There are many good things to eat at Libertine, a new French bistro in the West Village that I reviewed this week. But there’s one French-bistro standby you will not find there.
“We’re not serving fries,” Cody Pruitt, one of the owners, told Pamela Vachon of Resy. “You can get fries anywhere.”
Maybe that’s true. But we don’t want the kind of fries you can get anywhere. No, we want great fries.We want fries that, once you’ve eaten the first one,dominate your consciousness until they are gone. Fries so powerful no amount of Ozempic will silence them. Fewer than 20 restaurants in New York put out fries like that.
Balthazar’s method of frying potatoes became the model for a number of other restaurants.
The children of Balthazar
For consistency over the long haul, influence over other fry-making restaurants and sheer tonnage of potatoes, we should probably start in SoHo, with Balthazar.
The fries at Balthazar are famous. Your Aunt Sharon in Rapid City has heard about the fries at Balthazar, and has probably watched one of the videos on YouTube demonstrating how they are made. The technique involves peeling russet potatoes, pressing them through a hand-powered French fry cutter, and rinsing them overnight. The next day they are drained, dried, fried at a moderate temperature, allowed to rest, fried again at a higher temperature and tossed with salt.
Crunchy outside, creamy inside, Balthazar fries rarely bend and are never limp. Somehow they taste more like potatoes — well, potatoes and salt — than most other fries.
The authors of this method are Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr, who oversaw all the McNally kitchens from 1997 until 2013. Two of Balthazar’s younger siblings in Keith McNally’s company, Pastis, in the Meatpacking District,and Minetta Tavern, in Greenwich Village,follow the Balthazar template.
Mr. Hanson and Mr. Nasr use it today at their own restaurants, Frenchette, in TriBeCa, and Le Rock, in Midtown, with some modifications. (The potatoes are cut a little thicker, for instance.) A Frenchette or Le Rock fry is like a remix of a Balthazar fry, with a heavier groove.
The fries at Corner Bar and Altro Paradiso (both owned by the chef Ignacio Mattos) are very similar — to each other, and to the specimens Mr. Hanson and Mr. Nasr serve. Corner Bar, between Chinatown and the Lower East Side, and Altro Paradiso, west of SoHo, achieve an exterior crisp shell encasing potatoes that are less fluffy than smooth, almost like a purée. They use the double-frying method, too, but after the first trip through the oil they go into the freezer. (Frenchette and Le Rock cool theirs on sheet trays in the kitchen.)
Taking the French out of the fries
Altro Paradiso, being an Italian restaurant, calls its fries patate fritte. But its fries are solidly, recognizably French. And if we are really going to talk about the great fries in this city, we need to expand our range to Belgian frites and English chips.
My first choice for the fatter, mayonnaise-loving Belgian model is Mark’s Off Madison, in the Flatiron District, even though the owner, Mark Strausman, says he learned his recipe in Amsterdam in the 1980s. The potatoes are cut by knife to the width of an index finger — thicker than the fries of the other restaurants. From there, the technique is a double-frying, very similar to the Balthazar method.
“The true, true key is peanut oil,” Mr. Strausman said. (The restaurants in the Balthazar lineage use peanut oil, too; Corner Bar and Altro Paradiso blend equal parts peanut oil and canola oil for the second frying.)
For English chips, I like the ones served at Hawksmoor,in the Gramercy Park area, which are misted at the last minute with malt vinegar, and I really like the ones served at Dame and Lord’s, sister restaurantsin Greenwich Village. All three places follow a triple-cooking method pioneered by the English chef Heston Blumenthal. I won’t go into it here, but Ed Szymanski, an owner of Dame and Lord’s, calls it “quite an operation.” He also stresses the importance of hand-cutting — English chips should be irregular. I know the off-kilter widths and odd angles are one of the things I enjoy whenchips appear at Dame or Lord’s.
Where to look for me
I keep all kinds of restaurant lists. One of them, updated constantly, keeps track of newer places that intrigue me. Here’s a way shorter version of that list.
When Mariscos El Submarino’s bruisingly spicy, inky-dark aguachile negro showed up in 2021, all the fluke crudos around town instantly seemed about as cool as a “live, laugh, love” wall hanging. The food at Mitica, run by the same owners, is more varied and cheffed-up. There’s a reprise of the aguachile negro, with butterflied raw shrimp alternating with curves of charred avocado. That soy-darkened marinade, though, is just as uncompromising.
Yes, Sartiano’s is fancy Italian in a SoHo hotel. On the other hand, it’s guided by Alfred Portale, having a late-career renaissance, with Chris Lewnes as the executive chef. The kitchen seems to be able to look at any ingredient — even the zucchini wheels among the squid and rock shrimp in a tempura-like fritto misto — then find flavors in it that other kitchens might miss.
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