Restaurant Reviews

Where the Green Things Are

This is the motto at Giardino Gourmet Salads: "Real, simple food." That, however, makes the place sound a lot simpler than it is. With the exception of a soup of the day, a stuffed baked potato, several desserts (including some fabulous seasonal fruit mousses), and some nonalcoholic beverages, salads are indeed the only fare. But they're not the kind of salads you find at the local health-food market's bar, or that you may throw together at home -- unless your home kitchen is typically stocked with several dozen toppings ranging from expected fixings like tomatoes and grated carrot to exotica like Japanese seaweed flakes, coconut shreds, and baby corn. You'll find both rice paper and flour tortillas to turn your salad into a wrap if you choose, as well as 31 housemade salad dressings, plus 18 types of croutons in assorted flavors.

Giardino is a very small, mostly take-out place with a bare half-dozen two-person tables inside; the garden (giardino in Italian) is pure metaphor. But the counter holding the dressing bottles, packed tight as sardines, is nearly the size of many entire condo kitchens. We're talking serious salads here: 31 predesigned combinations based on leafy greens -- some traditional, like caesar (actually not so traditional, for Giardino's version contains bacon), and others internationally inspired original creations -- plus a do-it-yourself option in which diners can design their own salad with choice of greens, croutons, and up to four toppings.

There are also ten deli salads, mostly old classics like tuna, egg, and pasta. Since Giardino's opening six months ago, the two deli salads I found most interesting -- Asian-inspired edamame and seaweed -- have been eliminated in favor of some standard Middle Eastern selections: tabbouleh and hummus. And despite a refreshingly light, lemony dill dressing, seafood salad was unexceptional owing to a scarcity of natural seafood. The salad was roughly one-quarter shrimp, three-quarters surimi.

Several green salads were much better. Two Asian salads were based on mixed greens and red cabbage: one a sort of British colonial/American hippie interpretation of Indian garnishes (golden raisins, sliced almonds, dried coconut shreds, mushy cooked peas, sesame croutons), the other Chinese (mung bean sprouts, snow peas, baby corn, carrots, and greaseless crunchy noodles in place of croutons). It was difficult to choose a favorite between them thanks to exceptional dressings. The former's sesame seed-studded tahini curry concoction made its mix taste enough like a raw version of a curry to almost redeem the canned peas. And the latter's chili dressing couldn't have been better; the balance of sweetness, tang, and assertive heat put most Chinese restaurants' cloying sweet-and-sours to shame.

For better or worse, the "mixed greens" in both the above salads were just romaine plus some crisp but tasteless white shreds that were possibly romaine bases but more likely iceberg lettuce. A crab Louis salad's romaine/"baby leaf" (mesclun) mix was superior. However, the item should have been called a "Sea Legs Louis" salad. C'mon, folks: Surimi, though manufactured from something that was once seafood, is not real shellfish. Neither impeccably fresh toppings (diced tomatoes and red peppers, hard-boiled egg, scallions, and subtly oniony croutons) nor an appealingly tart, tingly hot Louis dressing could bring the faux crab to life.

What really is simple at Giardino is the pricing. "Grande" greens-based salads are $9, "basta" (medium) are $7, "piccola" $5 -- and the supposedly small piccola is more than meal-size. This makes it one of the Gables' best bargain lunches, even figuring in extra dressing, 50 cents per serving or seven bucks a bottle. Splurge. It's definitely "don't try this at home" stuff.

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Pamela Robin Brandt