Mixed greens salad at L'Etoile: Ribbons of daikon and the snap of frisée.
The art of the salad is underappreciated. All too often, salads are just the quiet supplement to steak or fish or pasta. In Wisconsin, a lingering supper club mentality that views fish or steak as the "real food" means that the salad norm is a wedge of iceberg lettuce with a glob of dressing and a black olive. Salad is reduced to a condiment. But although we live in Wisconsin, we also live in Madison - historically, friend to the vegan, the vegetarian and the slow-food movement. The greens at the Farmers' Market on the Square come from a large network of independent and often organic farms, and the best restaurants harvest these and return them to us in excellent salads. Madison's top salads prove to be delightfully rich - and surprisingly sophisticated.
L'Etoile: Mixed greens salad
Chef Tory Miller of the famous L'Etoile carries on the ideals established by founder Odessa Piper. He leads by example as one of Madison's strongest advocates for using only fresh, locally grown organic ingredients. The mixed greens salad ($6) he's concocted is a testament to quality ingredients; the salad is simplicity itself. Ribbons of very thinly sliced daikon and beauty heart radish from Primrose Farm, just west of Madison, add a delicate snap to the frisée and spinach mustard greens. It's topped with Stravecchio cheese and garnished with organic hazelnuts from Eugene, Oregon's Trufflebert Farms. Microgreens from Mount Horeb's Garden To Be Farms and lemon vinaigrette complete the simple recipe. Each ingredient is allowed to shine, and the delicate interplay of flavors is a wonderful example of how less is more. Top-quality produce assembled artfully stands on its own with no stunt elements required.
Because L'Etoile is all about the perfect combination of tastes, consider pairing a wine with the mixed greens: perhaps the Gaston Chicquet champagne from Dizy, France ($14/glass), with its slow effervescence and twisty note of apple, or the 2005 Chateau Montelena ($60/bottle), whose bright acidity offsets the earthy greens perfectly.
Natt Spil: House salad
Sometimes great salads can be found in unexpected places. The mysterious Natt Spil, which has no sign on its faade marking its presence, is such a place. And likewise, there's no indication on the menu that a large house salad can be ordered.
But order one you can - and for a mere $5, it's one of Madison's best. Rough-cut carrots, hunks of tomato and soft goat cheese blend with spinach, romaine and frisée, all tied together with a sublime balsamic vinaigrette with a hint of shallots.
The freewheeling nature of Natt Spil very probably means that this salad will change from day to day, but it's that very freewheeling quality that makes this one of downtown's most fun-to-frequent restaurants. These chefs work with the produce that's freshest and seasonally available.
Samba Brazilian Grill: Salad bar
Considerable buzz accompanied the opening of this spot that emulates a swanky, upscale Brazilian steak joint. An uber-salad bar serves as the first course (the second involves skewers of meat, which we won't discuss here). The salad bar can also be ordered alone ($15), and it's superb.
Start with spinach and romaine in small portions. Add crisped bacon chunks, sliced cucumbers and an assortment of Brazilian nuts - and that's just the beginning. Garnishes include giardiniera, hearts of palm, black and green olives and fresh mozzarella with cherry tomatoes. Other salads are stand-alone concoctions, like chicken salad with artichoke, rotini with red peppers, and sesame-ginger squid with radicchio and grapes. Pesto is available for drizzling. Not every mix is a standout: The octopus salad with wasabi underwhelms, but a selection of salami, cheeses and tasso ham is superb, and sherry vinegar with goat cheese is wonderful decadence itself.
Lombardino's: Signature Caesar
Lombardino's was a longtime mainstay for classic, '50s-style Italian American food before undergoing an exciting resurgence in 2000 at the hands of chef Patrick O'Halloran and cohorts Marcia O'Halloran and Michael Banas. The seasonal menu usually has a few rotating antipasti, as well as mainstays like the Caesar.
In a twist on this classic, the Lombardino's Signature Caesar ($6) adds a half a boiled organic egg, crystallized with salt and pepper. A circle of kalamata olive tapenade around the edge of the plate provides an extra zing. The romaine and olive oil croutons are topped by a mound of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a pair of crossed hard anchovy filets and a light lemon vinaigrette that echoes Caesar dressing, but isn't.
Paisan's: The Porta
Perhaps Madison's most famous salad is the Porta ($5/$8.25, or $3 with a main course). The restaurant and the salad survived a recent relocation to West Wilson Street, just down from Monona Terrace.
Paisan's is proud of this old-school Italian salad. Along with its revered Garibaldi sandwich, it's the restaurant's claim to fame, and rightly so. While the salad is heavy on the mozzarella and cheddar cheese, the dairy mingles pleasantly with lots of salami and ham. Garbanzo beans and green peppers provide necessary roughage and texture, and the chunky homemade blue cheese dressing delivers a thick and hearty coalescence of crunch against the creamy dairy.
If you add the Italian vinaigrette, it yields rather a different experience - a wonderful bitter acidity dominates this path. Salad devotees know it's illuminating to see what happens when you experiment with two dressings and one salad (just ask the kitchen to split the salad), and Paisan's is just the place for that kind of fun.
Sardine: Warm duck confit salad
With its proximity to the Capitol Square, view of Lake Monona, vintage doorknobs, old wood floors and exposed brick, Sardine is a welcome addition to near-east dining options, and it features one of Madison's finest salads. The warm duck confit salad ($10) features a pillowy poached egg perched atop a vertical structure of haricots verts, frisée, crisped potato, sliced tomato, chewy lardons and tender duck. Take a moment to admire the architecture, but only one; this salad works best if you almost immediately puncture the yolk, then devour rapidly. Spearing egg, duck, and fresh vegetable on your fork provides a satisfyingly primal taste sensation, and the ideal synthesis of flavor is ephemeral - don't let that yolk cool.
Belly up to the bar
Our ancestors thrived on grains, meat and vegetables. All of these elemental forms can be found in the Caesar, with its delicate blend of dairy and romaine; the cobb, which is more protein than cellulose; or the chef, layered with slabs of egg. But grazing on a well-equipped salad bar allows you to break out of those classic salad profiles and do just what you like. Carrots, legumes, hot peppers, spinach and more can be arranged in perfect proportions according to freshness and taste. The salad bar appeals to the forager in all of us.
The Whole Foods outlets boast imposing salad bars that sometimes extend beyond what one would reasonably expect to see in a salad bar; whole meals are contained in single presentations. A judicious selection of the goods is a quick and easy supplement to your wild salmon entrée or just your healthy lunch. Whole Foods may not be exactly guilt-free, but at some level you can't argue with quality, as many in Shorewood Hills, which is very close to the near West location, have come to understand.
Also on the west side, try the Whitney Way Copps, which has a truly excellent workingman's salad bar that stands up surprisingly well to its more upscale competitors.
The Willy Street Co-op has an outstanding and eclectic selection of ingredients. The dressings and cheeses are especially interesting. You'll pay 10% more without a membership, but at only $10 per year, consider signing up.
If six is not enough...
As we're blessed to live in a place that so highly values fresh ingredients, it was difficult to stop at six salads.
Here are some other notables:
The Mediterranean sampler from the Caspian Café ($8.50), with very good hummus, baba ganoush, tabouli and yogurt, will bolster your soul. The marinated warm tofu and mango salad ($10) with sautéed spinach and oyster mushrooms at Restaurant Magnus is vegan. Local restaurateurs the Berge brothers run Magnus, along with Natt Spil of the incredible and not-on-the-menu house salad, and the Weary Traveler. They are students of fresh-vegetable interaction, so don't miss the roasted veggie salad with marinated artichoke, roasted bell peppers and roasted sweet potatoes ($6.75) at the Weary Traveler, either.
Marigold Kitchen has two wonderful salads. The field greens ($5.25/$7.95), with walnuts, thinly shaved red onions and dried cherries, is topped by chewy garlic-buttered croutons with blue cheese dressing. The grilled chicken and mixed greens ($8.95), with gorgonzola cheese, corn, frisée, sugar peas and heirloom tomatoes with caramelized shallot vinaigrette, is the definition of a meal in itself - there's no need for that greasy burger, this salad is heavy. More than heavy - it's massive.
Monroe Street has been heating up with the addition of Brasserie V, where the booming business is fueled by its list of salads along with their Belgian beers. My favorite is a perfectly salty chef salad ($8 at lunch; $5/$9 at dinner) with very little egg and a whole lot of smoked ham and turkey. Colby, romaine, and sliced tomatoes are mixed with croutons, red onion circlets and cucumbers. A sprinkling of egg completes the traditional recipe, and it works.