eat it without any of it landing on their lap. To this day, I have read, a properly made chopped salad should be able to be eaten with a spoon.
The chopped salad I had yesterday at The Rose in Venice Beach was as close to the Platonic ideal of a chopped salad that I can imagine. The Rose, which apparently celebrates its 40th birthday this year, is a big, fun and loud space that spills out onto a big tented patio. It’s the kind of smart-casual restaurant Americans do particularly well, full of energy and cheerful competency. Their chopped salad was perfectly spoonable, though I managed fine with my fork. I presume it was prepared in the classic way, with a cook slicing and dicing with two big knives or cleavers. The salad rested on a foundation of greens, romaine and (of course) kale, then got meaty and Italianate with protein, salami and provolone, crunchy with pistachios, and finally zingy with green olives and pickled pepperoncini, all tied together with a red wine vinaigrette. It’s possible that I had a forkful of the salad that included all the ingredients, but that would be beside the point. The great fun of the chopped salad is the random combination of ingredients and flavours with each bite. Here we have a cube of cheese and a nut, there an olive slice and some cured meat. The possibilities and variety brings the fork back to the plate until the big mound of green and protein is gone.
One of the elements of the chopped salad that it’s most devoted adherents, like reportedly Gwyneth Paltrow, are attracted to is the one, and only one, that gives me a little pause. The chopped salad has no croutons, and is by design carb free. I don’t know when this terrible war on carbohydrates will end, but until it does I will be having a slice of bread, or the crusts from my kid’s pizza. It’s all good.