"When people ask me what's the difference between French fries and Belgian frites, I tell them 11 hours and 57 minutes," quipped Fred O'Toole, co-owner (with his wife, Joyce Connelly) of Bel Frites in downtown SLO. "It takes 12 hours to make our frites."
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- PERFECT PAIR : Fred O'Toole and his wife, Joyce Connelly, serve tasty fries and Belgian ales that floored New Times' resident foodie. In a good way.
# Clearly, they're worth the effort. These are the best fries I've ever tasted. I mean anywhere--and I get around. Perfectly crispy on the outside and baked-potato tender on the inside, these frites are totally satisfying, even if you eat them with just a sprinkle of sea salt and some good ol' Heinz ketchup.
When you visit Bel Frites, I urge you to climb out of the sandbox and venture into the grownups' world. Try their very adult, very exotic seasoning and sauce pairings. I swear I didn't think I'd like the unique curry mango chutney sauce with frites dusted with Jamaican jerk seasoning, but I hummmmmed out loud in unrestrained delight over this pairing, and I scarfed down a few more well-coated frites. I don't mind admitting I liked all of the seasonings, from simple sea salt and Old Bay Seasoning to Cajun essence and garlic parsley gremolata. The fact is, these frites would stand out if they were only dressed in the house special seasonings, but wait until you try them with the shop's outstanding dipping sauces.
My enthusiasm partly stems from the fact that I rarely indulge in fried foods anymore, so it was a devilish kind of pleasure. But the truth is, I order French fries with steaks in restaurants often enough to know that these frites are awesome, making it perfectly sensible to indulge in this rare treat. This is one of those cases where pure pleasure takes precedence over calories. I'll just have to refrain from stopping by too often. And since I haven't waxed poetic enough, check out my favorite frites combinations with the Belgian beers.
Although O'Toole modestly claims he isn't an expert, he seemed to be one when it comes to the artisanal Belgian beers and ales he's serving. There's no Budweiser here, but you can get Stella Artois at cheap prices during the weekly specials Tuesday through Friday. My passion has always been for wine, so I'm sorely lacking in knowledge about great brews. But I've always enjoyed an artisanal, cold draft. Fred reminded me: "You'll have a better appreciation for these beers if you drink them as they do in Europe, slightly warmer."
The five beer and frites pairings he and Joyce set up for me were all delicious, but two really rocked me: the mind-blowing curry mango chutney with Jamaican jerk seasoned frites and the Affligem Blond Ale and the smoky chipotle aioli with Cajun chili essence seasoning and the Chimay Grande Reserve Blue Trappist Ale. I'd come back for more of either combination. O'Toole informed me that only six breweries in Belgium are allowed to officially label their beers as from an authentic Trappist brewery (there are only eight such breweries in the world, at least according to Wikipedia).
During the holiday season, until Jan. 1, 2008, Bel Frites is offering a beer lover's dream: a six pack of Belgian artisanal beers for $24.95. That's about $4 each for beers normally priced higher. Weekly specials include a choice of chili cheese frites or garlic frites with Stella Artois Belgian beer or soda ($4.99 on Tuesday and Wednesday) and $1 Stella Artois or a 50-cent soda with any order of frites on Thursday. Stella Artois is just $2 all day on Fridays.
As a retired Cal Poly philosophy professor and graduate of the Baking Institute in San Francisco, I appreciated O'Toole's analogy: "Like a baker of fine artisan breads that are the result of many hours of preparation, our frites take 12 hours to make. It's very labor intensive."
They only use fresh Grade-A Russet potatoes that are hand-cut daily and sorted to remove uneven shards, throwing away an average of 30 percent of the potato while sorting. The potatoes are soaked in water overnight to remove surface starch. The frying is a two-step process, and they only use Canola oil, which is trans fat free. That Canola oil is filtered daily and changed often, and when it's not good enough for frites, it fuels their diesel-powered car.
When you place your order, the frites are flash fried and handed over hot with sauces that are also made fresh daily. It doesn't get any better than this. I experimented with the sauces and spiced frites to find two favorites of my own: gremolata-seasoned frites with fire-roasted essence ketchup and Cajun chili-essence seasoned frites with Mustang Ranch adobo sauce. The latter gave me the kick I love without blowing out my palate. I never thought I'd say this, but I came for what seemed a novel experience and walked away raving about the quality of Bel Frites. I can't wait to go back.
INFOBOX: Super fry
Bel Frites is located at 1127 Garden St. in SLO. It's open Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 2:30 a.m., and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. For more information, call 784-0422 or visit www.belfrites.com.
INFOBOX: My bubble burst
Have you ever tried to organize something special and had it all go awry? That was my problem this year with my annual bubbly report. I couldn't get all of my judges in the same place at the same time, which resulted in losing some good palates. When we finally got together, some of the value sparklers that we raved about last year bombed this year. On the other hand, one of my favorite producers, Roederer Estate from Mendocino, proved brilliant this year. The Roederer Rose NV earned the highest rating from most of the judges. Look for an opportunity to taste before you buy: Our great local wine shops all provide at least one sparkling tasting during the holiday season. Retail prices can vary widely depending on where you shop, but all of these are widely available, so shop around to get bargain prices. And don't just save these sparklers for New Year's Eve--they taste great any time of year.
Banfi Rosa Regale NV*
Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs NV
Greg Norman Brut NV
Gruet Brut NV
Gruet Brut Rose NV
Gruet Demi-Sec NV
Iron Horse 2004 Brut Wedding Cuvee
J 2002 Brut Russian River Valley
Laetitia Brut Cuvee NV
Laetitia Rose NV
Laurent Perrier Brut NV
Paul Laurent Champagne NV
Lucas & Lewellen 2004 Brut
Mandolina Bianco di Bianco NV Demi-Sec
Mumm Napa Brut NV
Roederer Brut Rose NV
Roederer Brut NV 25th Anniversary
Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs NV
Veuve Clicquot Brut NV
(*NV is non-vintage)
Contact New Times' Cuisine columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org.