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Hail, Caesar 

We may be open-minded, but not when it comes to our salads

Wednesday, Dec 31 2003
When it comes to things like food and politics and laundry folding, I consider myself a fairly open-minded person -- even though folding the T-shirt down the middle with the sleeves bunched on one side so that the stack jams when you try to open the $%$#@ drawer is a patently inferior method to folding the sleeves in from either side and bringing up the bottom in a nice, neat Gap package.

Likewise, if someone takes liberties with a traditional dish, such as turkey, and it sounds relatively appealing (brined, deep-fried, pro-environment), I think I'm flexible enough to say bring it on. (It should be noted that this open-mindedness does not extend as far as turducken or certain tenets held by the Green Party.)

There are other limits to my liberalism -- times when I vote my pocketbook, say, or when I dig in my heels about a dish I believe should simply not be messed with. Present me with a French onion soup that substitutes Parmesan for Gruyère, for example, and you're likely to find a frothing, snarling she-badger when you return to my table to see if "everything's all right." Hot and sour soup that arrives neither hot nor sour is likely to net neither "thank you" nor tip.

Caesar salad definitely tops my list in the above category. A classic California entree (if you put California's roots in Mexico), it was supposedly invented by Tijuana restaurateur Caesar Cardini, who in typical scrappy West Coast fashion made a silk purse out of a sow's ear when supplies ran short one night. Cardini's tableside creation contained no anchovies, only Worcestershire sauce (which is made with anchovies) -- and in my book, anchovies are the only ingredient that may be tampered with.

Clearly, no one cares what I think. I can't count the number of times I've ordered a Caesar and had delivered to my table:

1) Lettuce leaves that were not romaine

2) Salad slathered in tartar sauce posing as dressing

3) Enough anchovies (some draped decorously over the top) to start a small fishing fleet

4) A concoction absent essential ingredients such as lemon, shaved Parmesan, and crunchy croutons.

Liberty Cafe (410 Cortland, 695-8777) gets it right on all fronts. While most diners come for more substantial menu stars such as chicken potpie or banana cream pie, the Caesar holds its own against dishes twice its size.

The recipe holds true to its origins, beginning with the diminutive, innermost tender leaves of romaine -- not a single rubbery lettuce platter in the lot -- which are then tossed in a generous coating of dressing (not drenched, but given an ample enough helping so that you don't have to lick the backsides of the leaves to find a little flavor). The dressing is this dish's linchpin: Upset the balance of creamy to oily, of fishy/salty to smooth/eggy, and you may as well throw in some chicken and call it a day. Liberty's is a subtle infusion of anchovy and garlic in a base of olive oil and egg, with just the right amount of lemon tang to cut some of the heaviness. You sense the anchovies more than taste them -- a lingering call from a distant fishing boat. Thinly shaved Parmesan and cracked pepper find their way into the crevices; lightly toasted herb croutons are the jewels in romaine's crown.

In all the years I've been eating here, Liberty has not changed one anchovy hair on the head of this salad -- sensing, no doubt, that an improvement on perfection would be, um, the opposite of improvement. That, or the kitchen caught a whiff of the she-badger at Table 5.

About The Author

Bonnie Wach

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