When you open a menu at a restaurant, where do you look? Some check out the desserts (guilty as charged), while others go straight to the entrées. It’s safe to say that no one scans the side dishes first. Side dishes are mere incidentals, an indifferent scattering of soggy French fries or the predictable “seasonal vegetable.” Chefs know that every corner of a meal is an opportunity to flaunt their talents; accordingly, contemporary foodie culture has rescued side dishes from the sidelines. Side dishes have morphed into “small plates” to reflect a more creative approach. Lately, the side dish might be more interesting than the main course. The wallflowers of the dinner table are finally hitting the dance floor. Here are some local side dishes that deserve fair notice.
ROASTED BRUSSELS SPROUTS
Birch’s list of side dishes amounts to a torrential downpour of temptations. It’s hard to choose just one, but you don’t have to—two or three amount to a killer meal. One of our favorites is the roasted Brussels sprouts. This vegetable was once to be avoided at all costs, but they have made a triumphant comeback, albeit with help from certain “cheater” ingredients like bacon, which makes everything better. Once roasted, these mini-cabbages are sweet and tender. Birch’s adds cubes of salty pancetta (Italian bacon) and a generous application of pungent blue cheese for a sum total of heaven in a bowl. It’s a substantial serving; if you order another side, like grilled portabella with hoisin glaze and garlic chips, you have yourself a marvelous dinner. $10.
1935 W. Wayzata Blvd., Long Lake; 952.473.7373
PORT-CARAMELIZED ONION RISOTTO
From a simple pile of sautéed spinach to a decadent mound of wild mushroom risotto, Spasso’s intensely flavorful side dishes are brilliantly conceived and expertly cooked. It’s no surprise, then, that the port-caramelized onion risotto is a showstopper. The deep mahogany color alone is a powerful come-on, and the first bite will make you forget where you are for a moment, lost in a deeply earthy, slightly sweet and gloriously rich mouthful. OK, so side dishes like these are no longer included in the cost of the entrée, but this is the most delicious five bucks you’ll ever slap down. $5.
17523 Minnetonka Blvd., Minnetonka; 952.224.9555
Asparagus is an old-school, a la carte side that graces most steakhouse menus. More than just a vitamin rich veggie, asparagus transcends seasonal availability to claim the crown as the emblem of fine dining. Blue Point grills a worthy bundle so that the green veggies retain a bit of crispness in contrast with soft, smoky spots of char. Sassy blue cheese butter elevates the noble spear to an experience that threatens to claim center stage. $7.
739 Lake St. E., Wayzata; 952.475.3636
Victor’s On Water
A lot of restaurants are ditching the moniker “side dish” in favor of something more enticing and more specific. Each dazzling creation is a celebration of Mother Earth. This may be the best occasion to eat an all side dish dinner, and the selection is regularly updated according to season and the whim of the chef. On our last visit to Victor’s, we sampled a jewel-toned assembly of roasted beets with orange, walnuts, ricotta and arugula; a Middle-Eastern inflected dish of roasted carrots with chickpeas, dates and ras el hanout (a fiery Moroccan spice blend) and creamed kale with sherry, chili flakes and pangrattato (that’s bread crumbs to you and me). This trio would make a full supper in and of themselves; entrees need not apply. Beets $10; carrots $8, kale $8.
205 Water St., Excelsior; 952.474.8879
Some foods are not really side dishes, but requirements. In this case we’re talkin’ guacamole. We contend that every Mexican meal demands the glorious green, though rumor has it that some sorry souls don’t like the alligator pear. We forgive them, if only because it means all the more for us. At Lago, an order of guacamole comes with fresh corn tortilla chips and a chunky pico de gallo with the colors of the Mexican flag: diced red tomatoes, chopped white onions and a heavy infusion of bright green cilantro. Add grilled shrimp for another $4 and skip the main course altogether. $7.95.
30 Water St., Excelsior; 952.300.8495
There is one kind of eatery where side dishes are a highly regarded, non-negotiable part of the meal—the barbecue joint. For what is a sloppy slab of baby backs without cornbread to mop it up and potato salad to cool it down? At Famous Dave’s, we always get an order of Wilbur beans, a load of tender-cooked white legumes studded with an extravaganza of meat: smoked pork, beef brisket and hot links. The dish also packs a wallop of jalapeno, so don’t forget the cornbread that both dampens the heat and serves as a sponge for that signature sweet-and-hot BBQ sauce. $2.99.
14601 Highway 7, Minnetonka; 952.933.9600
Yumi’s Sushi Bar
The side dish list at Yumi’s is astounding: You could probably open an entire restaurant solely on its merits. Options such as surf clam with a sweet vinaigrette, octopus with radish and cucumber, seaweed salad and amasu (sweet and sour) crab leg could dazzle a diner into near-paralysis. But the hamachi kama, grilled yellowtail tuna cheek, takes the proverbial cake. It’s served with citrus-kissed, soy-based ponzu sauce. The grilled fish is akin to the best filet mignon at a western steak house. Sip a chilled sake from a nifty wooden box, poured to overflowing for good luck and fortune. $8.95 for the fish.
217 Water St., Excelsior; 952.4741.1720
One man’s side dish, (e.g., a bowl of rice), is another man’s repast. Mediterranean cuisine is rife with what we call sides, but a Greek meal is often wholly constructed from mezze—sides, small plates, appetizers, call them what you will—that are an inextricable part of the meal. Peruse the menu at Christos Greek restaurant and you’ll see that every entrée is served with soup or salad, and not just a tired old green salad, but something exciting with feta and olives. Many entrées also include a choice of side orders; the selection is fantastically seductive. A humble, often overlooked option at Christos is the country pilaf, a rice dish filled with raisins, onions, cinnamon and many “secret spices” including what one staff member charmingly referred to as “little pine trees,” aka rosemary. $2.65.
15600 Highway 7, Minnetonka; 952.912.1000
FAMILY SIDES: RED QUINOA AND KALE
Lord Fletcher’s Old Lake Lodge
Lord Fletcher’s serves “family sides” for two to three people, and each one is a fine escort to the superb steaks and chops that share the menu. The contrast between the brick-red super-grain, quinoa, and dark green super-veggie, kale, make this side the prettiest of the lot. It sounds unbearably healthy, but your taste buds would never suspect such a thing: It’s robustly seasoned, lightly crunchy and layered with nutty, verdant flavors. Plus, this side dish balances and possibly negates some of the more wicked plates on the table (red-wine demi-glace braised pot roast, perhaps), so there’s that, too. $6.
3746 Sunset Drive, Spring Park; 952.471.8513
The most common side is probably salad, a token of health to alleviate guilt over a mega-sinful main course. The salad is usually a “house salad,” which could be anything, but is often wilted and unremarkable. Punch, primarily a pizza slinger, makes scrumptious side salads that knock the typical house salad out of the park. The Pulcinella, which, like the restaurant’s name, is another variation on the name “Punch,” a classic marionette character. The salad, served in a warm focaccia, is a simple confab of grape tomatoes, snowy-fresh mozzarella cheese and a tangle of sturdy arugula, the colors of national pride, with cheese that is melty around the edges. Good olive oil seals the deal. $9.75.
1313 Wayzata Blvd E., Wayzata; 952.476.7991