I'm not much of a salad fan, normally. Although I grow a beautiful mixture of leaf lettuces in my garden, most weeks I pick them and give them away to neighbors and friends. I rarely eat the obligatory side salad that comes with most entrees in restaurants, although an occasional Caesar perks my interest.
But when it's summer, the heat is on and the produce is fresh, the restaurants I frequent pull out all the stops, offering an array of salads so enticing and refreshing, even I am interested. We're not talking your granny's famous three-bean salad or the ever-popular wedge of iceberg lettuce smothered in Thousand Island dressing. Many of the salads in question incorporate fish or meat and qualify as a full meal.
Downtown's La Creperie (632-0984) offers three salads (all $12.95 at lunch) that will fill you up just enough to leave room (barely) for one of their delicious dessert crepes. The chicken and avocado salad is a creamy mixture of chicken, avocado and homemade mayonnaise, generously seasoned with black pepper and salt, served in the avocado shell over a bed of baby greens. Celery and onion add a little crunch. The shrimp and artichoke hearts salad features sweet, pink shrimp, sauted in lemon juice and olive oil alongside briny artichoke hearts, then served over greens. And the third salad combines chopped hearts of palm with snow crabmeat, hard-boiled eggs and tomatoes, over greens, all topped with a tangy shallot vinaigrette. These salads are also served at dinner in larger portions at slightly higher prices.
Down the street, Jose Muldoon's (636-2311), proud purveyor of the world's largest margarita, offers one salad worth crowing about: the Grilled Chicken Mango Salad (a bargain at $7.21). Grilled chicken breast and generous chunks of fresh mango are combined with avocado, radish, tomato, red onion and toasted pumpkin seeds, all served over crisp romaine lettuce and drenched with a sturdy honey chipotle dressing. Besides the obvious fiesta of color this salad provides, the dressing adds needed bite and zest, perfectly complementing the sweetness of the mango.
A little farther south, on Pikes Peak Avenue, stands Phantom Canyon (635-2800), whose exceptional summer salad is the Grilled Salmon on Asparagus and Two Potato Salad ($8), easily a full meal for one and big enough to split with a partner. A generous salmon filet is slightly charred on the outside, pink and moist inside, and comes atop a bed of colorful roasted potatoes -- the day I tried it, sweet potatoes and red new potatoes were used. Asparagus spears provide a splash of green and a little crunch, and all are combined with a creamy mustard dressing.
Down at the Ritz Grill (635-8484), new chef Jay Gust has added a trio of salads to the dinner menu. Foremost in an imaginative combination of flavors is the Pistachio Lamb Salad ($13). Five or six slices of rare lamb loin encrusted in ground pistachios lay atop a bed of field greens, accented by raisins, whole pistachios and tomato wedges. The dressing combines vanilla and basil with balsamic vinegar, and all I can say is plow through the greens fast so you can get to the best part of the plate -- the raisins and pistachios that have fallen to the bottom of the plate, soaking in the aromatic sauce. The Ritz' Fruit Salad ($9) is a lovely pastel pastiche of cantaloupe, honeydew melon, pears and pineapple, tossed in a citrus vinaigrette, accented with a pile of crispy rice noodles set artfully off to the side, all drizzled with a jam-thick raspberry coulis. The Tuna Sashimi Salad ($12) takes a generous, thick portion of blackened tuna, raw in the middle, and lays it over a standard green salad. You choose the dressing, and I'd recommend you try the oriental dressing, a sesame vinaigrette that works well with the tuna.
Of course, summer would not be summer without Poor Richard's (632-7721), up north on Tejon Street, where the Snap Pea and Asparagus salad with lemon-avocado dressing reigns supreme. You can order it in three sizes (small, $2.95; medium, $4.25; large, $6.25) and you can practically eat the whole crunchy, scrumptious thing with your hands. Cucumbers and tomatoes are a mere afterthought when compared with the bounty of sweet green snap peas and barely blanched asparagus spears. The creamy dressing is mildly flavored, almost as good as Richard's famed balsamic vinaigrette, now available bottled ($2.95 for a 12 oz. bottle). And for just $1.50 extra, you can add a big scoop of either chicken salad or albacore tuna salad to your plate, making a complete meal for well under $10.
Outside of downtown, my favorite setting for a summer salad is outdoors on the big front porch of The Cliff House (785-2415). If you're a fan of spicy greens, try the Baby Watercress Salad ($8) with breaded, fried goat cheese and shaved sweet onion, served with a tart lemon dijon vinaigrette. Be warned: This salad has a bite. Sweeter and more mellow but equally interesting is the Butterleaf Lettuce Salad ($6) with Enoki mushrooms, red grapefruit, toasted pecans and a clover honey-poppyseed dressing. The standout salad at the Cliff House, however, is the Grilled Chicken Salad ($9), misplaced on the menu in the "sandwiches" category because it is served atop a thick slice of foccaccia bread. Large cubes of grilled chicken are bathed and bound in a sweet red pepper aioli, and are served on a bed of mixed lettuces with a side accompaniment of freshly fried, thin sweet potato chips. Add the soothing effects of the summer breeze, the white wicker furniture, the soft, ample yellow damask napkins and the mountain view, and you've got summer salad heaven, right up the road in Manitou Springs.