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Any way you fry it

Potatoes cooked in hot oil have gone from snack to menu staple

Potatoes cooked in hot oil have gone from snack to menu staple. Potatoes cooked in hot oil have gone from snack to menu staple. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / March 5, 2008

When Gaslight, Brasserie du Coin opened last August in the South End, diners were served frozen fries - good Cavendish Farms shoestring uncoated fries, but frozen nonetheless. "They looked good and they were crispy," says executive sous chef Keenan Langlois, "but they didn't taste like potatoes."

In the fall, the Gaslight kitchen began experimenting with fresh potatoes and decided on a starchy Texas-grown spud, picked and then held in storerooms to keep the starches from turning to sugars. "It's a crispier potato in the end," says Langlois. The french fries are thin and blond, sprinkled with coarse salt and piled in a butcher paper cone set in an old tin powdered sugar shaker. As good as they are plain, they really shine piled on a steak with a rich Béarnaise sauce for dipping. "Best thing ever," says Langlois.

French fries, once the snack of ball games, bowling lanes, and clam shacks, are now on every sort of menu. The best are cut by hand from real potatoes, and fried twice in clean oil. Today's fries, however, aren't just shoestrings in a clever presentation. Chefs are sprinkling them with all kinds of sea salt, grated cheeses such as gruyere, aromatics like truffle oil - and sometimes all of those at once. They're so good you wonder if you should skip the appetizers entirely and tuck into a big stack. The simplest fries, known as bistro fries, are long and slender and only lightly colored, a more soulful take on the McDonald's classic.

In fact, fries have become so popular that they're an academic study. Maryann Tebben, a French literature professor at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, has done scholarly work on fries. "In Belgium they're eaten on the go as street food," she says, "and in Parisian bistros and brasseries as a side dish with mussels, steak, or roast chicken." She says that the French like their potatoes "not matchstick thin, but certainly lithe. Americans cut their fries either too thick or too thin. Bistro style is just right."

Flat Patties in Cambridge and UBurger in Kenmore Square crank out perfect bistro fries, thin and crispy, that put the big chains to shame. On the higher end, Rocca Kitchen & Bar in the South End, calls them "patatine frittes" and throws in a ramekin of pesto mayonnaise for dipping. Sel de la Terre seasons its potatoes with chopped fresh rosemary. And Michael Leviton at Lumiere tosses his slender fries with gremolata, a mixture of chopped garlic, parsley, and lemon rind. "Keeping the fries consistent is a constant struggle," says Leviton. "That's why everyone went to the frozen fry. After we cut the potatoes, we soak the fries in the cooler for four to five days to remove the starch. Otherwise, when we fry, the outsides get too dark before they get crispy." Even with this and other adjustments, the potatoes don't always come out the same. "Fries are a struggle but worth it," says the chef.

Good fries depend on the right potatoes and the right oil. The best potatoes are the same potatoes that are best for baking and roasting: russet, Green Mountain, Kennebec, even Yukon Gold are all appropriate for frying. In Boston most fries are bubbling away in vats of canola oil. They come out just fine, but actually it's the highly saturated fats with densely packed chemical structures, firmer and more solid at room temperature, that generally produce the crispiest fries. Canola oil contains only about 6 percent saturated fat, while corn oil, peanut oil, and olive oil are about 15 percent saturated. Palm oil, butter, and lard are closer to 50 percent. Belgians, the inventors of the double-fried fries, once used horse or beef fat. When McDonald's used to fry its shoestring potatoes in rendered beef fat, even the late Julia Child sang their praises.

Tebben, the professor, offers two reasons why fries are called French. One is that food trimmed into long strips generally goes by the term "Frenched." The other is that Thomas Jefferson's house manager at Monticello, Etienne Lemaire, introduced fried potatoes from his native France. They became french fries.

Outside of bistros and brasseries, fries are usually cut thicker and fried darker than the skinny blonds, and they've got some sort of topping. At the B-Side Lounge, thick crispy fries are smothered in house-made blue cheese dressing with mayonnaise, cream, vinegar, and lots of garlic. The new Kingston Station doesn't quite drown its fries. Before they're wrapped in a white cloth napkin and tucked into a galvanized tin bucket, they're tossed with truffle oil, shredded gruyere, and scallions. They come with truffle aioli. One restaurant treats fries like a sculpture. Boston Public's super thick and oblong-shaped fries come stacked. Sussex-born host Luke Collier says they're "larger and more goldenish than the English chip shops'."

For some places a little topping isn't enough. Poutine, the French Canadian fries covered with cheese curds and gravy, are on many menus. All Star Sandwich Bar crosses the line of good manners and clean fingers with chili cheese fries and hot sauce-soaked "fries from hell." The most riotous fries in town - they combine duck fat, rosemary, gouda, and gravy - are at Gargoyles on the Square. They're reminiscent of poutine, made with russets sliced on a mandoline into thick waffle shapes, fried twice, and seasoned with garlic powder and cayenne.

Next comes the sauce, a rich and shiny duck gravy. "It's like mom's, but a little bit duded up," says sous chef Lisa Gauntt. Hot fries are tossed with gravy, handfuls of shredded smoked Gouda, and fresh rosemary. The whole mess is piled in a cast-iron skillet and browned under the broiler.

Gauntt describes it as "a bit much - but so good."

You could say that about lots of fries.

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