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Stepped-Up Sides

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No longer an afterthought, adaptable and appetizing side dishes are having a moment.
By Amelia Levin September 2014

Thanks in part to the small-plates craze, side dishes have been elevated in both taste and presentation. It’s no longer sufficient to serve some sautéed green beans as the leading side. Nowadays, side dishes stand boldly paired with the center-of-the-plate stars.

Typically defined as non-protein dishes using vegetables and starches, sides have to taste great and carry much more visual and creative appeal. They also have to fit into a new way of shared, delicious dining—like family-style potato dishes that transition from oven to table in cast-iron pots; exciting new creations with vegetables; and even snacks versatile enough to eat with cocktails, appetizers, or entrées. Here’s a sampling of what restaurants around the country are doing with their petite pairings.

Ironside

Laura Pensiero, chef/owner of Gigi Trattoria in Rhinebeck, New York, serves a variety of sides in cast-iron pots, both for the attractive presentation and the cooking functionality. During the fall season, the pots hold hearty sides like maple pumpkin polenta with locally milled cornmeal and a Parmesan gratin topping, or fiaschetto, a side with creamy Tuscan giant white beans and sage, rosemary, and extra-virgin olive oil. Pensiero also uses the pots to serve seasonal roasted vegetables, pancetta-spiked Brussels sprouts, eggplant slow-cooked with garlic and herbs, and roasted sweet potatoes with leeks, figs, and toasted sesame seeds.

“Our vegetarian guests and meat eaters alike often make a meal just out of our sides and small plates,” Pensiero says.

STK Midtown, a modern steakhouse by The ONE Group in New York City, serves its thick-cut, rectangular Parmesan truffle fries stacked on mini cast-iron plates, which are meant to be shared around the table. STK’s sweet corn pudding, also served in mini ceramic dishes, has become another popular side.

Vegetable Varieties

With more vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free diners, vegetable cookery has entered its heyday, forcing chefs and restaurants to step up creativity and presentation when it comes to their veggie sides, which often showcase seasonal produce from local farms.

Duane Keller, executive chef of Walker’s Grille in Alexandria, Virginia, stuffs large, roasted yellow onions with Gorgonzola cheese, chives, and breadcrumbs. “I used to pair the onion with a porterhouse [steak] long ago, but then made it an à la carte menu item to satisfy a growing demand for vegetable dishes and as part of a whole section dedicated to seasonal side dishes,” says Keller, whose side menu includes eight to 10 seasonal, gluten-free dishes from local farms. “Our guests sometimes graze on them as small plates, since they’re all around $7,” he continues, adding that sides are a great way to upsell. “All chefs struggle to find space for all of the signature dishes, and sides are the same process. They require the same detailed preparation.”

Encouraging diners to explore and sample side dishes is all part of the fun. Cafe Deluxe, a five-location, bistro-style chain in the Washington, D.C., area, allows guests to choose four sides as a meal, which is especially popular among families with children.

Even the most basic vegetable staples, like carrots and potatoes, can take a creative stance. Sustainable seafood restaurant Kinmont in Chicago smokes carrots with hazelnuts, cumin, and a gremolata made with green carrot tops. Chef Blake Schumpert of 1200 Miles in New York City serves spiced roasted carrots with kale and Greek yogurt. And, Chef Craig Wallen of ’Cesca in New York City serves his rendition of roasted carrots with pistachio, whipped mascarpone, and citrus juice. He also makes an Italian-style agrodolce—a sweet, caramelized reduction—of spicy peppers paired with spinach.

Chefs are also experimenting with new ways to present starchy sides. At Bo’s Kitchen & Bar Room in New York City, partner and Chef Todd Mitgang prepares his mashed potatoes in a smoker, then tops the smoked starch with candied praline bacon.

Scott and Gina Gottlich, owners of Bijoux and The Second Floor Bistro & Bar at the Westin Galleria in Dallas, play to the growing Peruvian trend with a potato cake inspired by the South American favorite—using purple potatoes blended with eggs, butter cream, and herbs, then breaded and pan-fried for a rich, tasty side.

Modern Meat and Three

Other restaurants are showcasing their take on the classic Southern concept of meat and three, which traditionally paired meats like fried chicken, steak, or meatloaf with three choices usually selected from vegetables, potatoes, corn, beans, mac ‘n’ cheese, or salads.

Ted’s Bulletin, with three locations in the Washington, D.C., area, offers 15 sides on its nostalgic menu that has a TV-dinner, old-school approach to the meat and three, with a protein like fried chicken and sides like corn on the cob, mashed potatoes with gravy, and applesauce. With a Northern twist, the restaurant’s Coney Island hot dog comes with deep-fried mac ‘n’ cheese balls, coleslaw, and barbecue beans.

Snacks as Sides

Positioned somewhere in between the small plate and traditional side dish, snacks have appeared on many menus as pairings for cocktails and for use alongside larger, family-style entrées. SoBou in New Orleans offers a variety of these snacks, from simple pork cracklings with pecans, roasted garlic, and rosemary, to yellowfin tuna served in cones with basil and avocado ice cream.

In the nation’s capital, Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley is known for her snacks at Roofers Union, where she offers Sriracha honey wings and crispy pig ear salad, and at Ripple, which serves marinated olives, deviled eggs, house-made pickles, and bacon-roasted pecans as popular bar treats or sides.