Rabbit food, reconsidered

Growing up, I had this unfortunately memorable baby sitter, a sort of career Mary Poppins gone wrong whose house was painted — this is true — borscht pink.

She was a real storybook spinster, with a fetish for ceramic turtles and an actual beehive hairdo. But her most grievous shortcoming as a child-care worker was her ignorance about what children eat. Peanut butter? Grilled cheeses? Good gracious, no. Instead we were served such appallingly adult foods as shrimp-and-mayonnaise sandwiches, and, worse, bowls of salad tossed with radishes, blue cheese and other adults-only bits of ghastliness.

Now 33 and, ridiculously, still leery of “rabbit food,” I tend to pick my salads carefully when eating out, usually ordering the soup instead. When I do opt for a salad, it is preferably small, friendly and coated with comfort toppings. Shredded cheese meets this criterion; a rash of sprouts does not. Here are a few local restaurants whose cooks, in my admittedly limited estimation, do salad “right.”

Pastabilities: This West Asheville pizza-and-pasta joint boasts a comfortingly retro vibe — and it’s not even intentional! It’s more in the restaurant’s picnic-style tablecloths, red-checkered floor, reasonable prices, and commodious smoking section (even if you don’t smoke, it’s fun to sit there anyway, breathing in the antique, politically incorrect air). Most entrees here come with salad included — and what a bowl of verdant loveliness it is. Dark, leafy greens instead of that chatty iceberg stuff, lots of cheese and black olives to make you forget there’s lettuce under there at all, and the whole thing’s nice and small — no chance of running out of dressing and having to face an unruly mass of dry vegetation unarmed.

Spirits on the River: Salad surprises can be nasty — but Spirits, with its exotic menu choices, makes the what-am-I-eating factor fun. Dynamic but not pretentious, the Spirits salad nicely complements the Native American restaurant’s other unusual dishes. It is remarkably spare, nothing hidden from view, just a flourish of roots on the plate arranged like calligraphy. And by the time you’ve managed to identify those slender, crunchy thingies (my date tasted turnips), your pan-fried rattlesnake patties have arrived.

Max & Rosie’s: Boasting the reddest, friendliest, most still-life-worthy tomato slices around, Max & Rosie’s also has an ace in the bowl when it comes to their house tofu dressing, so thick and rich and just plain right it elevates the greenery it graces from side dish to straight-up delicacy.

Souper Sandwich: A well-stocked salad bar is the obvious cure for rabbit-food-o-phobes. (No control issues to confront here — it is, as they say, all you. Pickled miniature corncobs? By all means. Those wiggly, round-bottomed sprouts that look like grammar-school-film-strip sperm? Thank you, no.) And the Souper Sandwich salad bar provides a mind-boggling variety. For your base, there are mixed greens or plain spinach leaves. For your protein, choose from cheddar or parmesan cheese, kidney beans or chick peas, tofu chunks or hard-boiled-egg slices. This salad bar’s olive selection alone is worth a couple of psychotherapy sessions.

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