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RESTAURANT REVIEW / FRESH CHOICE : The Perfect Salad : Thirteen dressing choices, an array of vegetables, garnishes, soups and muffins. But the pasta is not so good.

April 01, 1993|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Back in the '70s I was convinced that what this country really needed was healthy fast-food outlets. By then I was bored with sauce-slathered hamburgers and french fries in which the salt tasted better than the potatoes. I craved places where I could get a meal with a decent fresh salad and good vegetables and get it quick.

It took years--during which time other restaurants paved the way with soup and salad-bar restaurants. The first time I visited one of these chains--a Fresh Choice restaurant in Northern California, two years ago--I had the eerie feeling of seeing my own fantasy come true.

The concept is simple and smart. Give each person a tray and a plate and send them down the line to choose from a brilliant array of appetizing salad ingredients as fresh as the logo. Dazzle them with dozens of vegetables and garnishes. Let them choose among 13 salad dressings. Then, just in case they get chooser's remorse (or to keep them from getting back in the salad line), offer them a multitude of homemade muffins, soups and pastas and turn them loose on puddings and Jell-Os and frozen yogurt. The effect is a little like letting kids loose in a candy store with the assurance it's all going to be very good for them.

So can we be trusted to do the right thing at Fresh Choice and end up with a healthy, wholesome meal with the proper number of calories? Of course not. Anyone who has ever been faced with an all-you-can-eat proposition is familiar with the condition known as Buffet Brain. Shoving aside best intentions and strong wills, it takes over completely, compelling you to put five times as much food on your plate as you could--or should--possibly eat.

Whenever I've gone to Fresh Choice I find myself praying fervently: "Please God, let them do compost." Composting the overflow would be a possible redemption from the conundrum of "waste not, want not."

I do like the restaurant and its ambience of immaculate abundance. The ingredients are truly fresh, and an army of dedicated workers constantly replenishes and tidies up the drips and spills of overeager self-servers who sometimes resemble people taking a Rorschach test on greed.

The Oxnard location has lots of windows, gleaming blond wood and cheerful green trim. It's light and airy, with plenty of elbow room between tables. In Santa Barbara, on the other hand, the location is more compressed. There you can practically reach over with a fork and taste your neighbor's salad. One of the great enjoyments of eating at Fresh Choice is the chance to marvel at the odd appetites of strangers. I saw one woman eating nothing but pickles, while another faced a plate of raw vegetables covered with plain spaghetti.

The prepared salads vary seasonally. A few, like the chicken Caesar and the tabbouleh, seemed downright bland to me. Others were winners. Chinese chicken salad was as good as any salad you could make yourself. It had sweet cabbage, peanuts, pungent green onions and a lovely soy dressing. Thai beef noodle salad was also good, and a bright yellow, grainy salad called couscous Calcutta went well with the greens. Piling half a dozen salads on a single plate may be the American version of Indian cuisine, where you get a different flavor and texture with every bite.

The muffins at Fresh Choice have always been simply delicious. Soups such as clam chowder and fettuccine chicken were not bad, and spicy meatball was wonderful. But the pasta was a disappointment. Reheating it to order gave it the texture of canned spaghetti, and the sauces were dull. Containers of dried herbs, grated cheeses and fresh chopped garlic offered ways to improve them.

The perfect salad, I decided--after eating everything I could lay my hand on--consisted of their fine, fresh romaine lettuce topped with hominy (even better than garbanzo beans), finely sliced jicama, green peas (practically raw and quite wonderful), sweet red onions and a few sprigs of broccoli for virtue. I combined the Cabernet dressing, with its excellent vinegar, with the creamy Caesar, which had a tangy hint of Parmesan. Perfection. Of course, I can never resist testing as many other salads as I can get to hang onto my plate.

At Fresh Choice, everyone can be a restaurant critic. Just sit down at the table with a dozen dishes before you, and try taking only one bite of each. Personally, when I write my autobiography, I am going to title it "One More Bite."

* WHERE AND WHEN

Fresh Choice, 1720 Ventura Blvd., Oxnard, 988-8975. Lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m to 10 p.m. Friday through Saturday. Visa and MasterCard. Lunch, $5.95; dinner, $6.95. Children 6 to 12 years half-price, children 5 and under free. (Prices slightly higher in Santa Barbara.)

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