An Homage to the Classic Caesar Salad

Categories: Cafe Reviews

Jackie Mercandetti
Nobody does the Caesar quite like Alexi.
I remember Caesar salads the way other people recall first dates. I can recite for you my best Caesar, and my worst; can list for you the most disappointing Caesars in my life, and how they fell short. I especially recall my first Caesar, prepared by my paternal grandmother, Giovanina, when I was 7. It was dressed with long, flat croutons, each of them cradling an oily black anchovy. I stood and watched as she grated Parmesan directly into her dressing.

I've had kale Caesars, and Caesars with chopped tomato, and Caesars loaded down with steak and fish. I've endured grilled Caesars, a new form of torture; eaten Caesars at country club restaurants and pizza joints and even, as research while preparing to write this essay, one of those make-it-yourself bagged Caesars from the grocery. (It tasted like a plastic bag.)

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The joy in a good Caesar is the combination of texture and taste and, for those of us who love all things salty, the pleasure of eating anchovies with cheese (a combination verboten in Italian cuisine). This staple salad is the invention of restaurateur Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant who reportedly tossed the dressing's ingredients together on a whim in 1924 after his Tijuana restaurant ran out of traditional salad fixings. A well-made Caesar involves whole leaves of romaine dressed with oil, garlic, lemon, anchovy paste (or Worcestershire sauce, made from anchovies) and either raw or coddled egg. (I've been known to whisk in a dollop of Dijon mustard when making my own Caesar dressing.) The best among them are topped with anchovies, homemade croutons, and one or more grated or shaved hard cheeses.

Preparation is everything: Garlic is first rubbed into the perimeter of a large wooden mixing bowl, into which the ingredients go, one at a time. Dried leaves of romaine lettuce are slowly tossed into the dressing, and the finished mélange -- and this part is imperative -- must be served on a chilled plate.

If I come to your restaurant and order a Caesar salad, I am there to judge you. Does your chef tear his romaine or serve it whole-leaf? Does he offer anchovies on top? How cold is his salad plate? While there are many ways to prepare this classic salad, there's really only one way to do it right: by the book, without adornment or additions.

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