The Chef’s Take: Max Snyder’s Yali Pear Salad at Le Marais

At San Francisco's Le Marais, the beautiful artisanal bistro and bakery in the Marina District, the crowds come for many reasons. Some arrive just past dawn for the best Kouign-Mann and croissants this side of the Atlantic Ocean. (It doesn’t hurt that pastry chef Emily Riddell uses locally-milled organic flours and European-style organic butter). Others come for lunch — a crusty griddled ham and cheddar with grainy mustard and cornichon, and a salad of roasted beets with pomegranate, fennel and burrata, or one composed of Yali pears and wild greens, walnut, celery root and bitter onion. Late afternoon it's bakery time again — a cup of Stumptown coffee and a slice of banana pecan bread, and then back for dinner — maybe scallops with persimmon and Serrano ham, black bass en papillote with turnips sorrel and lemon verbena, or smoky confited chicken with chickpeas, raddichio and citrus. The place is always humming with happy people.

But truth be told, it's more than just the food that keeps the crowds in que. Owner Patrick Ascaso, a former investment professional with a passion for food, and his wife Joanna Pulcini, a literary agent, have created the kind of restaurant you can't quite tear yourself away from. The service is great, the place is charming, and the food is divine. You may never care to leave. "The idea was to create a European eatery that serves food all day long, with the scents of bread baking in the morning, and then the pastry in the afternoon, and the wood-grilling savory dishes at night," said Ascaso. "With the wood interior, it is remarkable how the space changes from the warmth of a bakery to the elegant feel of a bistro at night."

Their chef, Max Snyder, is passionate about vegetables and a champion of simplicity. Eating fruit from the tree in his grandparents' garden and sharing meals at their table fostered an early interest in cooking early on. Nurturing his passion, Snyder washed dishes and devoured cookbooks, quickly working his way up the ladder at a local trattoria with a kitchen garden in his hometown of Austin, Texas. He never looked back. Since then, Snyder has worked at Koi, 11 Madison Park, and The Nomad, before joining Le Marais in late October.

For this salad, which is on the bistro menu at lunch and dinner, Snyder uses firm and crunchy sweet Yali pears (a variety of Asian pear) with toasted walnuts, celery root, bitter onion, and a variety of greens (many of which he forages locally) dressed simply with lemon juice and walnut oil. "There are many little flavors and details in the salad just from the mix of greens," says Snyder. "Some are bitter, some soft, some sweet, some fibrous. I like to make a salad that has lots of interest and little surprises. Overall it's about finding the greatest ingredients and cooking them perfectly."

Yali Pear and Wild Leaves Salad
4 Servings
2 Yali or Shinko (Asian) Pears
1 large celery root
1 Spanish onion
1 cup walnuts
1 Meyer lemon
1 pint grapeseed oil
2 tablespoons walnut oil
A few large handfuls in total of any combination of the following:
- baby dandelion greens
- chickweed
- lambsquarters
- wild pea flowers and tendrils
- nasturtiums
- oxalis
- frisee
- radicchio di luisa
- ruby streaks mustard greens
- wild fennel fronds and green pods
- wild arugula
- radish flowers
- carrot flowers

The specific greens don't matter too much, but you do want a balance of sweet and bitter greens as well as tender and fibrous textures. Pick over your selection for any blemishes, bugs or imperfect leaves, then submerge in ice water for five minutes. Remove your greens from the bath and spin dry in an herb spinner. Having greens that are both crisp and dry is essential to making a nice salad. Hold your washed greens in an airtight container in the fridge while you assemble the rest of the components.

Preheat an oven to 325 degrees F. Spread the walnuts on a baking tray and toast until fragrant, golden brown throughout and brittle tender.

Scrub the celery root under cool running water to loosen any dirt that might be lodged in its nooks and crannies, then trim away the root and stem ends so you have two flat sides. Carefully cut off all of the skin in strips to a depth of about 1/2 inch, yielding 8 or so 1/2-inch thick strips of celery root skin and the center of the peeled celery root.

Cut these strips into inspired shapes or just chop them into bite sized pieces. Heat a film of walnut oil in a saute pan and add the celery root pieces. Toss them with a little salt and cook without coloring. They are done when the raw flavor has mellowed a bit, but still retain some crunch. Remove from the heat and reserve at room temperature until needed.

Cut the peeled celery root into 1-inch chunks and buzz in your food processor until it is the consistency of sawdust. Combine the celery root pulp with the grape seed oil in a pot and place over medium heat. As the oil comes up in temperature the celery will start to sizzle. Fry until deep golden brown, then strain at once and drain on paper towels. Reserve the oil.

Peel the onion and grate on the large holes of a box grater. Combine the onion with the frying oil in your frying pot and again bring up to a sizzle. Fry until the onion is mahogany colored, then strain and drain on paper towels. Break up the onions with your fingers as they cool to prevent them from clumping.

Combine the walnuts, fried celery root pulp and fried onions in the food processor and pulse to a uniform bread crumb consistency.

Cut the pears into bite sized pieces.

Place your greens in a large bowl with the celery root skin pieces and pear pieces. Grate a few of the pear pieces with a microplane into the bowl. Use the microplane to add some lemon zest as well. Dress everything with a little walnut oil, lemon juice and salt to taste, being careful not to crush the greens. Transfer to a plate and top with the bitter onion crumble.

Andrea Strong is a freelance writer whose work has appeared everywhere from The New York Times to Edible Brooklyn. She's probably best known as the creator of The Strong Buzz, her food blog about New York City restaurants. She lives in Queens with her two kids, her husband and her big appetite.

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