My general rule used to be (and often still is) that I would never order a salad when I am eating out – certainly not without seriously thinking it through anyway. Far too often salads are afterthoughts – limp, overdressed lettuce leaves and a bland tomato. I am not a rabbit so I don’t think I should eat like one.
In mainland Europe, however, salads are often more meat and other glorious things than they are leaf; a duck salad, for example, could contain pate, confit duck, smoked breast and then a token something green. As we’ve embraced good food more enthusiastically over here, salads have benefited no end. Gone are the iceberg and grated carrot, in come freekeh (an Arab grain), grilled aubergine and truffle custards instead of vinaigrettes.
During my time in Oxford there was a little shop in the covered market – it is still there I believe – called Alpha Bar. Tucked behind the butchers and delis, it served interesting salads with rice, lentils and all sorts of yummy things topped with seeds. There was no lettuce to be seen and it quickly became a favourite with students looking for a little more than a meal deal salad of sadness. Before I discovered Ottolenghi, this place warmed me up to the idea that salads could be tasty.
In London you won’t struggle to find a good, exciting salad option. No longer a mere side dish or option for those afraid of calories restaurants, cafes and street vendors have upped their game while the influx of Middle Eastern flavours has perked things up no end, bringing glorious colourful bowls to many a window and countertop. So, here are five of my favourite salad options in London.
Something unexpected: Simon Rogan’s Grilled Salad at Fera is a masterclass in how to make lettuce utterly naughty. Your lettuce is grilled over embers to produce a variety of textures from gently wilted to crisp and it is served with a unctuous truffle custard and little dots of Isle of Mull cheese. It is probably the most surprisingly wonderful salad you will ever eat. www.claridges.co.uk/fera
Something French: Racine to my mind is one of the best old school French restaurants in London. You can often find a great French style salad here (ie one heavy on the meat and light on the cucumber). A recent menu boasted a warm salad of confit chicken, smoked black pudding, flageolets and a poached egg. You can guarantee this will be a salad you want to eat with lots of bread and a big glass of wine. www.racine-restaurant.com
Something Middle Eastern: Ottolenghi is probably the obvious choice but it still remains a good one whether you are eating out or cooking it at home from one of his books. Their salads (pictured above) are inventive, interesting and packed with flavour. If you go the Islington branch you can choose a salad box with three or four different salads including roasted aubergine with tahini yoghurt, tamarind pickled radish, sesame seeds and coriander. www.ottolenghi.co.uk
Something revamped: CUT at 45 Park Lane’s new Steak and Salad lunch menu is a more decadent approach to getting your greens but on the flipside it allows you to feel less bad about having a huge steak for lunch. You have a selection of six different salads to choose from including heirloom tomato with Neal’s Yard goat cheese, shaved onions, white anchovies, basil aioli and 50-year aged balsamic. It is a great business lunch option. www.dorchestercollection.com
Something modern: The Modern Pantry’s menu is always full of new, exciting combinations of texture and flavour. They do a great line in salads too, including smoked mozzarella, spelt, blood orange and tardivo (like endive) salad with caraway-roasted almonds and a liquorice dressing, and a smoked duck breast, lambs lettuce, pickled chanterelles and honeyed pecan salad with sumac and argan oil dressing. Delicious. www.themodernpantry.co.uk