Salad days: Asheville chefs season our plates with budding greens

Davie Roberts, bar manager at Rosetta's Kitchen, presents the salad plate, left, and the Buddha Bowl, right. Photo by Pat Barcas

The shy return of baby greens — kale, dandelion greens, watercress — elates our salad plates. And local chefs perk up as well.

In spring, Rosetta Star Buan, owner of Rosetta’s on Lexington Avenue, plumps her restaurant’s garden salad  with local greens like chickweed instead of packaged organic spring mix. “Wild chickweed goes crazy in the spring before other greens get big leaves,” says Buan. “It’s like a pre-crop, light, succulent and mild like lettuce.”

Rosetta’s is also tossing up a massaged kale salad — one of her special deli seasonal salads. “We massage kale with the dressing so that the vinegar and salts can get in the leaves, then marinate it for a few hours,” says Buan. “That makes the kale much more tender.”

Buan also does a springlike vegan salad year-round, the sea veggie salad made with wakame (an East Asian brown seaweed), daikon (a mild radish, also East Asian) and carrots with a toasted sesame miso dressing.

“What makes a good salad,” says Buan, “is a balance of bitter, sweet, salt and savory. A common mistake people make is to stick to the same vegetables. Break away from lettuce, tomatoes and onions.  Anything can go in a salad.”

Every week or so, Modesto on Page Avenue shifts its salad menu too. One tasty number is romaine lightly grilled on a wood-fired stove dressed with warm garlic oil (including crunchy bits of toasted garlic) and preserved lemon. Another is a salad made with local arugula tossed with lemon truffle oil and pecorino cheese.

Another place to ease arugula longing is  Zambra’s on Walnut Street. Chef Adam Bannasch makes an arugula salad as high as Marge Simpson’s hairdo but much prettier, sprinkled with candied pecans and wafers of manchego  (a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese) tweaked with a cherry mojo, a Spanish-style dressing with olive oil, dried cherries and fresh citrus juice.

Aaron Thomas, chef and owner of Nine Mile on Montford Avenue in Asheville and on Haywood in West Asheville, offers four to five salads at lunch and dinner, made with local ingredients when possible. A recent special by chef Frank Hayden included a host of spring items such as mixed greens, jicama (a Mexican white turniplike juicy root), bean sprouts, toasted almonds and orange Sriracha (a spicy red chili pepper and garlic sauce) dressing.

Thomas also relishes the Easy Skanking, named after a Bob Marley song: grilled tuna and pineapple, mixed greens and ginger feta are just the highlights in a salad “skanking” with mint and mango vinaigrette.

Another favorite: The Groundation, named after a 1990s California reggae band, is plump with mixed greens, feta cheese, Kalamata olives and chickpeas swinging with a sesame garlic tahini dressing.

For Thomas, a good salad has “superfresh” ingredients dressed more expressively than the diehards ranch, Thousand Island and French dressing can muster.  “People tend to add too many ingredients to salads, and then they become bowls of nothing distinctive,” he says.

Not that’s he’s hesitant when he’s hungry. He likes to make himself a hearty salad of mixed greens, bacon tempeh (made from slightly fermented soybeans), toasted almonds, red onion, chickpeas, and carrots tossed with sesame tahini dressing. Thomas uses a local tempeh, Smiling Hara, to make the bacon, marinating it in  liquid smoke, maple syrup and soy sauce. Sadly, he says that’s not going to be a menu item anytime soon.

If you’re after retro, try the black ‘n’ blue wedge salad  at Luella’s Bar-B-Que on Merrimon Avenue: an iceberg lettuce wedge dressed up with half a deviled egg, an ample strip of barbecued brisket,  green onions, blue cheese and a choice of housemade dressings from black pepper blue cheese to creamy basil.  “Since I was a kid, I’ve loved the marriage of cold, crisp iceberg lettuce with creamy blue cheese dressing,” says Jeff Miller, Luella’s proprietor and pit boss. “It was the kale Caesar salad of its day. Ours bends the wedge tradition just enough to make it Luella’s.”

Miller defines good salad as “a variety of contrasting textures and flavors: soft and crisp, salty and sweet, creamy and tangy, even cold and hot.”  The path to salad disaster?  “A room temperature salad or a puddle of dressing in the salad bowl,” adds Miller.

For those who like some freedom of choice, Loretta’s on Lexington Avenue offers garden, Caesar and chef’s salads that can be prettied with any of 12 protein sides from avocado to cashew-olive spread, plus a choice of seven dressings. The salads (and all the dishes) arrive in vintage colored oval plastic baskets, former staple at drive-ins and diners.

If spring greens mixed with whatever else is poking its head up in the garden feature among your cravings, Asheville chefs aren’t about to let your yens go unsatisfied. Crunch on.

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