The Fine Art of Frito Fare
In the not-so-distant past, concerns over the potential health effects of trans fats had restaurateurs and diners alike avoiding fried foods like the plague. Today, with chefs utilizing innovative ingredients, new techniques and exploring the uses of non-traditional, healthier cooking oils, the “F-word” is popping up on menus all over the West, and consumers are eating it right up.
A far cry from the standard fry basket staples of grease-laden French fries, heavily battered zucchini rounds and the like, the ingredients driving today’s fried food trend are unexpected, complex and surprisingly sophisticated. It is no surprise that Roy Choi, Godfather of the Food Truck Movement and Korean-Mexican food trend, would be in on the frying 2.0 craze. He recently opened A-Frame, a mess hall-style eatery that encourages guests to share plates with strangers and friends alike. Diners who visit his new Culver City spot quickly fall for the restaurant’s “bring it all together” menu options, particularly his “Kitchen Fries.” Although the dish title might trick you into thinking that he’s serving just run-of-the-mill fare, these aren’t your average pre-cut potato and ketchup combo. Chef Choi kicks the flavor up a notch by frying wedges of purple Okinawan potatoes, yams and Korean sweet potatoes and replacing the Heinz with kimchi sour cream and sea salt. A very familiar dish, with not so familiar ingredients.
Moving beyond tubers, chefs are embracing a spectrum of refined ingredients for frying. From the Breaded Chanterelle Mushroom Risotto Balls served at Healdsburg’s Scopa to Crispy Rabbit Livers offered at Los Angeles’ The Lazy Ox Canteen, consumers are expressing an increasing curiosity for envelope-pushing fried menu additions, which is in turn, enabling experimentation by chefs. According to 1500 Ocean Chef de Cuisine Aaron Martinez, the popularity of “Top Chef” and other cooking-related shows are partly responsible for this new acceptance. “Diners right now are starting to get a lot more adventurous.”
Chef Michael Mina agrees, “I absolutely believe that guests’ level of comfort with trying new foods [and] ideas has allowed us to venture out of the box when it comes to refining technique and ingredients.” One of Mina’s recent deep-fried success stories has been the overwhelmingly positive customer response to the introduction of Sous-Vide Pineapple Wrapped in Bacon with Jalapeno and Mint, “We are fearless when it comes to frying. We leave no stone unturned.” It seems that restaurant diners are responding to that risk-taking in kind, making grain and bean fritters, polenta fries and even offal such as pig ears and sweetbreads, the new crowd favorites.
It’s all about the oils
Another factor paving the way for fried food acceptance is the use of lighter, cleaner tasting, high-smoke point cooking mediums such as rice bran, grape seed and avocado oils. Health considerations aside, today’s chefs are also custom-tailoring their choice of oil to maintain the integrity of the item being fried. On his selection of frying oil, Chef Matthew Accarrino of San Francisco’s SPQR says, “Generally, I’m looking for an oil that will not impart its own flavor to the item. If the flavor of, say, duck fat or olive oil is desired, then I take care to use that oil.” While some restaurant owners may be balking at adding fried foods to the line-up, diners are eagerly ordering these items once they are introduced.
“My business partner and GM isn’t crazy about adding them, and we never have more than two or three on the menu, but fried foods have a great texture,” says Chef Tia Harrison of San Francisco’s Sociale where polenta fries have become a popular and permanent menu staple. “And [fried foods] are not always bad for you, if they’re done in a great way. I feel like diners are recognizing that flavor and texture, and now we’re just putting a little more refinement, house-made ingredients and care into these dishes.”
Technique and balance
Variation in ingredient use and technique are the key to customer acceptance of the new breed of fried foods. “Overuse of [frying] can make a meal feel heavy and unbalanced. My approach is to blend the technique into dishes where other techniques are present.” says Chef Accarrino. New modified starches and methods of aeration such as the iSi Whip can produce delicate batters and coatings which showcase, rather than obscure the flavor of fresh, seasonal ingredients. While frying offers benefits such as great flavor combination and texture, the ability to create a refined fried dish requires mastery just as any other technique. When it comes to adding these menu items, chefs should keep an eye on consistency and edit dishes carefully. “The main concern would be that the item be cooked evenly and served at proper temperature. Avoiding heaviness and maintaining balance within dishes is also a factor . . . it may be best to think of a fried item as another component of a dish, rather than just the focus.” With that balance in mind, Accarrino recently served a fried quail dressed with chili infused honey with grilled okra and pickled green tomato. “There are items I like to have around, like pig ears for frying, that tend to make their way into dishes as a compliment or as a snack item on my menu.
Over at Michael Mina, “We often incorporate staples like fried calamari as a garnish for more substantial entrees in order to increase both value and comfort level . . .” While frying can also be a costly proposition, with oil expense, removal and cleaning, “It is a unique technique, and a cornerstone of cuisine that we feel delights our guests,” asserts Mina.
While some general managers may balk at the addition of fried food items, it seems the dining public has a voracious appetite for them, consistently requesting and ordering this new wave of refined and fried dishes when dining out. Over at 1500 Ocean, reaction has been, “Very positive. The normal things you see fried aren’t on our menu, so [diners] get to try something new and different.” Mina sums it up, “Our signatures like the Trio of Fries, Lobster Corn Dogs and Korean Chicken Wings are some of the favorites. People say they like to eat healthy, but they always go for the fries.”