Never has a man holding a fryolator basket appeared so triumphant. But there is chef Christian Page gripping a gleaming silver Imperial basket still dripping with canola oil and smiling as if he just perfected a chocolate souffle. He is in the small, gleaming kitchen of Nancy Silverton and the late Amy Pressman’s new burger joint, Short Order, which opens Friday. Silverton stands beside him, equally pleased.
Page dumps the fries into a stainless steel bowl, adds salt and tosses them, then puts them on a plate. These are no ordinary fries. The potatoes have been baked, then hand-torn into rugged chunks before being fried. They look like golden gemstones, with salt glistening like minerals in their many crevices. They taste like soft, earthy puffs of russet potato and slide readily into a creamy sauce Page calls “loaded baked potato dip,” which is made with sour cream, chives, parsley, bacon and scallions.
Like everything on the Short Order menu, the journey of the traditional fries and these fries — from conception to execution — took more than a year of testing and tasting. To Silverton, Pressman and Page, the potato was not a lowly tuber — it was a planet to be mined for the perfect French fry.
“All along, Amy wanted two types of fries on the menu,” Silverton says later, sitting at a wooden picnic table on the restaurant’s patio while Page serves juicy burgers to a gathering of friends and colleagues, including Varnish bartender Eric Alperin and Pressman’s fiancé, Rob Beckham. “She worked really hard to get the traditional French fry up to her specs, but she felt she wouldn’t be able to do a hand-cut fry here — she didn’t think she had the space or time.”
Using frozen fries was out of the question. So Pressman managed to persuade a potato grower to cut them, blanch them in water to preserve them and then deliver them to the restaurant.
“As far as I know, no one else is getting potatoes that way,” Silverton says.
“I think the CIA was involved,” Page jokes.
Initially Pressman wanted the second type of fry on the menu to be a sweet potato fry, but Silverton says that they quickly realized they had never had a sweet potato fry that they really liked. In the process of searching for an alternative, Silverton gained inspiration from two New York restaurants, Jonathan Waxman’s Barbuto and April Bloomfield’s the Breslin, both of which feature broken and fried potato chunks. Waxman’s are peeled and served with roast chicken, and Bloomfield’s are cooked in duck fat.
At Mozza, Silverton was already smashing and frying fingerling potatoes. They’re good because “there’s a lot more surface area to get crisp,” Silverton says. “I said, ‘Let’s do that and call it the Short Order Spud and make it our signature fry.’”
From there the chefs tested about half a dozen potatoes. And the process hasn’t really stopped.
“We just decided to blanch the traditional fries in oil today,” says Page, who is still deciding if cooking them for 31/2 minutes is the right call. With Silverton beside him, he pulls up a timer on his cellphone and drops a basket of fries into hot oil.
“This is called continuous improvement,” he says as the two crane their necks to watch the potatoes hiss and bubble into a work of edible art. “How about 375 degrees?”
“I think 380,” Silverton says.
“I like that, I like that,” Page murmurs as he pulls out the fries and passes them around to the cooks in the kitchen. The resulting lip smacking signals that 5-degrees difference may not matter to most people. But to Page and Silverton, it’s everything.
So much so that two days before the restaurant’s opening Page was still not satisfied with the traditional fry and an “emergency fry meeting” was held in the early morning hours. As of this writing the fate of the traditional fry hangs in the balance.