After almost every French Fry-Day post I have written, I get an email or a comment from a reader asking (telling) me to try the fries at 20 Seafood Joint. These writers use a lot of exclamation points and emojis. They are a feisty bunch. I understand their spirited remarks because I have eaten not only at 20 Seafood Joint, but I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing chef Marc Cassel over the years. Marc and his wife Suzan Fries have created one of the most satisfying restaurants in Dallas. They’ve combined their experiences as fine dining chefs devoted to high-quality ingredients with their love of a down-home ambiance. The BYOB policy raises the warm-and-fuzzy-and-good-cheer meter to the top.
This week I operated differently. I backed into my review. Instead of sneaking in, ordering, eating in the car, and photographing fries, I called Cassel. I’ve known for years that he uses frozen fries at 20 Feet, but he is a chef who dresses them properly. As I’ve said in almost every review, there is no shame in serving frozen French fries. However, if you choose to use them, don’t tout them as “hand-cut” on the menu.
There are not too many people who make fries for a living who begin a conversation about potatoes with a reference to Joël Robuchon, the famous French chef and restaurateur who was named “Chef of the Century” before the century was over.
After I asked Cassel about his technique, he launched into a story about how his methods were influenced by Jeffrey Steingarten’s brilliant book The Man Who Ate Everything. I have a yellowed, earmarked copy beside my computer. As Cassel talked, I flipped it open to the chapter on fries.
In the book, Robuchon shares his home recipe for fries. It is based on putting sliced potatoes into cold olive oil and bringing the temperature of the potatoes and the oil up at the same time. His method doesn’t convert easily to commercial kitchens unless one has a wing devoted to making fries. The main reason Cassel uses frozen fries is that he doesn’t have the space to produce consistent hand-cut fries. But what he does to them makes them magic.
He buys Whole Harvest soybean oil for his fryer. “It’s insanely good,” Cassel says. “And it’s not fractionalized like most oils where they pull out the vitamin E and nutrients for cosmetic or medical uses. The oil is squeezed from the bean like extra virgin oil. It’s great because it doesn’t absorb flavors and it doesn’t have to be changed as much.”
Cassel parbakes garlic until it is three quarters done. When the fries are almost cooked, he pulls them out of the oil and adds the garlic, rosemary, and thyme and sinks them back into the oil. Fresh from the fryer, they are tossed with “a squirt” of extra virgin oil, salt, and pepper.
I knew all of this before I stepped into 20 Feet to pick up a couple of orders of fries. While I waited for the food, I chatted with Fries who, sadly for this story, pronounces her name “freeze.” She, like any real chef, was horrified to learn that I wanted to take the fries with me. Fries are always best eaten within a minute or four from the cooking process. I explained my unscientific method of eating them as soon as I get in my car. I could tell she was disappointed, but I had to adhere to a few of my previous steps to maintain some consistency.
Fans of 20 Feet, you are right. The fries are superb. They are crunchy, and each order has a handful of deliciously greasy short nubs. Some are so small they get stuck under your fingernails. The thinly cut potatoes are perfumed with the scent of the crisp, fried herb leaves.
Once home, I sat down to nosh on fries and type some notes. I reached for Steingarten’s book and re-read the chapter on fries. I thought I’d share a couple of items I found interesting.
French fries are assumed to have come from France, but Steingarten puts forth the prevailing thought on the origin of the name. Many food historians think the term came from the French culinary verb “to french” as in cut into thin strips.
Cassel initially told me he was inspired by Robuchon’s method in the book, but I came across a lengthy discussion of fries from Tuscany and a recipe by Italian chef Cesare Casella which calls for rosemary (Casella’s trademark herb), garlic, thyme, sage, oregano, and salt and pepper. Cassel’s methods and mixture is a great balance of simple French and earthy Italian. I usually don’t advocate dipping, but these fries dunked in housemade tartar sauce are sublime.