Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Mar 3, 2013
08:59 AMSmall Dishes
Popularly known in this country as French fries, yet their origin may not be in France where they are simply known as pommes frites—fried potatoes. The concept of cooking in deep fat certainly did not originate in France, but in Egypt as early as 2500 BC. Asians and Africans were familiar with the cooking method long before Europeans. Belgians make a strong case for having invented the strips of fried potato we so love today and blame us for their misnomer in our country. American soldiers during World War I developed a fancy for the local fried food and dubbed it French since that was the language of the Walloons who popularized the specialty. But then again, Thomas Jefferson served what he called “potatoes fried in the French manner” at the White House in 1802. Regardless, I can personally attest that both the Belgians and French make some very fine fries.
French fries are so ubiquitous today they’re included on the menus of most restaurants from the purveyors of humble fast food to pretentious haute cuisine. They no longer settle for second billing as a side dish, but are also consumed as an appetizer or substantial standalone snack.
Different cultures and eras have favored frying potatoes in all kinds of animal fat and every variety of edible oil. I once read that the secret of a beloved Belgian pommes frites stand was the addition of a little horse lard to the cooking grease. It’s no secret that for years McDonald’s included rendered beef suet in its recipe. When it comes to frying or almost anything else, animal fat is more flavorful than neutral vegetable oil.
Because of their shape, French fries are made for dipping. In France and Belgium, mayonnaise is the condiment of choice; in Great Britain they prefer malt vinegar or steak sauce; and in the U.S., ketchup of course.
Wherever they came from, there are a lot of options for deep fried potatoes in this town—plain and fancy—that surely shame frozen crinkle cuts any day. Here are a few favorites.
As the restaurant likes to say, they make pigs pretty at A Pig in a Fur Coat, but they also glamorize fries. Cooked in duck fat, dusted with Parmigiano-Reggiano, and served with aioli they couldn’t be more decadently delicious.
The menu changes at Sardine, but the classic brasserie-style French-fried potatoes served with mayonnaise are always available either on the bar menu or as a side with dinner. It’s hard to go there and pass them up.
Alchemy Café has discovered how to turn sweet potatoes into gold. The housemade, twice-fried sweet potato fries are as toothsome as they are popular and come with tarragon mayo and jalapeño blackberry jam.
Poutine is a French Canadian favorite that’s made itself at home at The Coopers Tavern. Crispy fries are topped with melted cheese curds and brown gravy … enough to make any Sconnie drool!
Brasserie V is justly proud of its authentic Belgian-style, double-fried potatoes that come in a paper-lined cone with a dipping sauce du jour. Paired with a steaming bowl of mussels and a glass of beer, it’s as close to Belgium as you’ll ever get without going there.
A bar menu would be incomplete without French fries and at Mickey’s Tavern the Sexy Fries—actually thin, crispy potato chips drizzled with truffle oil dressing and sprinkled with parmesan—are uncommonly good.
An order of Blue Cheese and Bacon Fries at Tipsy Cow—one of seven house specialty fries—is a well-matched ménage à trois of potatoes, homemade blue cheese dressing and Nueske bacon that’s strictly for adults.
What McDonald’s is to small burgers, Five Guys is to big burgers and likewise its fries are no afterthought. Always made from fresh potatoes with the skins left on, they come simply salted or with Cajun seasoning and are as All American as fast food.
RECIPE: Pimentón Aioli
1 1/2 teaspoons finely minced garlic
3 teaspoons pimentón (smoked paprika)
1/2 cup mayonnaise (homemade or store bought)
Fresh lemon juice
Combine the mayonnaise with the garlic and pimentón; add a little lemon juice and whisk. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with fried potatoes.
Makes about ½ cup.