BEST SALAD - 2004
The salad of the year was a mushroom salad. Well, not really. It wasn't really a mushroom salad, officially. Officially, it was a spinach and arugula salad, but it had a whole forest floor's worth of pale mushroomy marvels in it: ghostly oyster mushrooms, spidery enoki mushrooms, a few golden chanterelles with that subtle fruity scent they have. The spinach and arugula were dressed with a bit of fragrant rosemary oil, scattered with all those mushrooms, planted with a dollop of fresh, sharp chèvre, and scattered with toasted hickory nuts--it was a gorgeous thing. Understated but bountiful. Another Dakota salad was the year's runner-up: It was a beet salad, which, of course, is a classic, but this beet salad had many, many chunks of roasted beets combined with a bold, good blue cheese and topped with sweet crisps of fried fennel that perfectly accented the sweet points of the salad. It's unprecedented, we think, that the best salad and the runner-up should live in the same restaurant--it takes a certain maturity to make a great salad, to showcase strong ingredients, to understand them, and then not to trample all over them with your ego. But that's just the kind of mature restaurant the Dakota is. Could salad, the freshest dish, be in fact the ultimate food of wisdom?