Im a fool, a dupe, a stooge. Whenever I see it on the menu, I have to order it, automatically, as a reflex, despite a losing streak that makes the Cubs look like the New York Yankees. For never, never, never have I had a truly great Caesar salad in the Chicago area. Thats quite a record: 0-for-Chicago.
Nevertheless, the promise of a salad tasting like a steak smothered in béarnaise sauce has always been irresistible to me. The promise, that is. The results I have tried in Chicago, I am sorry to say, have consistently been resistible in the extreme.
The most common flaw is a lack of sufficient piquancy/tangyness in the dressing. Primarily Worcestershire sauce, but also vinegar, and/or lemon juice, and/or garlic, etc. - the conventional sources of tang and bite in a Caesar dressing always seem to be missing in action, absent without leave. Might this be part of a general trend that seems to obtain in Chicago, of watering down the flavor profile of spicy/piquant dishes in order to achieve mass palatability? We all know how rare it is to find (or obtain) genuinely spicy Thai food, Louisiana food, etc. in Chicago. Is the very piquant Caesar dressing another victim of this desire to appeal to the broadest possible taste?
The common flaws do not end there. The parmesan cheese tends to be generic and wan. Of course, I dont dare to expect shavings of genuine parmigiano-reggiano, but could I at least get a modest approximation of real parmesan flavor? And speaking of flavor, maybe some garlic in those croutons?
I dont want to be unrealistic. Certainly I welcome perfection, but my aspiration is not so grand as that. Fresh, clean, dry romaine leaves; a respectable parmesan-style cheese; crunchy croutons with true garlic flavor; and above all, a dressing with that distinctive combination of eggy creaminess and piquant tang. You will observe that my aspirations are so modest that I do not even require the presence of anchovy - a splendid and most apposite garnish to this dish; but if everything else is done well, I can resign myself to its absence.
Curiously enough, in my experience the presence of anchovy on a Caesar salad has indicated a poorer-than-average dish in most other respects. Freshest of all in my mind was this past Saturday. Disfiguring an otherwise excellent dinner at Bella Notte on Grand (marvelous, very deep-flavored pasta sauces), was perhaps the worst Caesar Ive ever been served: coarsely chopped iceberg (!) lettuce drenched in a cold béchamel, covered with anonymous parmesan (I dont doubt that they have the real thing in the kitchen, but they definitely do not use on this salad), two little unflavored soft crackers wedged underneath in place of croutons - and a pristine anchovy perched atop the whole awful mess. Perhaps a kitchen assumes that if it has placed an anchovy on a Caesar salad, it has done its whole duty to that particular dish.
(Incidentally, the only other less-than-outstanding dish we had that evening at Bella Notte was my companions caprese salad, which came in a puddle of Italian (Paul Newman?) dressing fully half an inch deep. It was at the moment of first beholding that dish that a rule of thumb crystallized in my mind for telling the difference between a genuinely Italian restaurant and an Italian-American one: if you can measure the salad dressing with a ruler, its the latter.)
There is also no shortage of Caesar problems at the other end of the spectrum, the creative Caesars at flashy restaurants. Not long ago I encountered such a beast at Atlantique. They used real romaine and real parmigiano-reggiano all right, no doubt about that, and a first-class piece of toasted bread well flavored with garlic - and served it with a pink dressing that tasted chalkily sweet-sour ... as if it had ketchup in it! Mon dieu. Not to mention a bitter component I could not identify (some sort of mashed roe, perhaps?).
Youd think that some of our classic higher-end Chicago joints would make a good Caesar salad - the steak houses, Shaws, places like that. Id expect that any place that makes a good shrimp cocktail could also manage a good Caesar. But no. Not that they have been altogether bad, necessarily. But greatness? I havent found it.
Of course there are so many classic big-shoulders joints I have yet to try, not to mention a world of neighborhood places beyond my usual ken. So with an unflagging store of optimism I lay my plea before you: where can I find a great Caesar salad in this town?
I guess I should mention that I have gone to the one place that seems to be known for and to make a fuss about their Caesars, Don Roths, in Wheeling, a very old-fashioned steak house where they prepare Caesars tableside for you. I went there a very long time ago and cant retrieve a lot of detail, but I remember it as nothing special. Like a Japanese hibachi place, the product is mainly the show (such as it is) rather than the food that ends up on your plate.
The best Caesar dressing Ive had in Chicago, believe it or not, was at the Loop roasted chicken lunch place Taza, back when it opened, about five years ago. The rich, eggy-textured sauce had a strong Worcestershire kick that I really enjoyed. The croutons were good and garlicky, the romaine was OK, the parmesan was generic; but that dressing possessed that combination of creaminess and tang that I find so oddly satisfying. But I must report that after a couple of years, Taza started running their operation a little more cheaply, and one of the things that suffered was the Caesar dressing. They reduced or eliminated the eggs and maybe also some of the fat from the dressing, producing a thin, overly assertive, harsh flavor uncushioned by creaminess. (For all I know, the dressing was never made in-house, and Taza simply changed their supplier.) At any rate, the change was dramatic, and I havent gotten anything from them in several years.