One chef's contorni is another's side of veg. Not lost in translation though is the creative and financial edge side dishes bring.
This article first appeared in the 15 September 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>
By Kate Leahy, Associate Editor
"What I enjoy-and why I think I have an edge-is that a lot of chefs spend too much time thinking of [how to compose meat and vegetables for] the perfect dish. This allows me to focus 100% on the protein," Appleman says.
When vegetables are served on their own rather than plated with protein, there is nothing to distract diners from appreciating nuanced flavors. Executive Chef Doug Psaltis likes offering vegetable sides at the Café at Country in New York City's Carlton Hotel as a way to showcase high-quality vegetables. "A lot of times you bring in a special vegetable and pair it with lamb, beef or chicken. And maybe you eliminate the opportunity to eat that vegetable on its own," Psaltis says.
While the practice of offering vegetables as sides certainly is not new-as any steakhouse aficionado can attest-a separate listing for vegetable sides is increasingly common, say operators. The strategy gives opportunity to showcase seasonal produce, exercise creativity and add fresh, healthful fare to menus. Accountants also like the practice, which often bumps up check averages.
"Typically everyone takes a side dish," says Tim Goodell, Executive Chef and Partner at Dakota, a modern steakhouse at Los Angeles' Roosevelt Hotel. Goodell also reports favorable sales of vegetable sides at his Asian concept Red Pearl Kitchen in Huntington Beach, Calif., and San Diego. "It's also a way to offer new and refreshing things to repeat customers."
Sides that prove popular often are simple and seasonal. Potatoes remain a perennial favorite, joined with growing frequency by legumes, root vegetables, cabbages and greens. Yet to attract diners to the menu's sidelines, vegetable dishes must strike immediate appeal.
Psaltis' goal is to introduce guests to familiar flavors in memorable preparations. "We want to source great products, present them well, but stay out of the way," he says. At the Café at Country, it's no more challenging than sautéing raw, pencil-thin asparagus until it blisters, then finishing the dish with shaved Parmesan and fleur de sel.
A16's Appleman turns corn into a crowd pleaser. He blanches sweet corn on the cob then cuts the cobs into five pieces so they can be eaten neatly. To order, he tosses the pieces with sea salt, olive oil and black pepper and roasts them in a wood-fired oven where the kernels blister slightly. The simple vegetable preparation has become the restaurant's most popular side dish. "You can't get corn on the cob at most restaurants," Appleman reasons. "The kernels generally are removed and sautéed. It's never as good as eating it on the cob."
Not all sides are grilled, braised or boiled. Addison, Texas-based Fish City Grill uses a coleslaw originated by founder and CEO Bill Bayne's mother, Virginia. The 50-year-old recipe delivers freshness and flavor via a cider-vinegar base that includes sugar, salt and celery seed. Notably absent is mayonnaise, making this slaw a light foil to the concept's rich dishes.
"It's very important that we get it right," Bayne says. "Side dishes can't pale in comparison to the center of the plate anymore."
Executive Chef Charlie Brown also notes that side dishes offer telling clues about kitchen capabilities. "If chefs can prepare and deliver on the simplest of dishes, they're more likely to execute more difficult dishes," he says. At Ristorante We in Chicago's W hotel, Brown endows the American steakhouse menu with Italian twists. Fries become Tuscan frites tossed with slivered, fried artichokes. Sautéed mushrooms show up as portobellos roasted with garlic and fresh herbs, and creamed spinach is transformed into sautéed spinach with olive oil and garlic.
Sometimes, vegetable sides need a little skillful salesmanship from servers. While cauliflower gratin at Dakota doesn't always sell as briskly as fried potatoes with truffles and Parmesan, the gratin springs to life when the staff engages in suggestive selling. Preparation of the gratin is nothing short of classic. Cauliflower is thinly sliced, layered in individual gratin dishes with Parmesan, cream and shallots. First baked, it is browned in the broiler to order.
At the University of California at Santa Cruz, good price points come from using seasonal produce. And with the direct connections the university maintains with local organic growers through Salinas-based Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), there's a bounty of vegetables.
To plan menus, the university's foodservice purchasing department relies on a list of produce available from the Monterey Bay Organic Farmers Consortium through ALBA. Meanwhile, the university has gone from using 80% frozen vegetables to using only 10% since it began the program in 2004, with many fresh vegetables coming to kitchen doors still warm from the sun.
Dishes vary by availability, but items prepared nearly year-round include roasted beets tossed in vinaigrette and braised chard sautéed in onion and garlic.
"We have the luxury of trying many new vegetables with our customers," Executive Chef Dwight Collins says. "I had never seen so many greens presented in a meal until last year," he adds. "There wasn't a reason to get braising greens before. They were dirty and wilted."
In campus dining rooms, tables groan with freshly harvested vegetables and chalkboards display photos of area farmers. While vegetables from local farms build critical ties between the university and the community, there's another benefit: Appealing to diet-sensitive students. "Our vegan population is probably the most well-served group in the country," Collins speculates.
While the variety of vegetables continues to expand on American menus, fans of meat and potatoes still clamor for spuds-boiled, roasted or fried.
At Wave in the W Chicago Lakeshore hotel, Executive Chef Kristine Subido says starch-heavy side dishes offered on her tapas-style menu outsell her greener offerings. She poaches fingerling potatoes in duck fat until tender, then quarters them with caramelized onions and smoked Spanish paprika. "We're very heavy on starch," Subido says. And she's not alone.
- Thyme-potato purée with crème fraÁ®che , one sixtyblue, Chicago
- Baked potato or sweet potato, Ted's Montana Grill, multiple locations
- Horseradish potato salad, Couchon, New Orleans
- Yukon gold potato hash, Cookshop, New York City
- Garlic-olive oil mashed potatoes, Zibibbo, Palo Alto, Calif.