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How much do sides influence your decision?

For example, let's say you really like lamb, and you also like risotto. One dish on the menu highlights lamb with a side you don't particularly like. Another dish highlights an entree you don't really like, but is served with risotto. Do you ask for substitutions? Or, do you simply ignore the unwanted sides?

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  1. If a polite substitution request is refused, I'll go with the entree. For me, caramelized onions are "menu crack". Braised walrus blubber with deep-fried whiskers and caramelized onion? Read no further... ;-)

    1. I'll ask if substitutions are possible. If refused, I'll weigh which I want more, the risotto or the lamb. A lot depends on my mood.

      1. Sides can make or break the meal for me -- offering mashed potatoes is a big plus for that dish, but I truly dislike and will avoid beans, sweet potatoes, and avocado. So while I'd normally prefer that big beautiful pork chop to those tiny, pricey lamb chops, if the former comes with baked beans and applesauce while the latter is accompanied by garlicky potatoes it gets my selection.

        Whether I'll ask for a substitution depends on the place. If it is a more casual comfort-food place where it seems to me that they are scooping the portions of sides from big serving containers in the back, I'll ask. But if it is a more upscale place where all of the ingredients are described in detail on the menu and plates carefully composed and sauced, it is more likely that the sides are portioned to accompany the entree and flavored, spiced, and sauced to complement eachother, so I'll be much more hesitant to interfere with the intentions of the chef.

        1. Anything offered with Ratatouille on the side makes me double think whether I"ll order it

          1 Reply
          1. re: FriedClamFanatic

            Yeah, for me, sweet potatoes always seem to stand out for me on a menu. I'm a sucker for a good sweet potato puree. Unfortunately, they always seemed to be paired with a dish I don't want. Usually, I see them with fish. So, when I want a steak, I often have to weigh the options.

          2. Sides are a big deal for me, and I'd never ask for substitutions. If the protein options are on about equal par for me, the choice of side will definitely put one dish over the top over another.

            16 Replies
            1. re: Lucia

              Why would you never ask for substitutions on the sides? As I explained above, sometimes at higher-end places the plates are carefully composed with complementary items, spices, and sauces, and the kitchen may be portioning in anticipation as well. But often the kitchen is grilling or otherwise firing your entree and just scooping the mashed potatoes or rice pilaf or mixed vegies from big pots. Why not ask to sub something you'd prefer? The worst that could happen is they say no.

              1. re: nosh

                Because I'm not one for special requests. If you want to ask for substitutions, go for it. It's not my style.

                1. re: Lucia

                  Yeah, I understand what you mean, Lucia. Its more of a comfort level thing. In a way, I feel like the chef chose the sides for a reason, whether it be taste combinations or something like that. And, even though I know "the customer is always right," I still feel like a burden :/

                  1. re: pastry634

                    it's true. you should trust the chef. i've very often just gone for what sounds best to me on a menu, despite a discrepency in the sides and had my eyes opened to a preparation that really allowed me to get to know a vegetable or starch in a way i formerly didn't. some sides i have tried have truly converted me. (some of my experiences- fiddlehead ferns, hoppin john, sauteed shitakes with fresh lima beans, and though not a side- i once had a divine caesar salad at a chef's tasting, a dish i usually hate)

                    while the customer is right, there are certain times when caution should be thrown to the wind, you can learn from it. even if you don't end up being such a fan of the side in question, you learn from it. if everything we tasted was divine, or even good, what would be the thrill of seeking out truly solid and wonderful food?

                    however, i will say this- a dish is far more appealing to me if it does have 2 or 3 sides of truly fresh, seasonal vegetables. the more vegetables on my plate- the better. i love nothing more than to see a really lovely sounding vegetarian option on a menu. vegetables are a passion for me. so, while i might enjoy some meat, i think the veg on the plate might count more for me.

                    1. re: tinymango

                      Yeah. I think it is really neat when restaurants offer 2 tasting menu: 1 "regular" and 1 vegetarian. Along those same lines, I often feel that the best chefs are the ones that get the most creative with vegetable sides.

                      1. re: tinymango

                        tinymango, i understand your point, and i often enjoy shopping at farmer's markets and preparing and enjoying my haul. on the other hand, i have a soft spot for BBQ places and soul food joints where the "vegie" offerings on the side include mac'n'cheese and mashed potatoes and gravy!

                        1. re: nosh

                          hey, i have a softspot for southern food sides as well, being from the southern, rural part of virginia. i love the fatty, oft not-very-vegetable-y southern way with vegetables. collard greens with ham hocks and vinegar, baked beans with pork, fried okra, squash casserole, and others including those that you mentioned.

                          i think i was answering with more of an idea of a mid to high price restaurant with a chef who had designed a plate with something specific in mind and put care into composing a complete meal in which every element speaks harmoniously with the other and compliments certain tastes in such a fashion that new ones unfold when the ingredients are combined in the mouth.

                          but hell yeah to southern style eatin' and their mixed ideas of starches and veg ;)

                        2. re: tinymango

                          I think this might be more a question of the sorts of places one might frequent. I make no bones whatsoever about requesting a different side in certain types of places that might even have an actual chef in the kitchen. Other places I'd take the attitude that the chef created the dish they did with the sides they did for a reason. Really depends a lot on what my expectations for the meal are and how much I'm paying for an experience outside of my norm.

                          Even at many of the higher end restaurants in Montpelier (VT), I'd be willing to ask for a different side. Especially for my husband, who is very much -not- interested in adventuring all that much and often is at a place because it's where *I* wanted to try something. Too often in higher end places the dish sounds good until you get to something on the side that would just be -awful- to my husband. No matter who made it. So we ask if we can substitute other sides.

                          My decisions, though, are usually based on the entree, rather than the side. If I'm in a mood for lamb and I really like risotto which is served with something other than the lamb, I'll still order the lamb, and depending on the place and the reputation/quality of it, I might ask for a substitution but probably wouldn't just to explore the combination presented.

                          Another point here that I haven't seen made is some people have dietary restrictions that make it so, while they might prefer the mashed tatties served with something, still can't have them for dietary reasons. When I was like that, I'd ask for substitutions with no qualms, no matter where I was. I'd probably explain briefly to the server so they wouldn't think I was just being persnickety, but that's not quite the same as what the OP was asking I suppose. :)

                  2. re: Lucia

                    I am the same way, I never ask to substitute items when I go out. I eat the dishes as they are designed. The sides can make me choose one menu itme over another, typically if it comes with mased potatoes, or garlic mashed..etc.

                    1. re: swsidejim

                      I am of a mind with swsidejim on this one. Mashed potatoes are hard for me to get away from on a menu. I also don't ask for substitutions although I will sometimes ask if its possible to order an additional side of something appealing. That depends heavily on the restaurant, the menu, what the sides in question are and whether the server thinks it would work in the overall meal.

                      1. re: ccbweb

                        additional sides... I am all over that as well. I am addicted to starchy items.

                        1. re: ccbweb

                          Funny, in her wonderful Zuni Cafe cookbook, Judy Rodgers writes that she has to be a little careful about offering mashed potatoes as a side, since it will invariably dramatically increase the percentage of orders for that entree.

                          1. re: nosh

                            I believe it, especially there. Mashed potatoes are right in their wheel house. Man I miss that place since I moved from SF.

                            1. re: nosh

                              it's the buttermilk mashed potatoes recipe. i too remember that passage in the book vividly. it's so true-- the sides can make or break the plate. sometimes you have to get creative with menu descriptions because so many folks have it in their head that certain vegetables are always disgusting-- see the truly disgusting "you don't like that" thread.

                          2. re: swsidejim

                            Now, Jim, a couple of months ago you said you never say "never".

                            1. re: swsidejim

                              I am totally the opposite with starches. Sometimes I feel like every side in a restaurant is a starch. Where are the vegetables? Even in places where you can choose a side, in many cases the choice is veggie of the day and mixed veggies. Is it that hard to do something creative with vegetables?

                          3. I always trust the chef and I'll take the meal as it comes, but I will ask for an additional side of another item. My one and only side rule is that BBQ must come with beans, slaw, and fries. No matter what.

                            1. My response to the OP query: I shamefully admit the entree with french fries woos me and I look for the option in the dark corners of the menu. If the entree that I'd prefer is listed with a squash puree, but I see that another entree includes fries, yes I will ask to substitute fries. And it gives me a happy mood before any food has arrived.

                              Hey, I'm paying. The chef creates and it is great when you get served a side of veggies you thought you'd never like like kale wow!, but, did I mention I'm paying?, So I'm going to ask you to cook that duck leg a little more, because I've had more biology classes than you, plus it is my personal preference.

                              I wouldn't let an interior designer remodel the master bedroom for bunkbeds. It's new! it's young!

                              We are all in search of good food. SNLs snagglepuss this weekend reminded me of quick draw McGraw's snuffles. dog biscuit heaven.

                              1. Sides are important to me. It can be a dealbreaker if I feel like daphonoise rather than fries.

                                1. I do ask for substitutions if I'm familiar with a restaurant's strengths and weaknesses. There's a mid-to-low range place in Pasadena that has a few excellent entrées, and the most wonderful potato gratin, but whoever makes the mashed potatoes whips them to glue. So for any dish that comes with the mashed spuds, I will ask for either the gratin or the excellent fries. Same with choice of fries at The Hamlet: I always ask for steak fries with the fish & chips instead of the so-so julienne fries the menu specifies.

                                  To answer the original question, though - in a restaurant that offers carefully composed plates, a side that I do not want at all - usually something sweet or fruity - will keep me from ordering the dish, though the last time I broke my rule and ordered something with a raspberry reduction, I wound up eating the best duck breast I've ever tasted. But duck á l'orange will be passed over, as will lamb with mint jelly.

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: Will Owen

                                    Hi Will - where's the great potato gratin? (One of my weaknesses.)

                                    1. re: ElsieDee

                                      Central Park Cafe. Okay, it's not AMAZING, but it's damn good and goes with that flatiron steak like nobody's business. If the "garlic mashed" potatoes were as good as they sound they'd be fabulous, but they tasteth not of garlic, and are whipped rather than mashed. You could hang wallpaper with them...

                                      1. re: Will Owen

                                        *laughing* I agree on all counts, Mr. Owen - I'm officially a fan of the flatiron and the potato gratin, and bewildered by the garlic mash. One night a dining partner had a black cod dish (special) and substituted in some gnocchi (from another special) - the gnocchi was incredible and, though I am not a fan of fish, the black cod was amazing.

                                        My recipe for garlic mashed potatoes involves peeling and boiling a whole head of garlic in with the potatoes - also lots of cream and butter.

                                  2. Decision usually made solely on the starch and veggies - I don't like the term sides, as they are an integral part of the dish. I usually skip over what the protein is when looking at a menu, as I will eat any meat or fish. I look at things like polenta, ravioli, braised cabbage, risotto... those are the things that actually make the meal work.

                                    When cooking at home, I work the same way - peruse the fridge and pantry for some ideas in terms of the veggies, and then figure out what to do with whatever meat I have based on what else is being done. Usually, the meat is the smallest portion on the plate anyway.

                                    And I never ask for any substitution. If I can't fnd something I like as listed, I'm not in a place worth eating at.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Dan G

                                      You know...great point. The decision point on our dinners at home is always what to do with the "sides." We have a fairly regular rotation of protein items (whatever fresh fish our fishmonger has, chicken, turkey meatballs...) that can be used in various ways but we try to have fun with or try creative new starches and vegetables.

                                    2. If it's a steak house or uninspired food place, I'll ask for substitutions w/o hesitation. If it's the kind of place where a lot of thought and creativity went into the dish as a whole I'll trust the chef's judgment and not ask for substitutions. For instance, I recently had the tasting menu at Restaurant Eve in Old Town Alexandria VA. Before we had our first course the server asked if their were any dietary/medical issues that she should bring to the attention of the chef. I am a type 1 diabetic but I refrained from mentioning it because I wanted to have the whole experience not some pared down diabetic friendly version. I just took more insulin.

                                      1. Definitely a "meal" breaker. I had a situation this weekend in Manhattan when we went to a Greek restaurant before the theater. The salmon struck my fancy (usually doesn't) but it came with steamed vegetables, when the lamb came with mashed potatoes w/feta. I asked to switch side and they did. Not only was my dinner great (my wife's swordfish was better) but I will definitely go back to the restaurant. In these times, that was a small effort to make on their part that was a big deal for me. _

                                        4 Replies
                                        1. re: jnk

                                          A bit off topic, but I am amazed how many times I leave the "veggie" portion on a dinner out, either because
                                          a) It's cold
                                          b) the way it's prepared just doesn't look as appetizing

                                          I think most (ok, I'll amend this to many) Chefs spend about 90% of the creativity on the entree, 8 % on the "other" side (rice potatoe etc) and about 2% on the veggie concoction.

                                          1. re: FriedClamFanatic

                                            You need to go to better restaurants!

                                            But yes, lack of creativity with sides is a problem. I absolutely despise places that:
                                            1) give me a choice of potato (baked, mashed, etc) rice, etc - the kitchen should know what goes together well
                                            2) send out all dishes with same sides. I was in a restaurant recently where 4 mains - 1 duck, 1 chicken, 1 steak, 1 tuna - all came plated exactly the same way with a couple of potatoes, some carrots, beans, zuchinni, etc. No thought to it at all - produce every plate the same and drop a hunk of meat on it. It was good, but I won't be back. Laziness is not to be rewarded.

                                            1. re: Dan G

                                              Yeah, I agree. Restaurants that are lazy with sides are one's that I shake my head at. Like many of you have said, sometimes a side can sell a dish.

                                              1. re: pastry634

                                                Two of our favorite French places are guilty of that, but there are some very good reasons why they both do it, mostly having to do with available kitchen staff and cost. Both of these places are minimally staffed, do too little volume to come up with something different for each plate, and serve a complete dinner for under $50 per head WITH wine...and the food itself is quite good. I have noted all of this whenever I've written about these places, but I'll keep going back. The newer place at least has interesting and nicely presented side-dishes; the older one has a well-prepared potato dish and rather boring steamed vegetables, but the entrées are all under $25, and excellent. C'est la vie...

                                        2. I think if there were a side I really loved (I really love risotto and polenta), I'd ask politely if it would be alright to substitute. And if there were a side I really hated, I'd probably speak up - again politely - and ask for ANYTHING but x or y or z. (I hate cucumbers and almost hate zuchini).