Salad days for chopped salads

Paul Newman thought it should be eaten with a spoon. Baltimore restaurant owner Sascha Wolhandler calls it "a fabulous amalgam of flavor in every bite."

It's the chopped salad, and it's having a field day in Baltimore. A chopped salad featured on the summer restaurant week menu at Heavy Seas Alehouse proved so popular that it's been put on the permanent dinner menu.

Sergio Vitale, co-owner of Chazz: A Bronx Original, is considering making the lunch menu's steakhouse salad a dinner item, too. "It's definitely the No. 1 most popular lunch item and people ask for at dinner, too," Vitale said about the salad, which he says is an homage to a version served at Ruth's Chris Steak House.

Wolhandler, who serves customer-created chopped salads at her Mount Vernon restaurant, explained the appeal. "You've got your curried chicken salad, you've got your asparagus. You still want a little bit of the black bean and corn salad. You want to taste blue cheese," she said. "And you want all those tastes together."

The chopped salad has always had its fans. Newman's one request for the menu of Dressing Room, the Westport, Conn. restaurant he opened in 2006 with the chef Michael Nischan, was that it include a chopped salad. The "Use a Spoon" Chopped Salad, named by Newman himself, remains a favorite at the restaurant, where it's created out of seasonal ingredients — in late summer, it's plums, baby carrots, yellow wax beans, Beltane goat cheese and toasted almonds.

Baltimore is one of the few cities where the chopped salad inspires memories of fine dining. For decades, a salad of iceberg lettuce, egg, tomato and anchovy, chopped tableside by a stiff-backed waiter, was one of the signature items at the old Maison Marconi on Saratoga Street.

But the chopped salad has seldom been a chef's calling card. Its culinary pedigree is spotty, related on one side to idle society luncheons and on the other to the so-called garbage salad, a pile of iceberg lettuce, salami, shrimp and mozzarella — food writer Alex Witchel once called it "a cocktail party in a bowl."

The chopped salad is not something a chef would stake his culinary reputation on.

"I have not been a longtime fan," said Matt Seeber, executive chef at Heavy Seas Alehouse. "In the past, it's something I looked down on. I've always seen it as a salad with a bunch of stuff."

But Seeber saw the light when he was consulting for a restaurant in New York City. "I was asked to come up with a 'go-to salad for lunching ladies.' " Seeber was reluctant, but he ended up loving the salad he created — and how well it sold.

Made with feta cheese, piquillo pepper, red onion, black olive and cucumber, the chopped salad was so popular that Seeber put his Upper West Side salad on the menu at Heavy Seas Alehouse — the lunch menu. That's where Seeber thought it belonged. "It's really a lunch item," Seeber said. "It's something you can get to the table quick."

But if the chopped salad makes a smash on the dinner menu, that's something Seeber said he can live with. "I'm in the business of staying in business," Seeber said.

The chopped salad is a signature item at chains like California Pizza Kitchen, which uses salami, turkey breast and mozzarella, and at casual joints like Bagby Pizza, which makes a meat-free version with asparagus, squash, carrots and tomato.

Ruth's Chris version, the Ruth's Jumbo Chop Salad — a shimmering cylinder of iceberg lettuce, green olives, bacon, eggs, blue cheese and hearts of palm, topped with crispy fried onions — has been on the restaurant's menu for more than 20 years, according to Heather Renz, a representative for the restaurant. "It's one of highest-selling and most favorite items."

It's at Wolhandler's restaurant, Sascha's 527 in Mount Vernon. Although Wolhandler said she had heard about the famous Marconi's salad, she never knew it personally.

Wolhandler's chopped-salad epiphany came on a trip to New York City, where she rediscovered them at a Union Square restaurant. "I left just insane to bring it back to Baltimore," said Wolhandler, who said the lineup of available ingredients customers choose from took her back to her days at the creperie she operated in the Park Plaza building.

She introduced chopped salads to Sascha's lunch operation not long after that visit. At Sascha's lunch counter, one customer might art-direct a salad with curried chicken salad, bacon, egg and blue cheese. The next person might go light with grilled chicken, mushrooms, cucumbers and sun-dried tomatoes. "It's a very democratic process," Wolhandler said.

A trained professional takes the ingredients and works them over with a mezzaluna, a two-handled knife that gets rocked back and forth over the ingredients. The result is a finely chopped, but not minced, salad.

Although working with a mezzaluna takes some practice, it's worth the trouble. "The technique delivers a better final product than a salad that is not chopped," said Tony Shure, the co-founder of Chop't Creative Salad Co., the Union Square restaurant where Wolhandler had her come-to-chopped-salads moment. "All the favors of the different vegetables, ingredients and dressing really get intermingled."

The brainchild of Shure and Colin McCabe, Chop't introduced the concept of individually created chopped salads to the fast-casual market; there are 17 shops now in the New York City and Washington areas. There's flavor, Shure said, and there's another reason why the chopped concept caught on.

"A chopped salad is easier to eat," Shure said.

"The reason I love them is I'm sort of ferocious about my taste buds," said Woldhandler. "I want everything in that one bite. And it is just such a delicious explosion of flavors. That's why I think once you taste a chopped salad you will never go back to eating a composed salad."

Make your own

Find a recipe for the Gorelick family's favorite chopped salad at

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    <I>A previous version of this story listed the wrong street for Maison Marconi. The Sun regrets the error.</i>

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