When you sit down with a menu, which part do you scan first? If you didn’t say, “the sides,” it’s time to reconsider your approach.
Chefs across the city have transformed what was once the minor section of the menu from an afterthought into an intentional exploration of flavors and textures. Side dishes have evolved beyond their role of dressing up the entrée, with many diners now choosing one or two sides as the main event.
SOME STEAK WITH YOUR POTATOES?
While it might be best known for its strip steaks, rib-eye chops and ocean-fresh fish, Mastro’s steak house has another star at the table: its spuds. The trendy Midtown restaurant serves up nine distinct potato preparations, including a hefty one-pound baked potato, regular or sweet french fries, over-the-top lobster mashed potatoes and gooey scalloped potatoes with perfectly crisp edges.
But if taters don’t tempt you, the rest of the sides on the menu might: Generous servings of sautéed broccoli and asparagus bring an earthy flavor, creamed veggies (both corn and spinach) deliver richness and roasted Brussels sprouts pack a pleasantly bitter punch. Indulge in a side of Alaska king crab black truffle gnocchi, and you might just say, “What entrée?”
At first glance, Strip House in the East Village (there is also one in Midtown) looks like a classic American steak house, with plush leather chairs and white tablecloths. But this restaurant does things a bit differently—the scarlet walls, vintage photos of burlesque entertainers and low lighting make the place feel more like an old New Orleans bordello than a cavernous cow palace.
It has also taken classic steakhouse side dishes and elevated them with flavors you wouldn’t expect. Roasted Brussels sprouts come glazed with chili and maple, sautéed haricots verts have the pungent crunch of garlic chips and charred broccoli is served with melted miso butter. The real showstopper, though, is the crisp goose fat potatoes: a mound of diced potatoes, covered in poultry fat and cooked until they have a golden shell. One bite, and you’ll understand exactly why these are so tremendously popular.
DON’T CALL THEM SIDES
When a chef has gone so far as to call his sides “accessories,” you know they’re anything but an afterthought. That’s exactly what chef and restaurateur John Fraser has done at The Loyal, his chic American brasserie in the West Village. While entrées are eclectic—like miso-honey chicken, pumpkin ravioli and black bass acqua pazza—the sides are equally alluring: duck-fat tots, salted lamb pilaf, endive-bacon gratin and pureed potatoes doused in lobster gravy. Look to the bar snacks menu for even more ways to, ahem, accessorize.
SIDES, SOUTHERN STYLE
You can’t talk about barbecue without mentioning side dishes. The smoky, saucy meats depend on the flavors of what are known in the South as “the fixins” to create lip-smacking meals, which they do at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Harlem (there is also one in Brooklyn). The acclaimed restaurant offers at least a dozen sides that complement its pulled pork, brisket and beef ribs. Spicy nut toppings add a twist to roasted whipped potatoes; crispy coleslaw and mini iceberg wedges bring bursts of freshness, while barbecued beans with pork, mac ’n’ cheese and creamed corn satiate a barbecue-induced craving for comfort food. And soak up your ‘cue juices with fluffy cornbread muffins.
The Middle East and Mediterranean regions have mastered the art of side dishes with mezze, a casual assortment of small plates that serve as either appetizers or the main course, promoting the notion of a side dish to the principal player on the table. Au Za’atar brings the mezze experience to an Arabian-French bistro in the East Village. Grab a group, and order a smattering of side-sized dishes, like tabouleh salad, spicy falafel, fries tossed in sumac and parsley, moussaka, beef-stuffed pastries, grilled halloumi and dips galore.
SIDES AND MORE SIDES
Some restaurants in NYC take sides so seriously, they are the main event. Veggie-centric Westville features around 18 market sides on its regular menu and a few daily specials, depending on which of the six locations you visit. The decision won’t be an easy one—you’ll need to choose from artichokes with Parmesan, Asian-style bok choy, garlic mashed potatoes, bacon-studded green peas, cauliflower dressed in tahini, and then some. Pick four, and you’ve got a plate full of goodness that will easily hold you until the next meal.
Candle Cafe, a low-key vegan joint on the Upper East Side, offers a similar deal with its “Good Food Plate”—your choice of four sides and two dressings or sauces. Since the restaurant doesn’t use animal products, the kitchen’s creativity is channeled into some of the most flavorful plant-based foods in the city, most evident in its side dishes. Brussels sprouts coleslaw is tangy and fresh, quinoa pilaf is light and well-seasoned, collard greens with tempeh bacon bits that taste like the real thing, and daily curries add a spicy kick to the menu of some two dozen sides.
With so many options, you might never order a main course again.