SPRING has sprung, and with it the perennial battle over what makes Nicoise salad "Nicoise."
The Riviera-born favor ite is popping up on many a spring menu, but in myriad mutant forms that have purists fuming.
Nothing drives them crazier than Nicoise made with fresh tuna. "Salade Nicoise with fresh tuna is a travesty," my friend Mimi Sheraton, the former New York Times critic, cheerfully scolded me after I praised Nicoise made with seared tuna at Time Warner Center's Landmarc last week.
"If you like it, you are wrong!"
Most every French-born chef agrees with her. Traditional Nicoise is built around canned tuna. It suavely marries the preserved product to string beans, olives, cooked potatoes, tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs (and, sometimes, scallions and anchovies) so its natural oily essence permeates all the elements; Le Bernardin pilot Eric Ripert calls the effect "osmosis."
But today, most New York chefs regard anything less than "fresh" as blasphemous, and the canned classic is harder than ever to find.
Even the Upper West Side's Nice Matin, named for the salad's home city, uses fresh tuna. The twist is that it's poached in olive oil - "a process to achieve the canned effect using fresh tuna," says sous-chef Adrian Leskiw.
But, "Canned tuna always," declares Francois Payard, owner of Payard Bistro on Lexington Avenue. Landmarc's dish "is vegetable salad with grilled tuna," BLT Fish chef Laurent Tourondel says. "It is not Nicoise."
In a reversal of stereotypes, it's non-French chefs and owners who look down their noses at old-style Nicoise.
But the Nicoise debate even goes beyond the fish. Take potatoes. Payard, who was born in Nice, says they don't belong.
"In Nice, we didn't use potatoes. It is supposed to be a summer dish and very light." But Tourondel harrumphed, "I've never found any without potatoes."
Ours will include canned tuna and potatoes.
Another area of debate is whether the Salade Niçoise should be tossed, with or without lettuce, or served "deconstructed". Ours will be deconstructed, served "en famille" so club members may choose what they wish to try, and leave behind what they do not.