Side dishes aren’t just co-stars anymore
By Caitlin M. O’Shaughnessy
While you can’t exactly complain about buttery mashed potatoes and a simply prepared green vegetable, restaurants across the West Coast are saying goodbye to traditional side dishes and embracing accompaniments that can be just as alluring and creative (if not more!) than the entrée itself. From quinoa and polenta, to good ol’ mac and cheese, chefs aren’t hesitating to let delicious, seasonally-inspired and outstandingly prepared side dishes take center stage to both complement and possibly even compete with the main dish.
What makes a good side dish great?
At Oenotri in Napa, California, Chef Tyler Rodde feels that “the most important aspect of a good side dish is first and foremost: flavor.” Side dishes present a unique opportunity to showcase something the chef is excited about preparing that may not have a specific place on the menu. As Rodde notes, “Oftentimes, we find a new product from the farmers’ market that may not have a great place on the menu paired with a specific protein, but is fantastic in the context of a large communal-style dinner.” These are times when side dishes really shine at Oenotri, Chef Rodde’s favorite side is currently “the fried padron peppers from the garden, served with Tokyo turnips, iceberg lettuce and brace of Bullfeather Farms quail with flageolet beans.”
Chef Ben Pote, at Rotisserie & Wine in Napa, features upwards of five side dishes on their current dinner menu, including warm braised radish with candied pecans and chives. He says, “The beauty of being a chef on the West Coast is the amazing produce that’s available to us. As a result, I think chefs have really begun to explore the idea of creative side dishes more the idea that guests can be won over not only by a solid entrée, but accompaniments as well. To me, a good side dish is simple and approachable, and has the ability to stand on its own or accompany an entrée.”
Chubby Noodle, the pop-up noodle bar (located inside Amante in North Beach, San Francisco) by the team at Don Pisto’s, features an internationally inspired sides menu, with polenta, sesame noodles and kimchi coleslaw. Chef Pete Mrabe understands the value of a great side dish: “Great sides are every diner’s favorite. More often than not, I hear about how a place has the best onion rings, mac and cheese, creamed spinach, guacamole, and the list goes on. Sides become staples on menus more so than anything else. That is my inspiration. I believe a great side is a dish that complements other dishes on your menu, but also can stand on its own. Let the diners eat what they want; they are guests in our house.”
So many sides, so little time
Another reason side dishes are such a treat for both diners and the chefs who create them is that they allow for so much originality; side dishes can be mainstays on the menu or they can change daily, weekly or seasonally. Chef Pote takes advantage of this when designing his menu at Rotisserie & Wine, saying: “The hard truth of being a chef today is that there is very rarely innovation, but more often inspiration. I see something on an old menu of mine, or see something at the farmers’ market that I haven’t used before, and gather inspiration from what’s happening around me. The radish dish came out of the abundance of radishes we had in our walk-in one day, and I tried to think about what a side dish of only radishes would look like. Braising them and adding an element of crunch and sweetness with the candied pecans came out of trial and error.”
Seasonally-inspired sides are a great way for a restaurant to embrace locally-grown produce and to enhance the current menu without completely changing the entreés around; at Luna Red in San Luis Obispo, Executive Chef Shaun Behrens focuses on constructing an ethically responsible menu created from scratch. “Currently, our favorite side dish is the pickle plate. Once a week we pickle everything that’s in our walk-in refrigerator to preserve it and to make room for the incoming influx of farmers’ market produce. There probably is a side dish which I haven’t included on the menu, but it just happens that when I get inspired, it eventually makes it on. Food cost is a main concern when deciding on size and price point. I typically try to work items into small plate format first, then if it doesn’t stand alone, then it ends up on an entrée.” At Luna Red, Chef Behrens constantly changes the side dishes depending on the market: “My challenge is typically dictated by the seasonality of our local produce. The weather is so moderate here that some ‘seasonal’ items such as strawberries and snap peas are available year round, but tomatoes either arrive early or run late. It’s challenging to predict when these items are to arrive. My advice to the restaurant world would be to offer what I call the PB&J combo, create a dish that the guest is familiar with but with a unique twist.”
Stealing center stage
While side dishes are often the most beloved items on a menu, it’s a fine line between supporting the main dish and stealing the show a great side dish manages to successfully navigate this culinary dilemma. At Seasons restaurant at the Four Seasons San Francisco, Chef Mark Richardson understands the trials of creating an exemplary side dish, citing some of the challenges: “Cost and portion size always play a role in decision making. I don’t want a customer to become full eating a side dish, and it has to be cost effective. There is a special balance between value and portion size that is considered with each side.” At Seasons, Chef Richardson is currently featuring a number of mouth-watering sides, including a corn, jalapeño and pancetta spoon bread, a “simple but extremely delicious” aligot potato puree and braised greens with a hen egg served at 63 degrees Celsius.
Aside from portion size and cost, other considerations that come into play while developing superior side dishes are dependent on the restaurant’s demographics. At Oenotri, Chef Rodde observes that “…some things just don’t sell to specific parts of the demographic of the restaurant. For example we tend to not run a fish-based side dish on Friday and Saturday because we have more first-time diners in the restaurant on those days; generally speaking, they tend to be less open to new or exotic ingredients as opposed to mid-week when regulars that will eat the exotic just to see what it is about, like the braised squid in its own ink on a crostini.”
At a restaurant where diners flock to enjoy their old favorites, changing or reconfiguring entrées can be a serious commitment. This is where side dishes step in and play such a valuable role. At Jar, a modern chophouse in Los Angeles, Chef Suzanne Tracht’s side dishes complement the fantastic braises, broils and sautés on their traditional steakhouse menu. Chef Tracht comments that “We like our customers to order an entrée and several side dishes. Since we serve them family style, it makes an attractive pairing with a group of diners if they are just a couple or a large group, and everyone can share. I use my main entreés that I’m serving as the inspiration and as the springboard for creating the sides and to make the best fit with the main courses.” Currently on Jar’s menu Chef Tracht includes long-cooked black kale, purple yams with crème fraiche and chives, sautéed pea tendrils with garlic and water spinach with garlic and red chilies, all of which outshine old steakhouse standards.
Not only can side dishes transform and update a mainstay menu, they also provide an excellent option for chefs to accommodate specific dietary restrictions. At Jean Georges Steakhouse at the Aria in Las Vegas, Executive Chef Robert Moore takes a unique approach to creating side dishes for his menu, saying, “Inspiration has to come from your surroundings. I enjoy making food that I like to eat, not what I think is cool. I always keep allergies in mind as people are getting more in touch with what their bodies are telling them. We always have gluten and dairy free options. With customers continuously becoming more health conscious and us as professionals trying to make healthier choices for our guests, sides are a good choice for entrées. We also have vegetarian/vegan options off menu available for our guests.” This fall, Chef Moore is featuring the extremely popular black truffle and Comté fritters, which he describes as “simple, but a flavor bomb.” And while not new or exotic, the most popular side dish at Jean Georges Steakhouse remains: mashed potatoes. But Chef Moore strays from the traditional, adding his own twist by offering “truffle, blue cheese, roasted garlic, Parmesan, wasabi and lobster mashed potatoes, all off menu.”
Side dishes provide the perfect opportunity for chefs to experiment, follow their passion and try something out with a new dish that may or may not work, without taking
a huge risk. Chef Pote at Rotisserie & Wine puts it best: “Oftentimes, I find that guests are looking for something they know, so we have to find the balance on the menu of providing them with classic interpretations of dishes that they know and love alongside newer, more unique offerings that will broaden their culinary horizons a little bit. This is the kind of challenge that keeps us sharp!”