CERTAIN MENU items make me sad. Take the Caesar salad, for instance. The contemporary Caesar salad is a depressing thing indeed. You can find them anywhere and they're generally lousy. When I see one listed on a menu - usually hovering somewhere near the bottom, making its lame pitch to add grilled chicken or buffalo shrimp - it's too often a tip-off as to what sort of banal, unimpressive restaurant I'm sitting in. I can immediately feel a sigh forming.
Progress is usually a good thing. But in the case of the Caesar salad, now efficiently made with bottled dressing and limp, mixed greens from a bag, it's hard not to feel nostalgic for a bygone golden era. I wouldn't mind turning back the clock to the mid-20th century, when tuxedoed waiters gallantly prepared your Caesar salad tableside to order, while you sipped your Manhattan and anticipated the steak that would follow. As a kid in the late 1970s and early '80s, I can remember being taken to places in South Jersey that still did tableside Caesar. But even then, it was a dying art form.
To be clear, it's not like the Caesar salad of nostalgia grew out of some specific culinary tradition. It was reportedly invented by an Italian immigrant named Caesar Cardini, who operated a restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, during Prohibition that catered to people from Southern California. Legend has it that during a busy Fourth of July rush in 1924, Cardini's restaurant ran out of supplies. He flamboyantly tossed together some random ingredients tableside and - voilà! - the dish was born.
This ridiculous origin story conjures up for me an older, simpler, dare I say naive, concept of service and everyday luxury and - heaven forbid - silly fun in restaurants that barely exists anymore.
In any case, I hadn't thought about tableside Caesar salad for a long time. But a couple of weeks ago, I checked out Steak 38 Café in Cherry Hill, tucked next to the Feather Nest Inn off Route 38. Steak 38 had been a beloved South Jersey spot for years that fell on hard times in 2008 and shut down - until last December, when it was successfully relaunched by partners Joe DiAmore and Ben Blumberg.
Steak 38 is like a time capsule, with a dark loungy bar and an old-school dining room where the Rat Pack would feel at home. We ordered Manhattans and the deliciously old-fashioned steak Diane, a filet that's lightly pounded with cracked pepper, dipped in flour and sautéed in clarified butter with shallots, garlic, mushrooms and Dijon mustard, then finished with cognac, beef stock and cream. (I have no idea who Diane was or why she inspired this preparation, but she was clearly no dieter.)
The true star of the show, however, was the waiter who prepared the tableside Caesar. We closely followed his performance as he crushed the garlic, anchovies and mustard powder in a giant wooden bowl, then dashed in the Worcestershire sauce and worked it into a paste.
He quickly added a coddled egg yolk and a drizzling of olive oil, working the mixture into a mayonnaise that he finished with a squeeze of lemon and a dash of red wine vinegar. Finally, he added a head of crisp Romaine lettuce, Parmigiano cheese and housemade croutons, tossed it all together, and served it on chilled plates. The mix of bold flavors was better than just about any other Caesar salad I've eaten over the past, say, two decades.
"There's no comparison. It's the complete taste of the Caesar salad," said Steak 38's DiAmore. "People say, 'Oh my God, I've never had one like this.' "
One might wonder if all this tableside presentation gets in the way of the meal, but I was actually surprised at the waiter's efficiency and lack of intrusion as I saw him prepare Caesar salads for at least 10 tables. "I'm concerned about speed," DiAmore said. "I tell my staff it should take no more than 4 1/2 minutes. Sometimes I go out in the dining room and my teeth are grinding. If they take 15 to 20 minutes, it doesn't help me out."
Caesar salad isn't the only tableside preparation at Steak 38, either. Servers also carve certain meats tableside, and a flame in the dining room signals a tableside bananas Foster. DiAmore acknowledged that all of this is old-school. "I go back to the 1950s," he said. "When I was young, I worked at high-end restaurants as a waiter and a busboy, and this was part of the service.
"I'm a fanatic about consistency," DiAmore continued. "If you came into my restaurant 18 years ago and ordered something you didn't like, don't order it again, because it's going to taste the same."
Suffice it to say that you're never going to confuse Steak 38 with a Jose Garces or Michael Solomonov joint. Yet because of DiAmore's refusal to give up certain 20th-century dining conventions that mod, hip restaurateurs might consider stuffy, his restaurant offers a unique dining experience that's the opposite of a copycat small-plates spot.
I enjoyed my throwback meal very much, and I'm sure I will be back again. If for no other reason than to reconfirm that someplace in the world is still doing Caesar salad the right way.
Jason Wilson is the author
of "Boozehound" and editor of
"The Smart Set" online arts and
culture journal at Drexel University.
or go to jasonwilson.com.