Countless Crispy Critters
I have been on a French-fry quest for a number of years. I am operatic in stature, and the fries, I'm certain, are what keeps me at fighting weight. Without a doubt, the best fries in the Twin Cities are made at the 112 Eatery. I'm glad you (and everyone else in the world) like the place. It was your words that got me to go there.
On to Fugaise. We had lunch the first week and then I took my partner back for dinner that weekend. I told him about the great French fries that my friend Penny shared with me. Sense a theme going here? Unfortunately, they didn't have the fries on the evening menu.
When I told our savvy and attentive waitguy that I brought my partner into Fugaise for a great meal and the French fries, he apologized. He also returned and relayed the chef's offer to make some. We accepted the offer and enjoyed them immensely. I thanked him repeatedly, and after the third "thank you" he leaned in, and in a stage whisper said, "It's okay, we just ran down to Whitey's Bar and picked some up."
Then, as our meal progressed, I spied the 112 folks eating across the way and sampling lots of the chef's offerings. French-fry coincidence? I think not.
Let me know when you do the French-fry issue.
--Robert, of Minneapolis
I am doing the French fry issue!
Now, there are some who would say that my entire career could be called the French-fry issue, but to them I say, I pay you $90 an hour for this?
The plain truth of the matter is that French fries are, like paper, paper clips, and Pay Per View Ultimate Fighting, one of the great achievements of man, one of the accomplishments that vaulted our kind from mere bipedal top scavengers, like crows, to a six-billion-strong army of earth-transformers, like termites. Yet, unlike termites, many of us look cute in shorts! Which has nothing to do with French fries, but as it's early December and we have just tipped into the delightful season of snow-pants and afghans, that's not really our concern. No, our concern is examining what a marvelous French-fry sort of town we live in.
Why, I remember when I started this beat, back in the dark, poverty-struck days of the 1990s, when almost no Americans had personal photo printers, but we were unspeakably rich in jokes about stained blue dresses, and nearly every French fry came from a paper bag, and the fancy ones were waffle-cut and came with a packet of sour cream. In those dark days you had to look long and hard to find a real French fry, cut from actual potatoes. If I remember correctly your options were limited to the State Fair, the St. Paul Grill, the Wienery, and Annie's Parlor.
Then came the American cooking revolution, and some people remembered how good French fries were, and other people remembered how profitable it could be to have hordes swarming to your door to pay $6 for a couple of potatoes and some oil. And that brings us to today, a day when Minnesota is nothing short of a fantastical French-fry wonderland. I know it because Robert's letter prompted me to whip up my personal short list of the dozen or so best French-fry vendors in the Twin Cities. After which I visited them all in the space of a long weekend--yes, all eight, thus no doubt involving my future cardiologist in French-fry issues of her own. But I am firmly in Robert's camp there, I think I'd rather live life operatically, with blondes in Valkyrie hats, high notes, toreadors of questionable motive, and plenty of fries.
Here's what I found.
Essentially, we are rolling in great French fries in this city right now. This is where those persistent stains originate. Seriously though, there is what I have come to think of as the French-Fry Long List. Here I speak of Ike's Food & Cocktails, the Craftsman Restaurant, Andy's Garage, the Black Forest Inn, Hamlin's Coffee Shop, 112 Eatery--I could go on, but basically I have concluded that I won't, there simply isn't space, time, or a digestive tract long enough to mention them all. Never has it been so easy to fit operatic living into beers with friends or a malt with the kids.
I don't have room here to mention the merely great. That's rich times. After that we have two places of such originality and unique vision that if you decided to have a hit put out on me for failing to mention them, I could see your point. However, they are not for everyone. Here I speak of jP's pommes frites and the fries at the Wienery. The fries at jP American Bistro are very long spears of potato, dusted with oak-smoked Spanish paprika, and served standing up in a paper cone that rests in a spiraling metal cone. They look like a bouquet of tuber, as envisioned by the Italian futurist sculptor Brancusi. They go very well with big red wines, aren't bad with one of the restaurant's practically wholesale-priced single-malt scotches, and make a strong case for people who live around Uptown and LynLake to remember the bar in the front of jP, where you can have a very civilized, low-key, grown-up drink, and some exceptionally memorable fries.
The second of the great originals is the Wienery, a West Bank institution where they take skin-on spuds, slice them into long, thin planks, and fry them until they reach a singular state of farm-evoking potato purity. The place also had the cheapest fries of all the ones I sampled; for 89 cents you can get a large amount of fries, and $1.39 gets you a gargantuan one, and a chance to eavesdrop on the best American original dialogue this side of a Jim Jarmusch film. When I was there I overheard a fascinating conversation touching on both, and I quote, "proto-feminist archetypes Medea and Circe," how much gasoline a crankcase can hold before you can reasonably expect it to blow up, how Medea, like most women, has been wronged by contemporary commercial media, and why a truck with a bad tranny and a fraught relationship with the second gear can be a thrifty car-shopper's dream come true.
Unfortunately, the Wienery, never the lair of Mr. Clean, is beginning to look as though someone put up a "No Gurlz Allowed" sign five years ago, and it worked. Great fries and hot dogs, though.
So, in addition to the Long List and the Great Originals, then, we have what I have concluded are three king-of-the-hill, lord-of-the-heap, Olympic tournament-caliber French-fry kitchens in the Twin Cities: Café Barbette, Bar and Café Lurcat, and the St. Paul Grill.
I like Café Barbette more and more as the years pass. It is beginning to seem to me less like a restaurant and more like a lake. More like the way snow-shoveling sounds on a residential street halfway through one of those late-winter, heavy-cloud blizzards. Less like a restaurant and more like a thing that people who live here understand in a way that people who don't never can. It seems less like a restaurant and more like an inviolable here.
I feel this even as I freely acknowledge that a solid 10 percent of the time the service is less like service and more like the thing that happens between sobbing in the back over your ex-boyfriend and planning tonight's party-hopping. I guess I'm just turning into the kind of sap that would rather deal with a person who has good days and bad moments, and not an automated call center. Or a Panera.
Anyhoo, the fries have gone a good way toward making Barbette such a force of personality: On my last visit I got a big soup bowl of golden-brown beauties, square-cut, thin and long, each slightly bent French fry slightly sweet with the taste of a potato that has been aged long enough to lose some of its water, but not so long that it becomes overly starchy. The fries in the bowl were a whole rainbow of golden-brown, from toasty-darker to paler-sweeter. They curled slightly into one another, making a nest, each tilt and swayback a tribute to the unfrozen, un-uniform thing that happens when real vegetables, in all their internal, made-by-nature watery-here, less-watery-there variety, hit hot oil. Truly these are French fries to sustain interest for an hour.
At $6 you might say they better be, yet I assert they are. For your $6 (or $4 for a half-portion), you get your fries and also a creamy, dusky saffron aioli for dipping, a sauce that has the nice effect of resetting your taste buds to appreciate the sweetness and freshness of the fries anew. When I was at Barbette, on a Saturday afternoon, it seemed like the tables hosted half little kids intent on French toast and syrup, and half adults intent on a bottle of southern Rhône red, but everyone had fries before them, and little puddles beneath them, where the snow had melted out from their boot treads. It was a very Minnesota moment. CAFÉ BARBETTE, 1600 W. Lake St., Minneapolis; 612.827.5710; www.barbette.com
The St. Paul Grill
Speaking of Minnesota moments, I happened to be at the St. Paul Grill the day they were putting the holiday lights out in front of the great hotel, and I took a moment to stand beside the top-hatted doorman and look out at the lights and the big, full sky over the princess-hat turrets of the Landmark Center. And I thought, for the hundredth time perhaps, that the vantage point from the covered doorway in front of the St. Paul Grill is St. Paul's Pont Neuf or Rockefeller Center, the tourist-perfect landmark that retains its dignity and grandeur whether you appreciate it and go there or whether you never do.
If you do go there, however, the fries are magnificent. Thick, sturdy, and positively vibrating with the rough-hewn and rootlike nature of real potatoes, the fries the St. Paul Grill serves are so crisp and so meaty they almost begin to seem like crustaceans or something equally lively. They're slightly sweet, slightly roasty and toasty, slightly earthy, and arrive, for $6.25, in a platter-sized portion that could feed the entire Cratchit family at Christmas. These truly are fries to remember on your deathbed, and would be made even more so if you paired them with a glass of the Grill's 50-year-old Macallan single-malt scotch, which sells for $250 a glass.
The St. Paul Grill's fries come with a silvery gravy boat of Choron sauce, which tastes like a béarnaise with a shot of ketchup blended in, and has the effect of making the fries seem even weightier and more significant. These fries are the edible landmark inside the architectural landmark. THE ST. PAUL GRILL, 350 Market St., St. Paul; 651.224.7455; www.stpaulgrill.com
Café Lurcat, Bar Lurcat
Did you know that the kitchen for the bar at Lurcat closes at 10:00 p.m. these days? What about when people need some of the best French fries in the state at 10:08? Poor, poor people. Still, the second time I went to Lurcat for their award-winning fries, I was terrifically impressed. Out came the signature silvery bucket, paper-lined, decorated with delicate heart-shaped handles, and inside a pale, pouffy bouquet of the lightest rendition of fried spud you will find in the metro.
While the other two grand champions of potato descend from a tradition of scrubbed tuber, unadulterated, the Lurcat fry is more of a Jackie O, Camelot, and drive-in Americana creation: It is skinless, pale, and light as the air in a soufflé. The Lurcat fries come with little twin ramekins of things to dip them in: One is plain old ketchup; the other rich béarnaise sauce made with plenty of licorice-tasting fresh tarragon. The sweet sauces have the counterintuitive effect of making the fries seem even sweeter, lighter, and ethereal.
The Lurcat fries, which cost $6.50, are easily the most elegant in town, and if you order some you can recline on a white couch beneath crystal chandeliers which sparkle beneath azure ceilings, and you can swirl wine in tall, elegant stemware, and consider how rich and frequent the opportunities are these days to lead a life operatic. CAFÉ LURCAT, BAR LURCAT; 1624 Harmon Place, Minneapolis; 612.486.5500; www.cafelurcat.com
The French-Fry Connoisseur's Long List
Visit them all and terrify your friends with the obsessive completeness of your Twin Cities French-fry knowledge. Did I forget your favorite? Then write in, and we might be able to expand the French-Fry Issue into a full-blown complex.
THE WIENERY, 414 Cedar Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.333.5796
JP AMERICAN BISTRO, 2937 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.824.9300; www.jpamericanbistro.com
112 EATERY, 112 N. Third St., Minneapolis; 612.343.7696; www.112eatery.com
THE CRAFTSMAN RESTAURANT, 4300 E. Lake St., Minneapolis; 612.722.0175; www.craftsmanrestaurant.com
IKE'S FOOD & COCKTAILS, 50 S. Sixth St., Minneapolis; 612.746.4537; www.ilikeikes.com
ANDY'S GARAGE, 1825 University Ave. W., St. Paul; 651.917.2332
HAMLIN'S COFFEE SHOP, 512 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis; 612.333.3876; www.hamlinscafe.com
THE BLACK FOREST INN, 1 E. 26th St., Minneapolis; 612.872.0812; www.blackforestinnmpls.com
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