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Sides in the Spotlight

A different textural treatment sets sides apart. These “ripped” Idaho potatoes are baked, cooled, then ripped into sections, deep-fried and topped with parsley and Parmesan. Photo courtesy of idaho potato commission.
These days, any restaurant that limits its side dishes to bland and basic is behind the times

By Joan Lang

There’s more to side dishes than baked, mashed or fried — a lot more:

> More twists on the flavor profile — from sauces and spicy dusts to more creative mashes. At Bis on Main in Seattle, the frites are truffled and the mashed potatoes are kissed with olive oil and garlic.

> More upgrades on the classics, like the coleslaw that’s made with champagne vinegar, aïoli and parsley at Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf, a bistro-cum-steakhouse in Chicago.

> More types of veggies, from heirloom carrots to Brussels sprouts. More cooking methods, and more ways to romance them on the menu, as in the Charred Broccoli with cheese sauce served at the new wood-fired restaurant Preserve 24, in New York City, where there are separate sections for Sides (such as Molasses Butter Beans) and Fire-Roasted Vegetables (the aforementioned broccoli).

> Indeed, there’s movement in menu positioning, with items that would traditionally be called Sides being moved to such new categories as Bar Bites, Shareables and Small Plates, where they do double-duty as snacks, appetizers and vegetarian options.

All of which proves that side dishes are no longer on the sidelines. Here are a dozen sides stepping into the culinary spotlight.

1. Gratins Get Busy
This old-fashioned baked “casserole” is finding new life as a side dish, especially now that so many chefs are gravitating to wood-fired ovens.

Classic au gratin potatoes are recast in items like the creamy Potato & Broccoli Gratin on the menu at San Diego’s pubby R-Gang Eatery. Not surprisingly, gratins have also been reborn at steakhouses as a value-added side dish. There’s the Cauliflower Gratin served at Stark’s Steak & Seafood in Santa Rosa, Calif., which turns several other classic steakhouse sides on their ears, including Sautéed Bloomsdale Spinach with Lemon and Pea Shoots, and Roasted Cremini Mushrooms with Miso Vinaigrette.

At Per Diem in San Francisco, this versatile cooking technique is deployed as a Seasonal Vegetable Gratin that takes advantage of whatever’s freshest on the market.

And keep in mind that most mac-and-cheese recipes are also a form of gratin, from the luxe Macaroni & Cheese with Gruyère, Fontina and aged white cheddar under a Ritz cracker crust at Sweet Chick in Brooklyn, N.Y., to the flavorful Baked Penne Vodka Mac & Cheese with garlic, vodka, plum tomatoes, mozzarella and Nosh Fontina cheese wiz at Nosh in Portland, Maine.

> Gratin of Grilled Radicchio, Spring Peas and White Beans: Bagna cauda cream, parsley, breadcrumbs
— Ox, Portland, Ore.
> Asparagus au Gratin — Rare, Little Falls, N.J.

With almost equal menu distribution in sides, small plates and appetizers, gratins are a prime example of a side dish that has jumped into new menu categories.

2. Slaw Variations
It’s totally in character with today’s trends in side dishes that even something as prosaic as coleslaw would come in for exciting upgrades in technique, flavor and ingredients.

Part of this newfound popularity has to do with the urban barbecue craze, which has given rise to meat-and-three menu concepts that include classic sides like coleslaw (as well as potato salad, cornbread and beans) with a twist. At Belly Q in Chicago, chef Bill Kim’s Asian-accented menu includes an umami-rich Asian slaw dressed with Vietnamese fish-sauce dip. And at Sweet Chick, which specializes in chicken-and-waffles in the trend epicenter of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, the cabbage version has been replaced by crispy Collard & Carrot Slaw.

There’s also a move afoot to make the mayonnaise-based staple healthier. Seasons 52 menus a refreshing Fuji Apple Slaw mixed with jicama, fresh mint and cider vinaigrette.

> Marinated Slaw: Feta, scallions, light vinaigrette (no mayo)
— Zoe’s Kitchen, all locations
> Coleslaw: Red Cabbage, Fried Garlic, Dill
— No. 7 Sub, New York City

3. Haute-Humble: Grits & Polenta
The popularity of Southern cuisine has led to surging interest in grits, especially from artisanal mills, like the Anson Mills Grits with Maytag Blue and Applewood-Smoked Bacon at Bungalow Lakehouse in Sterling, Va. Grits are always up for a little lily-gilding, like the Creamy Cheese Grits with Andouille at Pappadeux Seafood Kitchen locations.

Polenta can be served soft and creamy, as a substitute for mashed potatoes, or it can be cooked, chilled, and cut into shapes ranging from crostini to planks and frites. At Bin 14 in Hoboken, N.J., creamy polenta takes a topping of poached egg, chorizo and Parmesan, transforming it into a shareable small plate.

> Roasted Corn & Basil Polenta Bites: Pesto-baked polenta topped with fresh roasted corn, basil, red pepper, onion and a touch of Native cheese — Native Foods Café, all locations
> Smoked Gouda Grits — Olivia, Austin, Texas

Both grits and polenta have cheese as one of their most common pairings. This opens up the spectrum of hundreds of possible flavors.
We definitely see polenta being perceived as an item featured more prominently at higher priced restaurants, while grits have come in as a side approachable by all segments.

Sweet Chick’s Kale BLT salad — with house-cured bacon, tomatoes and preserved lemon vinaigrette — makes greens craveable. Photo courtesy of daniel krieger.
4. The Greens are Always Greener
Cooked greens are a fact of life in the cuisines of so many different cultures — consider the stir-fried watercress of China or the stewed collards of the American South.

Greens fit with so many different menu concepts, from the Creole Mustard Braised Greens with pepper jelly-glazed Brussels sprouts served at Café Adelaide in New Orleans to the Kale B.L.T. Salad with house-cured bacon, tomatoes and preserved lemon vinaigrette at Sweet Chick in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Greens of various types are also an ideal match for the seasonal, local, farm-to-table sensibility of so many chefs. Anthony Strong of Locanda in San Francisco features über-seasonal greens like bitter cicoria (chicory) with garlic and hot pepper; cavolo cinese (Chinese cabbage) with pine nuts, garum and lemon; and Peas and Shoots with spring onions and Straus yogurt. And Chris Cheung of the new Cherrywood Kitchen in New York City crafted a signature-making recipe of Spring Vegetables Steamed in Lotus Leaf with Crispy Smoked Mushrooms for the opening menu.

> Greens: Braised collards, mustard greens, coconut milk, ginger, applewood-smoked bacon, crispy onions — Pecking Order, Chicago
> Turnip Greens — Cracker Barrel, all locations
> Chile and Anchovy Pickled Rabe Leaves — St. Vincent Tavern, San Francisco

5. Fries and More Fries
French fries have been around a long, long time, and yet it seems they’ve never been more popular.

Restaurants are practicing frites one-upmanship. Sometimes they pair perfectly made fries with an interesting sauce, like the French-Fried Potatoes with Sriracha Mayonnaise at The Woodsman Tavern in Portland, Ore. Or varying the potato type or the shape (Thick? Thin? Yes, indeed.)

Or they serve more varieties: Polpettina in Eastchester, N.Y., features five different kinds of fries, and two different sizes of each: Sea Salt; Garlic Chip & Herb (with crispy garlic, rosemary, thyme and sage); Spicy (ancho and chipotle chile, with spicy aïoli); Truffle Parmesan; and Bacon & Egg (topped with a sunny egg, bacon salt and scallion).

And then, of course, there are all those examples of poutine, that over-the-top French-Canadian specialty that can be as much an appetizer/snack as a side. Jamie DeRosa, chef/owner of the Tongue & Cheek restaurant in Miami, serves “Poutine” Pastrami Spice Fries — hand-cut fries with housemade poutine, topped with shredded pastrami.

> Yukon Gold Potato Crisps, BBQ Salt — Cherrywood Kitchen, New York City
> Poutine of the Day — Nosh Bar & Kitchen, Portland, Maine

French fries are one of the most common side dishes on menus, period. They’re found in more than half of all U.S. restaurants, so operators should be constantly thinking about how to differentiate their fries.

6. Lots of Tots
They’re not quite the new french fry, but this is definitely the age of the handcrafted potato tot. And why not? Tots have many of the same virtues, as a crispy, widely appealing, even addictive backdrop for all kinds of toppings and flavors.

There’s something satisfying about ordering this circa-1953 standard (originally created to utilize waste from fry production) in a next-level incarnation, like the Sweet Tots available in two sizes of sweet-potato tots with blackberry barbecue sauce at Straw Carnival Fare in San Francisco, or the housemade Underground Tots at R-Gang Eatery in San Diego (topped with black truffle, Parmesan and herbs de Provence, with foie gras crème sauce). To say nothing of “totine” (tot poutine) at any number of places that specialize in food that goes with beer.

There’s even a food truck in Minneapolis called Tot Boss, hawking the likes of bacon-wrapped tots and a Tots ’n Dogs basket combining the spuds with mini corndogs.

> Tamale Tots: Tomato-poblano mole — Seasons 52, all locations
> Tater Tot Hautedish: Porcini, short rib, green beans, “tots” — Haute Dish, Minneapolis

7. Ancient Grains: Quinoa & Farro
What’s old is new again when it comes to the ancient grains that are being resurrected for of-the-moment sides. Quinoa, which is actually a seed, may have been domesticated 4,000 years ago in the Andes. It’s a nutritional powerhouse — high in protein, as well as pleasingly textured and versatile. And chewy, wheat-like farro, which is the original grain from which all others derived, is believed to have sustained the Romans.

Manhattan Beach Post in Manhattan Beach, Calif., has both: a Tuscan Kale and Quinoa Salad, with roasted beets, pine nuts, tomato and Drake’s Farm goat cheese; and farro tossed with butternut squash, hen of the woods mushrooms, Parmesan, pepitas and sage.

A simple, healthy dish of Quinoa & Dried Fruit is on the menu at Lido Restaurant & Bayside Grill in The Standard, an upscale spa hotel in Miami Beach. And satisfying farro is often cast as a seasonal side salad: the Warm Farro Salad at Bar Corvo in Brooklyn, N.Y., paired with Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, red onion, hazelnuts and goat cheese; and the Winter Vegetable Salad (Red Russian kale and farro tossed in sherry vinaigrette with butternut squash, cranberries, hazelnuts and Asiago) at Loretta Jean’s in Portland, Ore.

> Fava Beans and Farro Verde — Bluestem Brasserie, San Francisco
> Quinoa Grain and Citrus Salad: Jicama, cranberry, fresh mint
— Seasons 52, all locations

Much of the talk around health and wellness, combined with the rise in gluten-free, has started to widen the horizons in terms of grain mentions. Ancient and unique grains are still in their infancy, just starting to appear on menus, while common grains like rice are expanding with different varietals.

8. Beets & Brussels Sprouts Steal the Show
Was there ever a bigger success story than Brussels sprouts? Or beets, for that matter, which have been entrenched on menus since the early aughts, especially in salad form?

From the subject of Mom’s idle “Eat your veggies” threats to becoming the darlings of the side-dish world, these once-maligned ingredients have earned their place on menus. And they’re still seeing lots of creativity. Witness the Roasted Golden Beets with skyr, bitter greens and acacia honey at Uchi in Austin, Texas. Meanwhile, “Beets, Cocoa Nib, Cheese Curd” is on the menu at San Francisco’s St. Vincent Tavern. At Ripple in Washington, D.C., the list of side dishes includes beet greens with bacon — not to let any part of this useful vegetable go to waste.

As far as Brussels sprouts go, they seem to be everywhere, roasted with bacon and/or kimchi (popularized by David Chang of Momofuku). Nascent healthy fast-casual chain LYFE Kitchen serves a side of Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Butternut Squash with dried cranberries and Dijon vinaigrette, while The Thomas in Napa, Calif., serves its sprouts crispy, with chile caramel.

> Marinated Beets with Hazelnut Tarator, Sheep’s Feta and Dukkah — Sitka & Spruce, Seattle
> Caramelized Brussels Sprouts: Pancetta, prunes and thyme — La Petite Grocery, New Orleans

Beets have really found a foothold as a salad ingredient, with over 70 percent of mentions with a salad. Of restaurants that have beets on the menu, 40 percent of them roast the vegetable.

There is a lot of room for Brussels sprouts to grow in foodservice — the majority of menu mentions are from independent operators. One out of five restaurants with Brussels sprouts on the menu are going to roast them, and every other common preparation includes some type of caramelization — whether sautéing, grilling or charring.

There’s a new found appreciation for the simple appeal of roasted corn, particularly served on the cob, such as Seasons 52’s version. Photo courtesy of seasons 52.
9. Beans: Global Comfort
Around the globe, humble beans form the comforting base of many a dish, so it should come as no surprise that at a time of culinary casualization, they’re spot-on for pushing boundaries in flavor and menu format. And while they’ve long been a trusted side-dish staple, beans have proven themselves as trend-forward in recent years, loyally following the momentum of regional Americana cuisine, modernized barbecue concepts and all manner of rustic global fare.
Menu descriptors are a big opportunity here, as beans’ varietal differences, flavor attributes and cooking styles are so vast. Many menus are lagging behind the times in calling out these signature attributes, whether it be the sweetness of baked beans or the added ingredients that make the dish unique and appealing. At New York City’s venerable Hill Country BBQ, they’re Campfire Baked Beans with Burnt Ends, while at Gristmill in New Braunfels, Texas, they’re “spicy pintos flavored with bacon and jalapeños.”

> Mrs. King’s Baked Beans with brisket bits, garlic, onion, red peppers — Smoke Berkeley, Berkeley, Calif.
> White Bean Purée, grilled escarole, pine nuts, grapes; served with the Carlton Farms Pork Shoulder — Restaurant Zoe, Seattle

10. Carrots Go Glam
Carrots, really? Could there be a more plebian vegetable side dish? Well, no, not when it’s the likes of the Tunisian Roasted Local Carrots with pine nuts, olives and mint served at Willi’s Wine Bar in Santa Rosa, Calif., or the Maple Glazed Heirloom Carrots with Briar Rose chèvre, tarragon and truffle-salted pistachios at Ox in Portland, Ore.

Carrots have gone glamour-puss, thanks to the heirloom vegetable/local farm movement, and to chefs’ inspired tinkering, taking on nuts, cheeses, interesting cooking techniques and unusual spices and seasonings.

At Seattle’s Sitka & Spruce, the once-pedestrian root vegetable is transformed into a Roasted Carrot Salad with chickpea purée, warm dates and honey, a creative take on glazed carrots if ever there was one. The young carrots baked in aromatic salt crust, paired with sheep’s milk and marsh samphire (a foraged succulent similar to salicornia) on the menu at Volt, in Frederick, Md., have been elevated right to the stratosphere.

> Caramelized Carrots: Guajillo chile, coconut, pepita brittle
— Partake, Santa Rosa, Calif.
> Zanahorias: Wood-oven roasted baby carrots, caramelized honey and thyme — Gitane, San Francisco

When it comes to mainstream menus, a flavor-enhancement opportunity lies with carrots: In menu mentions, glazing is still the most common preparation method, followed closely by steaming. Chefs should take a cue from the Brussels sprouts boom and look to caramelization techniques for a flavor punch.

11. New in Town: Cauliflower & Sunchokes
Ah, the once lowly brassicas and root vegetables that have become so adored by kitchens and customers alike. But if roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon and colorful beets with goat cheese have become as mainstream as creamed spinach, then it stands to reason that there would be something new under the sun.

Cauliflower! Roasted whole at Domenica in New Orleans; sliced into plancha’d steaks at New York’s Bar Corvo; caramelized with chile Calabrese and capers at Parkside in Austin, Texas; or dressed with sprightly salsa verde at St. Vincent Tavern in San Francisco. And the Creamy Mashed Cauliflower, at 135 calories, fits in with Ruby Tuesday’s Fit & Trim program.

And then there are the sunchokes that have been popping up on market-driven menus. Also called Jerusalem artichokes (a corruption of the Italian girasole, or sunflower, of which the sunchoke is the root), this sweet-nutty ingredient is delicious roasted or sliced raw when young and springtime-fresh, but it can also be served in the fall. At Locanda in San Francisco, sunchokes are smoked and served with peppercorn butter, while the chef at Sepia in Chicago serves them pan-roasted with thyme.

> Cauli-Mashed Potatoes — VegiGrill, all locations
> Symphony of Southern Greens: Slow-braised beet greens, skillet broccoli with bacon, buttermilk collard green purée, mustard-green slaw, crisp kale, potlikker, sunchoke pickle — Restaurant Eugene, Atlanta
> Roasted Sunchokes — Preserve 24, New York City

Due to its relatively neutral flavor, cauliflower is a great carrier for a multitude of flavors across many ethnic cuisines. It is a fairly common ingredient in Indian dishes; and spice blends like curry or masala really shine when paired with a nutty caramelized cauliflower.

Cauliflowers and sunchokes are able to ride the success of one of the most common side vegetables: the potato. The variation in preparations and flavors with these two ingredients is almost limitless if used in a similar manner.

12. All Ears: Corn
America’s top field crop is also one of the most versatile and on-trend side-dish ingredients, from corn on the cob and creamed corn to roasted corn preparations. Much of corn’s menu momentum comes from a few key influences: the renewed appreciation of American regional cuisines — especially that of the South — and a growing awareness of traditional Native American flavors and techniques. And there’s Mexico’s beloved street snack, elote — roasted corn on the cob layered with mayo, Cotija cheese and chile powder.

Roasted corn off the cob has also emerged as a star menu application. The Street Corn served at Torchy’s Tacos, with 18 locations in Texas, combines off-the-cob roasted corn with ancho aïoli, queso fresco and cilantro, dusted with New Mexican red chile powder. The two-unit Fresh Corn Grill in the Los Angeles area specializes in — no surprise — grilled corn cut from the cob and served with entrées, folded into soups and salads, and more.

> Rustic Creamy Corn with N.Y. State Cheddar — Daisy May’s, New York City
> Fire-Roasted Corn on the Cob — Weber Grill Restaurants, Illinois and Indiana

Latin American influences have made chile peppers the most common companion to corn sides.

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About The Author

Joan Lang

A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.