Next-Wave Salads: Too Good to Leaf Alone

Chefs are moving beyond the classic caesar and house salads, giving greens an exciting culinary spin. Guests appreciate the flavor exploration of such a familiar format.
Vibrant salads with greens lemons cheese and nuts

The salad category is generally slower to adopt flavor trends than other categories, like bar snacks, sides and entrées. But our 2017 external research tour uncovered an emerging pattern of creative salad offerings that speaks to serious salad innovation. It’s definitely a sign of the times—intentional flavor and texture building is a hallmark of modern dishes. Modern salads are showcasing today’s overarching trend of mindful construction, where raw onions become pickled or jammed, tomatoes are charred or blistered, and where traditional salad greens get a serious challenge from other produce that’s ready for center stage. 

We’ve pinpointed four menu opportunities for signature salad development.

1. Look to “new” greens

There’s always going to be a home for iceberg and romaine, but a few greens are finding their way onto more salads, adding textural play, nutrient density and menu differentiation. Although kale is certainly not new, we’re seeing continued opportunity in showcasing this superstar ingredient. It remains highly popular, and chefs are using it in phenomenal ways. Frisée is another green that holds a lot of potential, introducing a pleasing bitter profile with a stand-up texture that gives height and drama to a salad. Because of its bitterness, frisée often takes a supporting role, blending in with softer, sweeter greens like mâche and lolla rossa. We also saw escarole in modern salads on our tour. This broad, leafy green with a slightly bitter profile works well when it’s grilled, as an unexpected element to a cold salad, or even served raw, mixed with sweeter counterpoints, like dried apricots or golden raisins. 

2. Think outside the lettuce

Chefs are borrowing from the veg-centric trend, where careful, flavor-forward technique is applied to produce in creative, appealing ways. We’re seeing beets used in raw applications, shaved, spiralized or julienned for a delicate, but memorable presentation. We’re also seeing other raw vegetables highlighted in salads—from watermelon radishes to Brussels sprouts and turnips. An important part of this approach is the inclusion of high-impact ingredients, like heady spices or umami-rich accents. One of our favorite salads was a spin on the on-trend presentation of crudité vegetables. Motel Morris in New York serves a Crudité Salad with beets, carrots, scallion, watermelon radish, cucumber, yogurt and za’atar, making the vegetables a rainbow haystack and using that as the body of the salad—very clever and singular in the marketplace.

3. Dress for success

This is an area where we’re seeing tremendous innovation. Chefs are looking at how to amp up flavor and texture in the dressing while rounding out a salad’s theme in a creative, unexpected way. Villains in Chicago drives home its Eastern Mediterranean theme in its Falafel Salad (housemade falafel, lettuce, cucumber, tomato, olive, red wine vinaigrette and feta) with a tahini dressing. Bagna càuda, that rich, flavorful blend of anchovy, olive oil, garlic and butter, holds big opportunity for dressing innovation.

4. Look to flavorful protein add-ins

Flavor building is the name of the game today—from bowl builds and bar bites to salad offerings. We’re seeing the rise of more flavorful proteins, thanks in part to the veg-centric trend, which relies on elements like crispy pork and bottarga to up the craveability. The same is happening with salads, where interesting protein choices like cold-smoked salmon or pulled turkey fit right in—thanks to the mindful development of all of the elements in the salad. 

It’s an exciting time for menu development. Diners seem open and eager to explore innovative flavor combinations. Salads offer a familiar format—perfect for a safe culinary adventure that can help build menu differentiation and repeat business. 

Creative Salad Sightings

Wood Grilled Kale Salad with bacon vinaigrette, sumac candied pecans, smoked goat cheese, pomegranate and compressed turnip—Steadfast, Chicago

Beet Tartare with mustard greens, almond, preserved lemon—Kali, Los Angeles

Radish Pasta: radish noodles, grilled radish, dashi, smoked trout roe—Royal Grocer, Chicago

Shaved Raw Vegetable Salad with apple, beets, carrots, candied pecans, blue cheese—Steakbar, Chicago

Chickpea Caesar with grilled romaine, Parmesan, herb croutons, lemon-chickpea dressing—The Little Beet Table, Chicago

Delicata Squash, Matsutake mushrooms, frisée, pine nut butter vinaigrette, golden raisins—Honey’s, Chicago

Harvest Salad Field Greens with blue cheese, green apples, shallot confit, housemade prosciutto bacon, balsamic vinaigrette —Appellation, Chicago

Smoked Trout with mixed lettuces, hazelnuts, poached egg, sherry dressing—Ocean Cut, Chicago

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