Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: The Salad that Eats Like a Meal

I've been classifying a lot of things as "Epicurean Adventures" lately, but I feel like I can justify that by the fact that most of the things I've been eating are in fact more adventurous than my usuals. I'm one of those people who fall madly and passionately in love with a dish or two and fast forget that there's a whole menu around that one selection. It becomes my safety as well as my favorite. I'm also scared that if I try something new at a beloved restaurant that one of two things will happen:
  1. Stop loving the restaurant if the new entree sucks, or
  2. Love the new entree so much that I'll be forced to spend oodles of money ordering multiple plates with each outing
Usually, places don't become my favorites without good reason, though, and the second scenario tends to be the case.

So today, I branched out a tiny bit.

I went to Zea for lunch yesterday, a fabulous regional pseudo-chain owned by local folk, the Taste Buds. Their specialty is American rotisserie and Gulf-inspired Southern dishes with twists of the exotic, using a lot of Asian and other ethnic flavors, and their reasonably priced food is consistently good. They've recently started to manufacture their own branded sauces which are available at supermarkets in the area (think Rouse's and Winn-Dixie), which I applaud as a really smart business move in this economy, when people are thinking twice about going out to eat.

Going back to the point of the story--I normally get the same thing every time I go to Zea: Thai ribs. Succulent, juicy, tender, and meaty, these St. Louis cut ribs are big, they're soft, and they're seriously one of the most delicious ribs I've ever had. (Sorry, Dad.) Glazed over with a thick coat of rich, honeyed, syrupy, chili-peppered sauce; sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and fresh, zingy chopped scallions; fatty edges slightly charred with a natural smoky flavor--these ribs are seriously thisclose to being classified as X-rated. They're that good. I'm talking lick-your-fingers-and-suck-them-slowly good, every last piece of meat and drop of sauce.

I usually get the above with a nice side of the Zea potatoes (baby skin-on chunks of reds, tossed in Cajun-esque--not blackening--seasoning and slightly crisped), buttery niblets of fresh, rich corn with sweet carmelized onions, or their fabulous roasted corn grits, a dense, pillowy mass of thick creamy-tasting grits (photo above) with whole bits of fire-roasted corn (Boy's favorite side ever).

Today, I forwent (I think I just made up a word ... I meant past tense for "forgo") my usual standby in lieu of something that sounded less saturated with corn syrup and other things that go straight to my tubba-lub tummy and, inspired by the recipe I'd read earlier on on pepper jelly, decided to go with the Pepper Jelly and Chicken Salad.

Now, I'd seen salads at Zea before, and I knew they were no joke, but this salad was the farthest thing from funny I've ever had in a salad before. This was a Serious, Serious Salad.

Tender patina-hued baby spinach leaves were lightly stacked atop one another, with two beautifully charred chicken breasts that were then cut into halves. The middle of the salad was a lush tower of rich, creamy, very fresh-tasting smooth but tangy Gorgonzola cheese, just the slightest bit tinged with blue veins. To add color to this little snowscape? Generous thin-sliced slivers of fragrant sun-dried tomatoes, translucent golden raisins, and crunchy toasted pecan quarters. Sesame seeds are also generously scattered throughout the salad for an additional nutty taste, and a conservative amount of halved Calamata olives. The taste that greets you at first bite is a smoky, caramel type of sweetness, but there's an explosion of different tastes once you start chewing.

A robust salad with plenty of "fixin's," the proportions of ingredients is wonderful. If you cut the chicken into reasonably small bite-sized cubes, there's more than enough to go with every forkful of salad, and the Gorgonzola is in generous excess for that great bite that all blue cheeses bring to their dishes. The raisins, since they're the golden variety and not the classic reds, add a mild sweetness that isn't an obnoxious cloying against the already sweet pepper jelly viniagrette, and the addition of the pecans and sesame hits earthy tones and a rich nutty flavor that sesame oil can help achieve. I normally don't love a whole lot of sun-dried tomatoes in anything, but I have a feeling that the strips used here are of Roma tomatoes, since they were sweeter and milder than any dried tomatoes I've had. Or, I just need to stop eating fully cooked sun-dried tomatoes and stick to these warmed ones.

The sweet pepper jelly viniagrette resembles Chinese duck sauce in color and only the slightest bit in flavor, but the texture is thinner. Tiny bits of bell and jalapeno pepper float around the pepper jelly, adding even more fun colors to the plate and a flavor profile with enough heat to make it interestingly layered and keeps it from being overly sugary. What also brings it all down really well is the fact that the chicken is also earthy, warm, charred, and smoky from the grill, and only mildly seasoned, absorbing its flavors from the dressing rather than adding any confusing overly meaty flavors.

The portions are generous, and in a rare moment of self-restraint, I decided only to eat half and to save the rest for later so that Boy could try it for himself, him being more of a salad-for-lunch person than I am, but you can see from the picture that what was left was still a hefty fellow. So although I will never be that girl that eats a house salad for lunch, I may actually have this for lunch again. After all, Zea truly makes a salad that "eats like a meal." So take that, Campbell's.

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