One of my pet peeves is overpriced, prepackaged lunch salads such as this Cesar salad at Dean & Deluca: $8.50 for lettuce, dressing and croutons in a box!
I had two beautiful salads this weekend whose ingredients, overall composition and the setting absolutely justified their price points, $12 and $18, for the Ensalada de Zocalo at Zocalo in Grand Central’s dining concourse and the Seared Tuna Niçoise at Pastis, respectively. Here’s what worked:
Ensalada de Zocalo: A Mexican riff on the Caesar salad without trying to be a Caesar salad. I’m not sure of the exact composition of the creamy avocado dressing that this deceptively simple salad is tossed in, but the flavor is fantastic, particularly paired with the squeaky freshness of the queso fresco, or the nuttiness of the slivered almonds and sesame seeds that are generously sprinkled on top. The portion is generous, which is important when the only main components, beyond the chopped romaine, are four large tomato wedges and half an avocado. If the table hadn’t ordered a side of guacamole, I would have gotten busy mashing the half avocado to use as a topping for tortilla chips. All set with the convenience of Grand Central Station, this salad earns its price tag.
Seared Tuna Niçoise: There’s a reason why Keith McNally has established a mini restaurant empire in New York City, and his Pastis/Balthazar concept have inspired dozens of copycats. Every last detail of the French Brasserie concept has been fine-tuned, down to the partied-last-night, slept in as late as possible before hustling to work, vaguely disheveled, possibly tattooed, definitely bohemian, ultimately cool waitstaff.
And Pastis is just a great space. When the weather’s nice, the tall windows are pulled back accordion-like and fresh air breezes through the entire restaurant; St. Germain-style jazz sets the tone. If you’re somehow not sufficiently distracted by your dining company or the fantastic people watching that is the Meatpacking District, you should find something on the racks of international newspapers adjacent to the front door.
Now, about that salad. The three thick pieces of lightly-seared ahi tuna alone would cost probably $6 if you were to pick up the tuna at a Japanese market and take it home and sear it yourself. Between the ambiance and the generosity of the protein, the rest of the salad could be mediocre and the still probably worth it, but the rest of the salad is, in fact, excellent.
A perfect Niçoise: a hard-boiled egg, split in half; a half-dozen cubes of boiled potato; crisp, al dente cooked green beans; Niçoise olives, pitted; a handful of cherry tomatoes; small silvers of roasted red and yellow bell peppers; three large anchovy fillets. A riot of color and flavor, that just happens to be good for you, too.