There's a lot that's over the top about "The Wolf of Wall Street," the Oscar-nominated film that's up for best pictures. Including the side dishes.
In one memorable scene, Rob Reiner, who plays the father and sometime manager of hedonistic, money-hungry broker Jordan Belfort, storms a room where his son and his cronies are discussing business.
"$26,000?" he bellows, clutching fistfuls of receipts to the snickers of Belfort and his cronies. The company had to host a party the night before, Belfort says, for business.
When questioned further, Jonah Hill's character mutters that the $26,000 was in "sides."
Wait a minute – can you really rack up that big a bill in sides alone? Turns out, yup.
In an effort to differentiate themselves and appeal to the Jordan Belforts – or less morally dubious high-rollers — of the world, restaurants are doling out the Midas touch. Not satisfied with just plating lobsters and caviar for diners, some chefs are serving up sides featuring an increasingly star-studded – and expensive — array of supporting actors: think $750 cupcakes featuring 100-year-old cognac and rare cacao beans, or $1,000 desserts made with edible sheets of gold.
These are some of the more extreme examples of the evolution of side dishes over the past decade or so, says New York Magazine food critic Adam Platt, who's been critiquing restaurants and food for 12 years now. He's seen side dishes go from predictable complements to a meal – think mashed potatoes, salad, and soup – to a smorgasbord of choice and flavors.
"In the old days, you would order your soufflé or steak or whatever and it would come with vegetables on the side," Platt recalls. "Now, you have to order your vegetables on the side."
And those sides can come with price tags that make a main dish blush.
For instance, New York's Craft group dishes up some white-truffle risotto that rings in at a cool $95 a plate. Yes, you read that right. In fact, Platt points to Craft, a group of restaurants founded by chef Tom Colicchio, as an instigator of the pricey side food trend.
"What they did was they took the thing that chefs tended to think about – quality of beets, [for example] – and bring it to the diner," Platt said of the newly discerning foodie. "The menu included vegetables, where they come from, how they are cooked."
And that emphasis on the quality of ingredients has trickled down even to far more modestly priced sides (modest by comparison, that is). Case in point: New York City's American Cut restaurant, where, for $10, you get a single carrot splashed with mint and maldon.
In some ways, Platt says, the local food movement has exacerbated the expensive sides trend by encouraging more diners to value the quality and source of ingredients in sides over quantity.
And for restaurants, which tend to operate on notoriously razor thin profit margins, it made sense to turn sides, a previously ignored sector of the menu, into a cash cow, Platt says.
Restaurant chefs," he says, "are trying to eke out profits any way they can."