I estimate that there are about one bazillion mediocre Caesar salad recipes in circulation right now, but only a few genuinely incredible ones. The best Caesar salad I have ever had — and I have eaten many — is hands-down the one at San Francisco’s beloved Zuni Café, operated by chef Judy Rodgers. Chef Rodgers and Zuni Café have racked up many accolades and awards over the years, including James Beard Awards for Outstanding Chef and Outstanding Restaurant. But Zuni Café’s Caesar salad is the recipe that people return for, discuss, and smile about, again and again.
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One could do worse than pass an afternoon in sunny, convivial of Zuni Café, where the servers are professional and friendly, sunlight streams onto the wooden tables just so, and the general vibe is equal parts laid-back California, and effortless sophistication.
All the food is good, but the restaurant is best known for its roast chicken and the Caesar. In fact, Judy Rodgers writes in the Zuni Café cookbook, the salad station is known as “Caesar’s Palace” among employees. The Caesar, she writes, “outsells every other salad, indeed every other dish, every day by a factor of three.”
Like I said. It’s good.
Recipe Notes: Zuni Café’s Caesar Salad
The Zuni Café Caesar salad recipe’s ingredients, while uncomplicated, create excellence from their quality, as well as the way the salad is assembled. Rodgers puts a lot of thought into the recipes, purposefully noting that the quantities my vary because different red wine vinegars have different acidity levels, lemons vary in size and juiciness, and romaine becomes less sweet and takes on bitter notes the older it is. The recipe, therefore, is a guide. Everyone’s ingredients will vary a little. Trust your taste.
Technique and not cutting corners is key. To get the very best Caesar salad possible:
- Make sure each lettuce leaf is fully dried, so it does not water down the dressing or make things soggy
- Do not use anchovy paste. Ever. Zuni Café uses salt-packed anchovies. These are great, but also can be hard to source and have a bigger price tag. I find that good, oil-packed anchovy fillets work well. Pat them dry before chopping them.
- Please, please do not use pre-bagged romaine lettuce. Maintain this Caesar’s integrity by plating whole leaves from large to small, topped with a generous dose of grated parmigiano-Reggiano and some of your delicious, homemade croutons.
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Zuni Café Caesar Salad
For the Croutons
- 4 to 5 ounce hunk of day-old crusty bread
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- generous pinch of salt
For the Salad
- 2 to 3 heads crisp, fresh romaine lettuce, outer leaves removed (about 1 pound of lettuce)
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup mild extra-virgin olive oil
- 8 anchovy filets, preferably salt packed, chopped
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic, from about 3 cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
- 2 cold eggs
- lots of freshly-ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 cup parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
- 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, from about 1 1/2 lemons
- torn croutons
For the Croutons
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut or tear the bread into cubes. Toss with the olive oil and a generous pinch of salt, and roast on a sheet pan for 8 to 10 minutes, until golden brown. Set aside to cool to room temperature.Tip: If the bread is fresh, it may need to cook a little longer to dry out.
For the Salad
- Trim the outer leaves and stump from the heads of romaine. Carefully rinse and dry the whole leaves. To dry the lettuce leaves, pat dry and lay or loosely roll them out on clean dish towels. Refrigerate until ready to assemble the salad.Tip: The leaves must be totally dry, or else you will have "an insipid salad," in the words of chef/owner Judy Rodgers.
- In a mixing bowl, whisk together the vinegar, oil, anchovies, salt, and garlic. Add the eggs, about 1/2 cup of the cheese, and 1 generous teaspoon of freshly-ground black pepper.
- Add the lemon juice. Whisk, and taste for seasoning.
- In a large mixing bowl, add most of the dressing and toss thoroughly. Be sure to make sure each leaf is coated with dressing. You may not need all of the dressing. Toss with most of the remaining cheese, reserving a few tablespoons for garnish. Add the croutons and toss again.
- Divide the dressed lettuce leaves onto salad plates, starting with the largest leaves on the bottom, and stacking loosely from large to small. Distribute the croutons on the salad. The croutons should have absorbed some of the dressing.
- Finish with a final dusting of grated cheese and a few more twists of black pepper. Serve immediately.