Summer may be ice cream and burger season, but it’s also the easiest and most enjoyable time all year to eat your fruits and vegetables with the plethora of local produce available. These chefs are upping the salad ante, with salads to savor rather than scarf down on your lunch break.
The roasted root vegetable salad ($11) at Homestead on the Roof is garnished with fresh herbs and pea shoots snipped to order from the rooftop garden. “The salad will continue to evolve throughout the summer as new produce becomes available on our roof and locally,” executive chef Jesse Badger says. Smoky sweet candied pecans and bleu cheese cream are inspired by a classic steakhouse wedge salad and the pecans and pea shoots come from Three Sisters Farm and Garden. “The blue cheese is Mindoro Blue from Swiss Family Farms in Davenport, Iowa,” Badger says. “It has a really nice texture and sharp bite to complement the sweetness of the root vegetables and pea shoots.”
It might be more hearty than healthy, but the chicken shawarma salad ($17) at this new West Loop restaurant is the most exciting chicken salad in Chicago right now. “I wanted a salad that would feel satisfying and indulgent, but also light and healthy,” says executive chef Shane Graybeal. “By taking inspiration from the flavors of Israeli street food and making them our own, I think we managed to do that.” Marinated chicken, couscous, almonds, cherry tomatoes, pickled onions, grapes, and crispy chickpeas are all heaped onto a bed of arugula lettuce and mixed with lemon tahini yogurt.
Kale and cauliflower might be two of the most commonly available vegetables now at modern American restaurants, but nobody does this cruciferous combo better than Cafe Spiaggia. Their bestselling kale and cauliflower salad ($20) is available for lunch and dinner, combining raw Tuscan kale with a huge hunk of hen of the woods mushroom, roasted cauliflower, and Marcona almonds, topped with shaved pecorino romano cheese and bagna cauda dressing. “We make a creamy style bagna cauda instead of an oily acidic one,” says executive chef Joe Flamm. “It gives it a really nice rich flavor.”
Inside Chicago’s hottest new food hall, Politan Row in the West Loop, you can try Piko Street Kitchen’s modern Asian street food without chasing around their food truck. The smashed cucumber salad ($6) is simple and so refreshing on a hot summer day, with a garlicky crunch balanced with sweet vinegar and a tingle of house-made Sichuan peppercorn oil. Chef Winston Feng has Taiwanese roots and says pickles were a staple in his household growing up. “A home pickle would accompany every meal — whether slow-braised pork belly over rice or a thick slice of deep-dish pizza,” he says. “Our smashed cucumbers are the same pickles we would eat at family picnics on Wilson Avenue beach.”
The baby beet salad ($13) at Eden is a little different from most, replacing the standard chèvre with cajeta — caramelized goat’s milk — and adding rhubarb. “We really like pairing seasonal fruit with beets, and enhance the natural sweetness with cajeta,” chef Devon Quinn says. “It also gives you the funk that goat cheese typically does with beets.” Spicy greenhouse greens and blossoms, creamy avocado crunchy pistachios, and lemon agrumato dressing create a sophisticated harmony of flavors and textures.
Chef Erick Williams credits his heritage and southern cuisine as the inspiration behind the use of crispy pig ears in his salads at Virtue in Hyde Park. An asparagus version ($11) recently replaced the winter kale, with long slender stalks of charred asparagus topped with egg salad, midnight moon cheese, and fried crunchy pig ears. “It’s a pork potato chip,” Williams proclaims. “Pig ears were a vital part of my childhood and early adult life. They were shared in my childhood home and pickled and served at bars during my adult life. I wanted to draw from the past and create a crave-able treat that changes guests’ assumption of what pig ears would be like on a dish and give new life to scrap cookery!”
Veal meatballs are the star in this low-carb, high-protein salad that chef de cuisine James Lintelmann created for his father-in-law after learning of its history in Chicago. The insalata de polpetta ($21) begins with a base of little gem lettuce, treviso, and ciabatta croutons tossed with an acidic truffle vinaigrette to cut the richness of the meatballs. Castelvetrano olives, roasted shishito peppers, and tomato conserva for a hint of spice top it all off. Lintelmann seasons his meatballs with red wine, stewed shallots, garlic, Calabrian chilis, and fresh oregano. “We add eggs, cheese, and breadcrumbs to keep them juicy,” he says. “But the biggest tip is to not over mix them so they don’t become tough.”
Ahi tuna nicoise ($18.95) is nothing out of the ordinary, but chef Martial Noguier‘s version at Bistronomic in the Gold Coast may be the best in the city. Creamy avocado wedges, hard-boiled eggs, fine chopped haricot verts, fennel shavings, Nicoise olives, and thinly sliced fingerling potatoes accompany the star: six ounces of ahi tuna from the Gulf of Mexico. “What makes this salad unique is that the house-made vinaigrette is made like a sauce,” Noguier says. “I reduce the lemon juice with shallots, garlic, and thyme and let the mixture cool before stirring in honey and olive oil.” He tops the salad with arugula that’s also been lightly tossed in dressing and Parmesan shavings.
BLVD is rolling out a vegan twist on a caprese salad ($12) this summer, with heirloom tomato, house-made chickpea tofu, yuzu kosho, and a seeded cracker from Greg Wade (who just won a James Beard Award for Outstanding Baker) at Publican Quality Bread. “The tofu is made in-house with chickpea as opposed to soybean, and therefore doesn’t need a coagulant,” executive chef Johnny Besch explains. “It’s meant to mimic a creamy burrata cheese. I recommend using the cracker and scooping up a little bit of everything on this dish for the perfect bite.”
With 300 Fridges across Chicagoland, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis (more than 225 in Chicago, including at O’Hare International Airport), Farmer’s Fridge is dedicated to making healthy, nourishing, and delicious food easily accessible. “We’re inspired by seasonal produce and building salads around one or two signature ingredients at peak freshness,” research and development chef Kyle Markt says. In their Buffalo Ranch Salad ($8), instead of chicken, there’s buffalo-roasted cauliflower, with fire-roasted corn, Monterey Jack cheese, sugar snap peas, shredded carrots, and roasted pepitas atop a bed of chopped romaine and green leaf lettuce served with creamy house-made avocado ranch dressing. “Most buffalo sauces are loaded with oils and preservatives,” he says. “But we use all-natural herbs and spices and a 575-degree oven to give the buffalo cauliflower the perfect sear and spice.”
Watermelon is one of the most popular fruits grown in Crete and the watermelon salad ($7) at Lincoln Park’s Avli Taverna nearly whisks you away to the Greek seaside. Juicy chunks of watermelon are served with mild and creamy Greek manouri cheese along with crunchy almonds and a drizzle of mint and raspberry ouzo dressing.
Because You’re Not the Only One Who’s Hungry…
We hope you’ll get the chance to check out all of these incredible restaurants, but the next time you do, take a moment to remember how fortunate you are to be able to enjoy such fabulous food. Feed your stomach, then your soul by paying forward your good fortune and supporting one of these food-centric nonprofits.
Amber Gibson spends 340 nights a year in hotels searching for the latest and greatest in the travel industry. Her writing and photographs have appeared in print, online, and on the radio for outlets including Four Seasons Magazine, NPR, Saveur, Departures, Rhapsody, Hemispheres, American Way, Private Air, Wine Folly, Plate, Chicago Magazine, Tasting Table, and Serious Eats. She graduated as valedictorian from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and received a fellowship to attend the 2017 Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood Napa Valley. Champagne, dark chocolate, and gelato are her biggest weaknesses. She also admires and supports CAASE in Chicago. Follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.