Restaurant salads get no respect. Not that they deserve it. Most of them seem like morning-prep clockwork, exercises in shopping and assemblage rather than the measure of a top-flight kitchen. There's too much of an 'I could do this at home' factor.
But really? Could you really?
Sure. Raid the store, the market, the neighbor's garden. Buy Romaine, leaf, Bibb. Get radishes, tomatoes, herbs, apples, carrots, olives, avocados, pecans, peppers, lemon. Sort through the cheese. (How do these flavors go together again?) Buy chicken, salmon, duck. Grill it. Roast peppers and beets. Prep the veggies. Rustle up bread, muffins, chips. Make dressing from scratch. Remember where you put the pepper grinder.
There. Three hours and $47 later, a first-class restaurant salad.
The salads in this story bring together surprising flavors, colors and textures. They incorporate the bounty of summer. And they show that even in the hottest kitchen, a salad can earn a little respect just by playing it cool.
Annies Cafe & Bar: Farmers' Market Salad
319 Congress Ave. 472-1844, www.anniescafebar.com .
Annies is our most urban of downtown lunchrooms, its vaulted brick space resounding on weekdays with the chatter of a full house and a line to the door. Lunch is when you order this $7.95 salad, anchored by the roasted, earthen sweetness of roasted red and yellow beets. From that base, the peppered tones of arugula and radish smack a little personality into creamy bites of goat cheese. The horseradish vinaigrette is good, made even better by the $2 option of topping this salad with a seared fillet of salmon rather than chicken. At night, you'll have to settle for the fried calamari or seared duck salads, although you can't really call that settling.
Chuy's: Mexi-Cobb Salad
Multiple locations, including 1728 Barton Springs Road. 474-4452, www.chuys.com .
Low-carb dementia pushed me to this salad in 2002. Dragged me away from my No. 4 with a shrimp relleno and a cheese enchilada, my blue corn tortillas, the dizzy head-rush of starch converting to sugar. But the Mexi-Cobb ($7.99) is a good place to land, still a fine vehicle for Chuy's tomato-and-carrot table sauce or creamy jalapeño dressing. It's a Christmas pageant of red tomatoes and green avocados and roasted chiles, filled out with stripes of shredded cheese and a ribbon of smoky grilled chicken fajitas. Taken solo or as a gang, this Cobbled crew never stopped me from craving chips and swirled margaritas, but it beat having another hamburger without the bun.
Eastside Cafe: Thai Chicken Salad
2113 Manor Road. 476-5858, www.eastsidecafeaustin.com .
This old house with the small, bright rooms and sonorous wood floors is the permanent residence of the gentile Austin hippie vibe. You're likely to hear Indigo Girls and John Hiatt, even Warren Zevon's mournful acoustic version of 'Lawyers, Guns and Money.' You'll be treated politely and then get gracefully full from this easy mix of thin grilled chicken with crunchy cabbage and leaf lettuce with cherry tomatoes and carrots, discreetly accented by toasted peanuts and laid-back Asian dressing. With sweet, bite-size jalapeño corn muffins. $10.95.
The Grove Wine Bar and Kitchen: Heirloom Tomato Salad
6317 Bee Cave Road. 327-8822, www.grovewinebar.com .
Reed Clemons is a restaurant survivor. The Granite Cafe, Mezzaluna, the Bitter End, Reed's. All his. As the last doors closed and the noise died down, he quietly opened the Grove just west of West Lake Hills in 2008. There's hardly a night when the parking lot isn't overflowing. They come for an encyclopedic wine list and the food that goes with it: pasta, pizzas, a few grill plates, nine kinds of bruschetta. And salads. Particularly the $11 Caprese-style collection of greens and basil and mozzarella - and heirloom tomatoes. A light green one with cascades of dusky jade, a ridged beauty of blushing salmon rouge, tiny sweet teardrops of bright red. They rest on a mix of arugula, strips of fresh basil, even the red-veined leaves of beet tops, drizzled with sweet balsamic and basil oil. I asked for a wine pairing and out came a cool glass of Feudi di San Gregorio falanghina, a balanced white from southern Italy with enough fruit to soften the herbs and the right acidity for the milky mozzarella. At $10 a glass, it falls midway on the price scale of the Grove's 50-some wines by the glass, ranging from $5 and $6 glasses of sparkling Louis Pedrier rosé and Robert Oatley sauvignon blanc to $15 for a muscular cab from Chappellet. Flights of three glasses matched by country or style make exploration convenient. Now if they could just help me find a closer place to park.
Jeffrey's: Thumbalina Salad
1204 West Lynn St. 477-5584, www.jeffreysofaustin.com .
The beauty of this long rectangular plate is that it looks like a bushel-basket landslide. So much red Romaine, such big cross-sections of avocado and curled slices of thumbalina, that runty round carrot that looks like a Creamsicle beet. It's a salad for the Southern well-to-do, big and brash and undeniable, not afraid to show off with a little feta, some marcona almonds, a splash of lemon-and-dill vinaigrette. And like the South, it has secrets. Its secret? This $12 belle can be yours for half-price. You just have to know the time and place to ask. (That would be in the bar, from 5 to 7 p.m. Sundays-Fridays and 9 to 11 p.m. Saturdays.)
Leaf: Italian Chopped Salad
419 W. Second St. 474-5323, www.leafsalad.com .
Unfortunately, we can't all pack up our bags on a whim and jet off to Italy (OK, Little Italy) for summer vacation. But we can stop in at Leaf in the Second Street District for an Italian Chopped Salad ($9.99). This minimalist salad place takes almost every bit of gastronomical pleasure that we associate with Italy and throws it in a bowl. It's basically a deconstructed Italian hoagie without the carb guilt (although a piece of herbed focaccia on the side is tempting). Served in a rustic bowl, the fresh spring mix is topped with pig at its finest - salty salami and prosciutto. Hardboiled eggs and provolone cheese add to the soft chewiness, though the snap of pine nuts, crunch of red onion and dense, layered artichoke hearts keep the salad's texture from becoming one oversaturated Pavarotti note. Cherry tomatoes and pepperoncini provide tart and piquant tang, and the chopped basil provides a cool sensation. The Italian Chopped is one of a dozen salads devised by the folks at Leaf. But those who don't like being told how to dress or top their salads should fear not. Leaf offers customers a chance to customize their salads, and with more than 50 toppings, dressings, cheeses, nuts and proteins, the combinations are almost endless.
Rio's Brazilian Cafe: Apple Buzios
408 N. Pleasant Valley Road. 828-6617, www.riosofaustin.com .
Almost any sit-down place with burgers will have a green salad with apples, cheese and candied nuts. At Rio's, they don't bother with a burger and they don't bother making that salad, at least not the way you'd expect. Sharing a name with a Brazilian resort town, the Buzios ($8) shows off by placing at its center a peeled green apple, roasted in and saturated by red wine. It's small but surprisingly heavy, hollowed just enough for a dose of tangy goat cheese and a candied walnut. The apple's flavor cascades through spinach and Romaine, propelled by a sweet white balsamic dressing that weaves through raisins and more walnuts and cheese. It's an outdoor salad, a summer picnic on a plate, a roasted suckling pig with an apple stuck in its mouth, minus the pig. And Rio's is the right place for it, a low green-and-yellow cinder-block casinha with Brazilian salgadinho pastries, friendly service and dense, gooey cheese breads made with yuca flour.
Somnio's Cafe: The 'Urban Cowboy' salads
1807 S. First St. 442-2500, www.somnioscafe.com .
I can hear the terrible Texas accents now, rising from that mechanical bull of a movie that I watch every time it plays on CMT. Bud, Sissy, Uncle Bob and Aunt Nadine all get their own salads at Somnio's. Beets and garbanzo beans, apples and avocado, carrots and ginger, watermelon radishes and goat cheese. Each one has a personality, with a genuine farmers' market accent. $4 small, $7 large.
South Congress Cafe: Watermelon Salad
4700 S. Congress Ave. 851-9300, www.southcongresscafe.com .
You're walking down Congress Avenue on a murderously hot summer afternoon. The Capitol blurs in the heat waves on the horizon. You begin to wonder when the desert added cute vintage shops and food trailers as you long for respite from the radiating concrete sidewalks. Ducking into the South Congress Cafe, you're immediately greeted by a blast of cold air as welcome as the restaurant's soothing white tabletops. The only dish appropriate for the oppressive occasion - the Watermelon Salad ($10) - catches your eye, and you realize that picnics weren't just meant to be appreciated al fresco. The bright red cubes of sweet melon atop mixed greens provide an immediate burst of flavor, their juices adding to the bright, refreshing lemon-mint vinaigrette dressing. The light bite of red onions keeps the fruit from overpowering your palate like a sugary soda. Both the sweet and spice, along with the watermelon's coarse texture, are mellowed wonderfully by a soft, chunky feta cheese crumbled liberally. I like to add grilled shrimp ($7 extra), because its sweet, charred crunch enhances both the texture and flavor of the salad, making it the perfect culinary salvation from the Texas heat.
Zen Japanese Food Fast: Chicken Chop Salad
Four locations, including 1303 S. Congress Ave. 444-8081, www.eatzen.com .
Monday used to be Hell Night at work, the 14-hour day stretching into 2 a.m. To clear my head, I'd walk the half-mile to Zen for a Chicken Chop. For $5.25, it combines the filler and roughage of cabbage, the protein fortification of grilled chicken and little bursts of texture from crispy noodles and tiny mandarin orange slices united by creamy-hot almond dressing. For $5.25. With my chopsticks and my New York Times, I felt like a South Austin cosmopolite . Excellent with hot green tea from a tea bag fat enough to steep two big cups.