Salad Gold

I used to be one of those who scorned salad. "Bird food," I called it. "Boring," I whined. But I finally got religion, and I hope you'll forgive a tiny hint of proselytizing in honor of outstanding salads.

What I discovered is that I like salad under the right circumstances: It has to be crisp and fresh — dewy is best. It has to have something other than iceberg lettuce and pink plastic tomatoes: seeds, toasted nuts, sprouts, fruit, cheese, croutons, radishes, carrots, different colors of cabbage, different types of greens, plus a real selection of homemade dressings.

Great bread, crackers or quiche along with a salad is a nice extra. Also, something fancy to drink, like raspberry tea or a fruit smoothie, helps make a simple salad a satisfying meal.

Salads provide true, non-gimmicky weight control; cancer-fighting chemicals that also have the excellent side effect of enlivening skin and eyes (vitamins found in salad vegetables even prevent some types of age-related eye disease). And, if you avoid fatty dressings, salad is a low-cholesterol, high-fiber meal that is exceedingly heart-healthy.

I could go on, but let's get to the task at hand: Here are some places to get top-notch salads or custom-build one to suit yourself.

Bon appetit!

Pepin Restaurant, 4125 Fourth St. N., St. Petersburg, 727-821-3773 — Old-style Spanish restaurant, but its namesake salad ($6.25) is always nicely done. If you dine at the restaurant rather than order takeout, the waiter prepares it with a flourish at your table. Start with sangria, then order salad, featuring crisp red- and green-leaf lettuces, Romaine, tomato, green olives, cabbage and an excellent, homemade oil-and-vinegar dressing, crowned with a sunny glacier of good-quality Parmesan. The excellent, homemade oil-and-vinegar dressing is tossed into the salad right before you, so the dish doesn't wilt before you get it. On the side is an aromatic black bread roll accented with cold, real butter.

Nimble Rabbit, 27 Fourth St. N., St. Petersburg, 727-895-1493 — Modest cafe located in downtown St. Pete, where The Blue Moon restaurant once did business. Its specialty is various incarnations of salad. Try the bleu Hawaiian salad ($4.95), hearty masses of mixed greens topped with bleu cheese, honeyed ham and (sadly, canned, not fresh) pineapple and mandarin oranges. The eatery's homemade dressing is delightful, but skip the accompanying stale roll and avoid the timid soups. Also delectable is the Mediterranean salad ($5.95), a bed of fresh greens topped with feta cheese, apple slices, sprouts, cashews and dried fruit.

Famous Greek Salads & More, 2508-A McMullen Booth Road, Clearwater, 727-797-4998 — Just a simple storefront in a huge suburban mall, but its "Original Famous Greek Salad" ($5.65), is delish. This huge grazer features lettuce, potato salad, fabulously red and flavorful tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, kalamata olives, pepperoncini, green peppers, beets, scallions and a slab of feta cheese so big, you need a knife to cut it. Or, try the Caesar salad — a hefty mound of greens topped with tasty, sauteed chicken and buttery croutons ($7.45) — drenched in a creamy Caesar dressing. You can also order minis of practically every salad, or order salad for as many as 10 people. One suggestion: The restaurant should replace its gooey, Wonder bread-style white rolls with crusty whole-grain varieties or peasant-style white bread made in a bakery.

Kash 'N Karry, 2100 W. Swann Ave., Tampa, 813-254-6800 — An excellent salad bar next to the deli carries more than 50 items, including a knockout tuna salad pocked with hefty chunks of purple onion, boiled egg and celery; fresh honeydew, watermelon, cantaloupe and strawberries, and several homemade desserts each day, like banana or rice pudding. A bargain at $3.45 a pound, it's almost impossible to spend more than $5. Only demerit: Needs a better selection of fresh, low-cal dressings.

Cafe European, 113 Hyde Park Ave. S., 813-254-9458 — The restaurant is popular with academics from University of Tampa and businesspeople working downtown. Cafe European's salmon salad ($6.95 lunch, $9.95 dinner, with extra fish and different dressing) is addictive. Crisp, fresh mix of Romaine and iceberg, tomatoes, cucumbers, grated carrots, shredded red cabbage and salmon — first poached, and then marinated overnight in a white wine concoction. The homemade dressing, a subtle mix of olive oil and red wine vinegar, is out of this world. The salad is accompanied by a slab of Cuban bread, and tastes best on a hot day, washed down with the restaurant's icy, flavorful tea.

Ben's Family Restaurant, 704 E. Brandon Blvd., Brandon, 813-685-5501 — You'd have a hard time finding a cleaner restaurant than this spotless family-owned-and-operated eatery, so tidy you feel as if you could literally dine from the floor. Another attraction is its gigantic chef's salad ($6.95), iceberg and Romaine lettuces topped with turkey, ham, bacon, cheese, cherry tomatoes, red cabbage and a whole boiled egg. Try the restaurant's bleu cheese dressing; its smooth texture and fragrant odor help the salad considerably. The restaurant also does a respectable fried or grilled chicken salad ($6.95), greens tossed with so-fresh crispy chicken tenders and perked up with Mozzarella, boiled egg, tomato and cucumber.

Health food stores are always a good bet for salad bars that are particularly well stocked. Try the Bunny Hop Cafe and Nature's Food Patch in Clearwater (1225 Cleveland St., 727-443-6703) with 50 items on its salad bar, including organic favorites like pesto pasta, carrot raisin and teriyaki tofu salads ($4.99 a pound, or $7.49 for all-you-can-eat soup and salad combination). Homemade dressings include a feisty tofu ranch and, for dessert, peach, cherry, blueberry or apple crisp. Nature's Harvest Market and Deli in Tampa (1021 MacDill Ave., 813-873-7428), also has a hefty salad bar, with consummately fresh sprouts, cashews, tabouli, spinach, seeds and hummus ($5.25 per pound). Rollin' Oats Whole Foods Market and Cafe in St. Petersburg (2842 Ninth St. N., 727-895-4910) boasts 24 items on its salad bar, including tabouli, hummus, smoked tofu and cucumber salad ($2.95 small, $4.95 large, including beverage), with a nice selection of all-organic dressings.

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