Last week in this column, I wrote about that new (or at least recently ascendant) condimental phenomenon known as ranch dressing--which, I noted at the time, is found in probably every salad bar in America today. Today, I'd like to say a few words about salad bars themselves.
Not long ago, for reasons far too complicated and personally embarrassing to recount, I found myself eating a number of meals within a short period of time in restaurants that offered such do-it-yourself arrangements of lettuce 'n' stuff. Furthermore, for reasons I am even less inclined to reveal, I actually sampled most of these arrangements. Some included fresh, bright, quite tasty elements, while others were rather sad and droopy. Some, certainly, permitted me to assemble combinations of vegetables and other items that I found very good indeed. This doesn't alter the fact that, when all is said and done, I really don't like salad bars.
Fairly or not, I think of salad bars as a kind of Long Green Line separating serious restaurants from restaurants that wouldn't mind a bit if you called them "fun." (Good restaurants occasionally have salad bars; serious restaurants never do.) The big problem with salad bars is that they imply and even encourage excess and gastronomic silliness. A salad-bar salad, to begin with, is usually the most highly caloric appetizer a restaurant offers. (Think about all those beans, those croutons, that cheese, that dressing; just because they call it a salad doesn't make it lean and mean.)
Beyond that, though, the salad bar's very profusion of ingredients makes people do weird things. The savvy folks who laugh their heads off at stupid food combinations on restaurant menus are quite capable, when confronted by a salad bar, of heaping raisins, cottage cheese, pickled peppers, crumbled bacon, raw cauliflower and sunflower seeds over piles of shredded iceberg lettuce and then drenching the whole thing with blue cheese whipped up with mayonnaise.
I would go so far as to suggest, in fact, that the average salad-bar-goer, in constructing his or her preposterous salad, succumbs to precisely the same impulses that animate (and misdirect) so much contemporary French and American cooking: availability of ingredients somehow demands their use; things that taste good separately must taste better together; never mind the logic, or the flavor--celebrate plurality of choice! A salad-bar-goer, of course, can easily choose to be sensible, employing simply some greens and a few bits of vegetable and a low-key dressing--just as a chef can merely grill a piece of perfect fish and garnish it with a classical hollandaise sauce.
But who can resist the other possibilities? Who can say no to the bay shrimp, the garlic croutons, the blue corn meal, the white truffle oil? And thus, whether we pile it on a plate ourselves or accept it from the hands of some highly rated cuisinier , we all too often end up with a plateful of nonsense. That we have only ourselves to blame doesn't make this fact any more palatable.
Oh yeah. There's one more thing I don't like about salad bars: I don't go to restaurants to wait on myself.
SPRING FOOD FEVER: April 19 is Easter Sunday, and a number of restaurants plan special meals for the occasion. Among them: The restaurants in the New Otani Hotel, downtown, both of which offer a buffet featuring Japanese, American and European dishes, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., at $17.95 per adult and $9.95 per child under 12. . . . The Terrace Restaurant at the Hotel Bel Air Sands, with special items added to the usual buffet brunch, three seatings (10:45 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m.). . . . The Towers Restaurant at the Surf & Sand Hotel in Laguna, presenting a special prix-fixe Easter menu (adults $22, children under 12 $12.50) from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Prego in Beverly Hills will be offering an Italianate Passover dinner on April 13 and 14, at $17.50 a head. . . . And the Castilian Room at the Valley Hilton in Sherman Oaks serves a traditional Passover dinner on April 14 at 7:30 p.m. Prices are $16.95 for adults, $12.95 for senior citizens and $7.95 for children under 10.
SIDE ORDERS: The Gold Mountain Manor, a bed-and-breakfast place in Big Bear City, admits to "kidnaping" a number of Los Angeles chefs for cooking-class-cum-dinner weekends this month and next. Leonard Schwartz of 72 Market St. is the victim next weekend; Hans and Mary Rockenwagner get dragged north on April 19 and 20; Kevin O'Donnell and Janine Coyle of Sabroso are the marks on May 3 and 4; and Patrick Jamon of Les Anges escapes long enough to cook a roast-pig feast on May 17 and 18. Call the Manor at (714) 585-6997 for prices, reservations, etc. . . .
Not that I need the competition, but UCLA Extension offers a one-day program with an optional six-week follow-up workshop in "Food Writing for Newspapers and Magazines" on April 11 (and then, if you so choose, on Wednesdays from April 15 through May 20). Food columnist and author Janice Wald Henderson is in charge, and famous food-writing and editing guests will put in appearances. For information, call (213) 825-0641. . . .
The legendary Joe Heitz will match his wines to a "gala beef Wellington dinner" at the Pacific Dining Car Wednesday night at 7:30. . . . Roy Yamaguchi at 385 North will offer a "Melding of Cuisines" dinner (with the meldees being Japanese and Southwestern) Monday night, following one of the American Wine and Food Institute's monthly wine tastings. The dinner is open to non-Institute members.