- Prep time 10 minutes
- Cook time 10 minutes
- Serves 2 as a main, 4 as a side
The summer I turned 23, I would spend Friday afternoons counting the minutes until 6:01pm, at which point I was finally free to unpeel my “work clothes,” emerge from my dark office into the blinding light of golden hour, and start a sticky .8 mile walk through a haze of car exhaust, humidity, and chocolate-factory fumes to a restaurant on the edge of downtown called Gilt Bar. This was when New American brasseries were The Thing among chic, effortlessly cool people—dim dining rooms glowing with Edison bulb chandeliers, black-and-white tile floors, tufted leather booths, fancy hand soaps, lo-fi playlists, ”secret” speakeasies in the basement—and though I would never be mistaken for one of those chic, effortlessly cool people, that didn’t stop me each Friday from trying to be.
Gilt Bar is known for doing old-school brasserie staples extremely well, including their house take on a classic Caesar. Having grown up in the land of the Midwestern Side Caesar—an obligatory pre-dinner portion of sad soggy leaves, gloopy dressing, stale bagged bread cubes, and dried-out yellow shards of Parmesan—trying the Gilt Caesar was like visiting a new planet. At the time, it was a towering pile of cool chopped romaine and pulled smoked whitefish bathed in creamy-yet-light savory dressing, topped with a mountain of freshly-grated Parmesan cheese and, in a stroke of genius, scattered with crunchy potato chip bits instead of croutons. Which friend I met there varied by the week that summer, but whoever it was, we’d order that salad, a plate of truffle pasta, two vodka smashes, and the crusty house bread for the table, then watch the sun go down, eavesdrop on first dates, chat up the bartenders, and try to score an invite for live jazz in the basement before getting on a sweaty train home to our un-chic neighborhoods.
This recipe is both an homage to and reinterpretation of the original, intended for those days when it’s too hot to think, let alone cook. Little gem leaves, my summer salad lettuce of choice, stay extra-crisp and fresh under the thin creamy dressing, a minimal-effort approximation of the truly homemade stuff using Japanese mayo, anchovy paste, Worcestershire, garlic, lemon, and a few dots of hot sauce. Because smoked whitefish is hard to come by where I live, I use a little brick of cold-smoked peppered salmon instead (incidentally, Gilt Bar uses smoked salmon for theirs today, and it is every bit as great as I remember); sliced sungolds, not part of the original, add pops of acid and summer-specific sweetness. The whole thing takes seven minutes and zero sweat to pull together. But the real magic is still the kettle chip topping, fresh from the bag, lightly crushed, and scattered on at the end so they stay crunchy. Of course, there is also the mountain of parmigiano reggiano, just like there was back then; a lot may have changed since the summer I turned 23, but when something is just right, it tends to withstand any test time throws at it. —@italianenough_
- For the dressing
full-fat mayo, preferably Kewpie
extra-virgin olive oil
small clove of garlic, grated on a microplane
freshly squeezed lemon juice
A pinch of salt
Fresh ground black pepper, to taste
- For the salad
cold-smoked peppered salmon; I usually find this in the refrigerated cases near the seafood section, although many delis also sell it
little gem lettuce leaves, or two heads
sungold or cherry tomatoes, halved
fresh grated Parmigiano Reggiano
A handful of plain kettle chips, lightly crushed—the foldy pieces are the best
More freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- In a measuring cup (or any vessel you can easily pour from), whisk all the ingredients from the “dressing” list until thoroughly combined. It should have a thin, creamy consistency that easily drizzles off the whisk.
- Put the salmon in your salad bowl and use a fork to break it up into bite-sized pieces. Drizzle a little of the dressing on top and lightly smash it in; this makes sure the salmon gets its fair share of Caesar in the salad. Set aside.
- Prep your toppings. Grate or shave your cheese; I like to put it into a rotary grater so I feel like I’m at a restaurant. Slice the tomatoes along their equators. To crush the chips, you can put them into a separate bag or lay them on a board and gently roll over them with a rolling pin, or you can do what I do, which is just whack the bag they come in a few times with your fist. Cathartic!
- Assemble your salad. If your gems came whole, rinse them and slice off the root end, then gently separate the leaves. Put the leaves into the bowl with the salmon along with the sliced sungolds, the rest of the dressing (to your taste—you may not want to use all of it, but you can save any extra for about a week in the fridge) and about 1/2 of the cheese. Toss this all together with tongs until everything is evenly coated. Top the salad with the remaining cheese, the crushed chips, and as much cracked black pepper as you want. Serve.