My mom had been talking about taking me to Virgil’s Café for weeks before we finally made it to the small restaurant. “The salad is to die for!” she kept chanting. Now, of all things to rave about on a menu, a salad is probably the last thing in the world anyone would dream of trekking 20 miles to eat at a restaurant, so naturally I was intrigued. Furthermore, Virgil’s is located in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Bellevue, Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati, and my mom and I wanted to scout it out as a possible place for Doug and I to live whenever we move back home.
As I expected from my mom’s descriptions, Bellevue was a charmingly eclectic neighborhood, with a variety of independent stores and restaurants that exuded that artsy-but-elegant, hip-but-not-trendy, playful-but-polished vibe you can spot in blossoming art and entrepreneurial communities around the country. I immediately fell in love—I am, of course, the sort of person this area is playing to, and I think it might just be the area where I open my own storefront some day.
Virgil’s sits in the middle of this neighborhood, and most of its cozy dining room overlooks Fairfield Avenue. My mom, sister Annie and I came for brunch, but I can’t even remember what I ordered, just that I didn’t really care for it. Instead, I spent my time eating my sister’s Cubano and the salad my mom couldn’t stop raving about. And she was right: The salad was to die for.
The signature Fennel Salad at Virgil’s is unlike any salad I had ever had before. There’s absolutely no lettuce; instead, thinly shaved fennel steps in as the roughage. There’s no heavy dressing, but there is a light citrus vinaigrette with blue cheese crumbles, toasted pistachios, and fresh supremes of mandarin orange. The salad is light and crisp and wonderfully fresh—everything you could ever want in a salad.
Right then and there we decided to make our own version at home; I even served a version of this salad when I catered the Andrew Mistler Foundation auction dinner this past weekend, and not a single salad plate came back with a bite left on it. If you think you don’t like fennel, please try it this way before you come to any solid conclusions. This salad completely changed my mind about the anise-flavored (think licorice) bulb, and I know it will change yours too.
This recipe is more of a guide and ingredient list than an exact recipe, because it can be modified to fit your tastes. Don’t like blue cheese? Use feta or goat cheese. Want to cut your own mandarin supremes instead of taking them from a can? Go ahead, the fennel is your only must here.
Orange-Fennel Salad with Citrus Vinaigrette
Shred or slice the fennel bulbs into thin strips—after chopping off the greens and saving them for another use, like stock or soup—with a mandoline or food processor. Serves 4. This recipe is adapted from Virgil’s Cafe in Bellevue, Ky. Click here to download a copy of this recipe.
1-2 Tbs. Champagne, rice wine, or white wine vinegar
1 orange, or other citrus fruit, juiced
¼ c. extra virgin olive oil
1 fennel bulb, shredded or sliced into thin strips
1 small can mandarin oranges
½ c. toasted pistachios
½ c. blue cheese crumbles
Make vinaigrette. In small bowl, whisk together fruit juice and 1 Tbs. vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Slowly whisk in half of olive oil. Taste vinaigrette for seasoning. Add more oil, vinegar, or salt, for desired taste and consistency. Vinaigrette should be light and citrusy with a hint of acidity.
Arrange some of the shredded fennel on each plate. Garnish each salad with mandarin orange wedges, pistachios, and blue cheese crumbles. Spoon some of the vinaigrette over each salad. Serve.