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Is it a Frite or a Fry? What Makes a Frite Anyway?
By Christopher Borrelli, Chicago TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Apr. 17, 2008 - What a starchy web we weave.

Consider the curious case of La Petite Amelia, a modest French presence on a harried stretch of Church Street in Evanston, and a cornerstone of the mini North Shore empire owned by restaurateur Robert LaPata. They serve a perfectly delish plate of frites. But of course they do. If you have never been to Europe, Amelia will look a lot like your imagined idea of a Parisian bistro: the definition of petite, lined in dark cherry woods, with walls painted in muted yellows and a painting of a jazz band along the back wall. Next door is LaPata's more casual Uber Burger, splashed in pop pastels and blindingly bright overhead lights, and serving those very same fried potatoes.

But at Amelia, they're "pommes frites," flecked with parsley, served on white porcelain.

At Uber Burger, they're "fries," flecked with nothing, served in a plastic basket over wax paper.

At Amelia, frites are $2.95.

At Uber, fries are $1.59.

Everything else--the preparation, the potato--is identical. Sometimes Uber Burger even slices spuds for Amelia. "We use a standard frite recipe, to be honest," said Amelia manager Richard Malphrus. "We hand-cut everything. The freshness [of the potato] is what matters to us, not the name. They're good old fries, but they're 'frites' because we're a French restaurant."

Sacrebleu? Or par for the frite?

Actually, since you're asking:

What makes a frite anyway?

Is it the size of the sliver? Or the crunch of the crisp? Do you require a cone of rolled paper, sprinkled with sea salt and overstuffed with matchsticks of burnt starch standing rigidly Semper Fi, held in place by a wire basket, before you declare a frite 100-percent authentic? Or do you require a thimble of mayo, for dipping?

Must they be served by a Belgian? (Will a Frenchman do?)

Does preparation count?

See, with more frites and pommes frites and moules frites and steak frites on Chicago menus than ever before--with the ordinary yet hallowed fry moving gently to the margins the more upscale we climb--we've begun to grow suspicious of the promiscuity, and the ubiquity, and the sheer inevitability of that once humble fried spud. In fact, we've even begun to wonder if (dun-dun-dun) that frite we ordered is really just an everyday classic french fry.

Does authenticity stop at the menu?

Or is this semantics?

"I think of a good bistro fry made from scratch when I think frite," said LaPata. "That's how I see it, just a buzz word on menus--just the French word for fry."

Mon Dieu! De Gaulle is just a word! The frite is a world. And yet the frite preparation at Amelia and Uber is (mostly) of the traditional French style, meaning: Yellow-skinned potatoes cut one-fourth-inch thick, blanched at 300 degrees F. cooled, then fried at 375 degrees. What emerges are browned (not greasy), crisp (not pillowy), impossible to resist--but, if your definition of frite varies in the slightest from LaPata's, if you're a purist on the topic, if you insist on soaking the potatoes overnight (for example), they're still more fry than frite.

Fred Markoff is a purist.

So he says. Markoff is owner of the 17-month-old fRedhots and Fries in Glenview. "Chicago doesn't understand the frite," he said. "They're eating fries. But done right, the frite is such a superior product. People don't know. Restaurants play with the word. There's so much confusion on the topic. But a fry is a fry? It's not that easy." Yet, to confuse the matter further, on the fRedhot menu, you'll find Belgian frites--and beside it, in parenthetical apology, "fries."

Which is it?

If there's agreement at all on what makes a true frite, if there's consensus among local chefs and cooking schools, it's the freshly cut potato and the two-stage frying technique. But even that latter part is questionable. For instance, take Budacki's Drive-In on North Damen, which, needless to say, is not a French bistro but has provided frites to the North Side for 45 years. They cook their frites three times at lower temperatures, adding a unique texture, said owner Jae Lee. He said the frite explosion is marketing: " 'Frite' has glamour, 'fry' doesn't." He also uses frozen potatoes.

So what does he know? What does anyone?

At Bistro 110, chef Dominique Tougne cuts his one-half-inch wide, then fries in vegetable oil (not the peanut oil many recipes demand). Nadia Tilkian of Maijean in Clarendon Hills prefers a one-eighth-inch wide matchstick. Didier Durand of Cyrano's Bistrot soaks potatoes in cold water for six hours before frying but skips the paper cone: "We serve them in a paper bag placed within a metal bucket." Mon Ami Gabi on Lincoln Park West once fried frites in duck fat but no longer (for health reasons); Doug Sohn of Hot Doug's fries frites in duck fat every weekend but calls his "fries."

Meanwhile, at Kendall College, for the first week of each semester, the staff eats a lot of frites, said Chris Koetke, dean of the School of Culinary Arts. For incoming students, frite making is one of the first lessons. The standard is crisp outside, fluffy in. However you get there, it works. "To me this is all about language, though some would disagree, I suppose," Koetke said. "The word 'frite' will be interpreted differently, as any art will be. Quite frankly, it sounds kind of nice--'frite.' I'd even rather order 'pommes frites.' "

We heard that a lot. Differences aside, ask Chicago chefs about frites and the majority are not militant on the subject--which itself left us wondering: to use "frite" on a menu assumes some promise of authenticity, no? Well, no.

"Let me put it this way," said chef David Kamen of the Culinary Institute of America. "The word 'bisque' should mean some use of a shellfish, but you've seen pumpkin bisque on menus? Sounds better. We use new words because we can charge more. And I'm guilty of this too. We are doing more chocolate [in the CIA restaurants]. But if I put 'Madagascar chocolate' on a menu, I can get a buck more for a brownie. The real problems with 'french fry' are two things--the use of French and the use of fry."

Diners are less comfortable ordering a "fry," chefs said, and health considerations aside, no fine dining establishment wants to ask "Would you like fries with that?" In short, as a rule of thumb, the more upscale you go, the less likely you are to experience a fry--even if that's what you're getting. At Brasserie Ruhlmann, for instance, a frite is the end result of a very exacting discipline, according to chef Christian Delouvrier. Potatoes are peeled, washed, placed in a bucket of water, run beneath a faucet, then placed in a refrigerator for 24 hours to allow starch to dissolve, then blanched, then set out at room temperature, then fried to order. "But it's a fry," he said. "Belgians claim to do it differently and it's the same."

Indeed, Ruhlmann's frites ($7) taste alarmingly like McDonald's french fries--which, if you know your fries, is far from an insult. Both use a Russet potato. McDonald's even double blanches its fries (however frozen they arrive). In fact, considering the slightly thicker cut of Ruhlmann's fries and their intense preparation--the recipe is probably closer to a classic Belgian frite, which is squared off at the ends and slightly thicker.

Which is?

"Squared off at the ends?" asked John Hogan of Keefer's. He makes a thick fry for lunch and a thin delicate frite for dinner, with very specific differences in the preparation, but adds, "I'm ashamed to admit, I don't know an exact definition for any of it. Have you tried Hopleaf? I hear the guy there does authentic Belgian frites."

Oh, John.

"While our menu may be extremely Belgian," said Hopleaf chef Ben Sheagren, "our frite is not truly in the style of the Belgian frite." He means, the potato is not soaked overnight, not cut in a (slightly) thicker Belgian style--and not double fried. "That decision was made prior to my tenure here. Ours is really a French style. And the reason is space and time. Our kitchen is extremely small and the [Belgian frite] process is just too time-consuming for the kind of business we do."

Which made us wonder: How high up does this conspiracy go?

Markoff of fRedhot's, one of the few area chefs to claim a genuine Belgian frite, admits his frite ends are more speared than squared, and he won't fry in animal oil either. The result is also a bit softer than many Belgians would tolerate.

As for Joe Doppes of Bistrot Margot, he responds with the lucidity of someone who's waited years to come clean: "I'm going to be honest with you here. I'm not going to lie. My potatoes come frozen. But I do invest in peanut and coconut oil. And some places will do them fresh. But I would rather be consistent. But they come frozen."

And a true frite is freshly cut. He said time and space are the enemies of the frite. "When I started it was myself and two other cooks [in a tiny kitchen] and I had a decision to make," Doppes said. "But I love our frites." No doubt--they're rich crisp slivers, coated with Parmesan. And taste, in the end, is the goal. So don't mock Doppes.

"People love our fries--I mean, our frites. What can I say? I'd rather be upfront."

Thank you for that.

"Now here's the real kicker: I'm Irish."

cborrelli@tribune.com


The frite list

Bistro 110, 110 E. Pearson St.; 312-266-3110

Bistrot Margot, 1437 N. Wells St.; 312-587-3660

Brasserie Ruhlmann, 500 W. Superior St.; 312-494-1900

Budacki's Drive-In, 4739 N. Damen Ave.; 773-561-1322

Cyrano's Bistrot & Wine Bar, 546 N. Wells St.; 312-467-0546

fRedhots and Fries, 1707 Chestnut Ave., Glenview; 847-657-9200

Hopleaf, 5148 N. Clark St.; 773-334-9851

Hot Doug's, 3324 N. California Ave.; 773-279-9550

Keefer's, 20 W. Kinzie St.; 312-467-9525

La Petite Amelia, 618 Church St., Evanston; 847-328-3333

Maijean, 30 S. Prospect Ave., Clarendon Hills; 630-794-8900

Mon Ami Gabi, 2300 N. Lincoln Park West; 773-348-8886

Uber Burger, 618 1/2 Church St., Evanston; 847-866-5200

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