Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Salad Named For an Emperor

So many foods taste so much better when prepared properly. This is especially noticeable with Caesar salad. It's easy to just toss together a half-assed Caesar salad like so many restaurants do. With romaine, croutons, a little hard cheese, and an egg-based dressing, a basic Caesar is fairly minimalist. But a good Caesar - that is minimalist art. Today's lunch included such a salad.

I did not pack a lunch for today, and ended up at the incomparable TenTen Bistro, my new favorite lunch hour haunt. I deviated from my usual Powerhouse Wrap and got a soup and salad combo. While this isn't actually a combo on their menu, it should be. Even so, when purchased a la carte, they cost the same as my usual sandwich.

This week's soup is a Spring Minestrone that I paired with their Caesar salad. And what I got was Caesar perfection. The server who packed up my to go order said that the greens were picked fresh on their affiliated farm just this morning, and that I could not get a fresher salad in Baltimore today. I thought it was just talk. It wasn't. I've heard of lettuce so fresh and tender it is almost sweet but have never experienced it before today. The mix of red and green romaine with a little arugula had that nice vegetably sweetness similar to really fresh carrots and no hint of bitterness that so quickly creeps into greens after they are picked.

The hard cheese was a mild Parmesean shaved into long, thick, crumbly ribbons. The croutons were small nuggets of buttery baguette and not so large that they overpower the salad and become the focus. These were small enough to mix with the rest of the salad and hide under the lettuce until the surprise of discovering them in your mouth.

And, atop the salad was the crown of any true Caesar - anchovies. People get weird about anchovies, mostly because so often they are an oily, salty affair that dominates whatever dish they have been added to. The anchovies on this salad were oily, but creamy and very lightly salted so that they actually tasted like fish. I haven't had anchovies like this since I visited Milan. My only issue is that there weren't more of them.

The dressing was presented on the side, but I used it all anyway. Eggy, cheesey, creamy, and gently peppered, it was the perfect complement to the rest of the salad.

Salad Perfection

Which brings me now to the Vegetable Minestrone. I did not photograph the soup as it did not look like much. Turns out, it did not taste like much, either. I'm reluctant to criticize anything that emerges from the TenTen kitchen as they really are the best thing going on in Harbor East. From the crab cake to the Cobb salad, everything I've ordered has been so far above and beyond anything else in the area, I want to say only good things about them. They are genuinely making an effort to produce good, well-crafted meals.

Which is why the minestrone was such a disappointment. It had all the component parts - white beans, a little orzo pasta, and a variety of vegetables. What it didn't have was a distinct theme. The vegetables were a mix of fresh bell peppers, grated carrots and sad, slippery mushrooms with stewed tomatoes that felt and tasted canned. The flavor of the broth was a little off as well, tasting not of hearty Italian herbs, but with the dreaded soapy taste of ill-used cilantro. A single blemish on an otherwise exemplar kitchen.

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