It’s hard to know who to blame: tapas bars or steakhouses. Both have, in some way or another, contributed to the slow demise of the composed plate, which, in turn, has relegated side dishes to that purgatory known as the a la carte section of the menu.
So many foods now arrive on their own plate, as though every dish is special, just like the Little Leaguers who all get a trophy at season’s end. Don’t misunderstand: Some chefs can make a tired assortment of roasted beets worthy of Lenox bone china. I’m not arguing that sides should forever be second-class dishes, assuming a subservient position next to their master, the entree. What I’m arguing is that we’re losing touch with a distinct culinary art: the skill to compose a plate of complementary foods, their flavors, colors and textures coming together in one beautiful bounty.
Plenty of menus will promise an entree served with a parsnip puree, asparagus, fennel, baby greens or some other ingredient that sounds suspiciously like a side. But what often arrives is an entree sprinkled with a few willowy fronds of fennel or accompanied by two lonely stalks of asparagus or, worse, a swipe of puree. These are not sides. These are garnishes.
If you want a real side dish, you have to order it separately. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when sides were frog-marched to the a la carte menu, but I remember first noticing it in 2006 after Jeff Black borrowed more than $2.5 million to renovate Black’s Bar and Kitchen in Bethesda. That bank loan wasn’t going to repay itself, so Black launched an a la carte grill menu in which diners selected a protein, a side dish and a sauce. Each item came with its own price tag.
As all aspects of running a restaurant increase in price — rent, labor, ingredients, insurance, you name it — owners have had to look for ways to raise more revenue, and they found an easy target lounging on the entree plate. Borrowing ideas from tapas houses and steakhouses, they promoted sides to a dish of their own. This promotion has come at a cost, and it’s not just the suffocation of the composed plate. It is also that restaurants have placed the customer, not the chef, in charge of selecting sides, and if the fast-casual movement has proven anything, it’s that many of us have little clue about how to pick flavors and ingredients that complement each other.
But there’s another, more worrying aspect to all this. An a la carte side dish is typically more than one person can eat, which just adds to the mountains of food waste we already produce in the United States. It’s time to bring back the composed plate with modest sides designed to complement the entree.
And Black plans to do just that when he renovates, one more time, Black’s Bar and Kitchen.
More from Food: