Leslie Williams sprinkles the salt and calls for the mustard: Steak Frites

Archive - all the best places to eat, shop and stay in Ireland. A local guide to local places.
Steak Frites is the quintessential French Bistro dish. Whenever I am in France this is the dish I order more than any other as I can be fairly certain they will get it right - or at least less wrong. The chips might be cooked from frozen and the steak underdone (to some Irish palates) but I have come to trust in the simplicity of this dish.

First let me tell you what steak frites is not. It is not tender but tasteless fillet steak with a tournedos sauce (the reason fillet always has a rich sauce is because it is usually tasteless on its own), and the frites are thin and crispy - they are never, ever, ever, wedges of undercooked soggy potato.

The best steak frites is made with a cheap cut such as rib-eye, rump or onglet cooked rare or blue. If you like your steak well done you need to order a better cut as these cuts will not work.
The chewy texture and meaty flavours from the cheaper cuts are essential to match the crispy fluffy chips. Sirloin is just about acceptable and maybe Striploin but the chips had better be damn good.

In France ask for "à point" for what we call medium rare or saignant as the French do. A word of warning - you wont be taken seriously as a diner in France unless you ask for saignant which will only cook the outside leaving most of the proteins un-connected (OK I admit it - raw!). Once you try it a few times you wont want your steak frites any other way.

Sadly many restaurant customers do not understand this and I know that Venu were forced within six months to change their cut (and increase the price) as customers reported their steak as "chewy". Telling customers "it's supposed to be that way!" is sadly not an option in Ireland (as it would be in France!).

Now the frites - this may sound like sacrilege, but give me frozen crispy chips over the abomination that are "home-cooked chips" or "hand-cut chips" which turn out to be little more than soapy wedges of undercooked potato - all too prevalent in restaurants of all price ranges in Dublin and elsewhere.

The problem with freshly prepared thin crispy chips is time. Bistros survive on rapid turnover and many believe they just don't have the time to first blanch their chips in 140C oil, cool them down, and then cook from cold at 180C - as they do in Alexis in Dun Laoghaire (who use maris piper).

Personally I don't see what the problem is - if Alexis can do it and just charge €22.50 for sublime steak and the crispiest of chips why cant everyone else?

Locks use Spanish potatoes, blanch their chips three times in oil before the final frying and these are also out of this world good. Blanching three times probably a little over the top but it really does work so I am not complaining. Balzac cooks a fine steak frites and unashamedly uses frozen chips and I applaud them for this, particularly as they have outstanding duck fat potatoes also on the menu - a reason for visiting on their own.

Venu has tried fresh cut chips (cut raw early in the day - pretty good), frozen chips (not bad) and have finally settled on the blanching and re-frying method (excellent). Currently my sources tell me they are experimenting with oils and have a "secret ingredient" which they believe will give them "the best chips in the city". Truly a worthy ambition and something for which I wish others would strive.

If you are in Paris the best steak frites I have had was at Le Gavroche on Rue St. Marc, a tiny old school bistro in the 2nd Arr - the best frites in Paris according to Figaro and truly excellent they are; (whisper it though, the ones in Locks and Alexis are better.)

In New York visit Les Halles on Park Avenue which I still believe was the best steak frites I have ever experienced. At home use Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook which tells you all you need to know about the dish.

As Disreli said "It was not reason that besieged Troy; it was not reason that sent forth the Saracen from the desert to conquer the world… above all, it was not reason that created the French Revolution. Man is only great when he acts from the passions; never irresistible but when he appeals to the imagination."

So rise with me as customers of the restaurants of Ireland to stay the encroaching tide of wedges, and let us demand frites.

Who, in your opinion, makes the best steak frites?