Thursday, September 17, 2009

When Frites Compete, Ithaca Wins

Earlier this week, we got a great email from a listener, Sarah, who mentioned her family’s trip to the NY State Fair:
On going to the state fair there are lots of 'fresh' or hand-cut type french fry type vendors, which we were planning on partaking of BUT our 2-year old melted into a puddle of tears at the overwhelmingness of the fair before we could get the fries. Which is understandable as many grown adults also lose their minds after several hours at the state fair. Anyways, when we got to the car we started discussing where we could get really good-not frozen fries in the Ithaca/Cortland area. We couldn't think of any or how to begin searching. I see that 5 guys will be opening very soon, which would fit the ticket, but thought you might know of some other places. Thanks!
Of course, that seemed like an easy enough question, and I have a hands down favorite that I always recommend without a moment’s hesitation: Fine Line Bistro without a doubt has the best fries we’ve ever had in Ithaca. Period.

But I didn’t reply to Sarah right away, because I realized that “fries” actually means something different to different people. When I think of “the best” fries, I think first and foremost of the Belgian-style frites, which have a very specific character and flavor and texture that is, to me, what every Idaho Russet dreams of one day becoming; they taste fried but not fatty, crisp but not stiff, and full of perfectly steamy puffed potato deliciousness. That's because they are cooked in a more labor-intensive method that requires extensive soaking, and two stages of frying, ideally at two different temperatures, something not every restaurant kitchen is equipped to do or has time for. But for anyone who has tasted frites like these, it’s hard to go back to anything less. As far as we’ve seen, Chef Seth Gregory at Fine Line Bistro is the only one in Ithaca serving these authentic twice-fried frites, and the difference is quite clear. Served with an authentic, tangy aioli sauce, there is nothing better.

But I was curious if anyone else felt the same, so I asked our Twitter followers for their favorites. I was a little dismayed that nobody else mentioned Fine Line, but not at all surprised who was mentioned most. Okay, it’s an un-scientific poll to be sure, but here were the replies for favorite fries in Ithaca (click the @names and links to read the original Tweet replies):

Dijon Bistro comes out on top from @sushigrade, @eruditeogre, @munierSalem, @mhaithaca, and @dansr.

Maxie's also got a couple mentions from @natedogreimer and @mhaithaca.

Of course, @mhaithaca is also the foodie behind 14850 Dining who has eaten as many of Ithaca fries as we have, probably more. He also gave nods to Ithaca Ale House and The Nines. Others pointed out more obscure options like Stella’s, The State Diner, and Kilpatrick’s Pub, and even some options that no longer exist.

And while I’m very glad nobody mentioned any of the national chain fast food franchises in town, this creates more complications than it solves, since none of these places even really serve the same kind of fries. Many of these are “seasoned” fries, where the flavor of the spices that coat them are the defining appeal. Others are “sauced” fries, covered in cheese or gravy, perfect for those all night weekend pub crawls.

But none of these options are even what dear listener Sarah wrote us about. She’s looking for the State Fair hand-cut style fries that are something else all together. To me, that means tender, thick-cut fries with strips of skin here and there, shiny and hot from the fryer and covered in salt, served in a paper bag or cardboard boat with a small tub of ketchup on the side for dunking. Sorry Sarah, but the only place you’re going to get those on a regular basis in Ithaca will be when Five Guys Burgers & Fries officially opens on Sunday, Sept. 20th. But oh, will they be worth waiting for...

When it comes to the classic frites I love, Fine Line Bistro will always be tops in my book, and if you have not tried them yet you are definitely missing out. That said, I’ll admit that Dijon comes as a close second to what Fine Line has perfected. In fact, I probably am disappointed by Dijon's fries most because they come so close to getting it right only to fall just short. If only they would stop putting more than just salt on their fries (I’ll never understand the value of parsley on fries) and maybe consider the two-stage frying method, they would be able to finally offer a more authentic moules frites experience for Ithaca diners.

If you'd like to hear more of our thoughts on this, you listen to our podcast review of Dijon Bistro in Ep. 18 and our review of Fine Line Bistro in Ep. 22. Even better, I encourage anyone who really cares about this to try making your own batch of authentic Belgian-style frites (this recipe is fantastic and easy) and you’ll see what a difference the twice-fried french fry can make.

What do YOU think? Something we overlooked here? Agree/Disagree? Bring it on! Leave us a comment below.

Keep Eating Ithaca!

Where to get your fries fix:


The Erudite Ogre said...

Ah, one of my favorite subjects! I agree with you about the joy of the twice-fried frite; I had some of those in Europe and they are things of beauty. That balance of firm and pillowy texture is essential in a good frite. I think Dijon does a fabulous job and I am not bothered by the parsley (but neither does it add anything to them). I am not a big fan of seasoned fries; I want the potato taste, a bit of salt, and a good sauce. I have not been to Fine Line but after your discussion of their sublime frites and a look at their menu I have to try them out!

I added the State's gravy-smothered fries more because of the nostalgia, and the fact that I think they do the fries correctly for gravy; very crisp, moderate body inside to hold up to the gravy and give you a greater textual contrast. While I have loved Dijon's and other fries for themselves, I have very fond memories of slurping drooping, gravy-burdened fries down while discussion Foucault and academic politics. :-)

We'll see if 5 Guys can compete with our current favorites.

Anonymous said...

While I love gravy with my fries, I prefer them on the side. My Tullyburger at Manos Diner isn't complete if I don't get a bowl of gravy to dip the fries in.

Anonymous said...

Er, prefer the gravy on the side, rather than poured over the top. The fries being on the side is irrelevant. :-)

Anonymous said...

As I've mentioned before, I think Moakley House fries are pretty good. Better than the overseasoned "Mustard" variety, IMHO (which I imagine is similar to Dijon Bistro, which I haven't tried yet).


Anonymous said...

I vote Dijon's fries, but now I'm looking forward to trying Fine Line. I've always wanted Dijon to have a little kiosk out front (or around back) where I can take out an order without having to do a full sit-down meal. Would Fine Line serve me just fries to go? When I'm in a Fries sort of mood, I really don't want a complete full service restaurant meal.

Anonymous said...

Dijon will do frites to go if you do not want to do a sit down meal! :-)

Anonymous said...

DO NOT go to Ithaca Ale House for fries. Any time you get served coated french fries, you know that restaurant is waving the white flag, that they have no clue how to prepare a decent french fry and have given up. The burger and salad we got at IAH were superb, but to mention IAH as a possible source of decent fries in the Ithaca area is a disservice to french fries across the universe.


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