Whether they're moving in fast company with black truffles and Kobe beef or smashed with homier things like corn and bacon bits, potatoes are showing greater flair and personality these days. Casual-dining operators are taking cues from both the quick-service and upscale segments, serving up French fries with zesty sauces and dips as signature appetizers, folding distinctive mix-ins into mashed potatoes and even sizzling the tasty tuber in authentic Chinese stir-fries.
In some hands, a good French fry turns into a great appetizer with just a dusting of piquant spice, a zesty sauce or dip, or a dab of compound butter. A case in point is Crispy Garlic & Parmesan Fries, priced at $3.75, the No. 1-selling appetizer at Hurricane Grill and Wings, a 24-unit casual concept based in Stuart, Fla. "It's our chips and salsa," said Tom Sadler, Hurricane's chief concept officer.
Lending the fries a toothsome edge is Garlic, Parmesan & Herb Butter, a compound butter laced with fresh and roasted garlic, parsley, salt, pepper and Parmesan cheese. It's one of more than 28 condiments that Hurricane offers with chicken wings and other fare. "We rolled it over onto fries, added some grated Parm and it became an instant hit," said Sadler. And guests haven't stopped there: They're calling for fries with other wing flavors, like Habanero Lime Toss and Mojo Glaze, too.
Casual chefs also can look to upscale eateries for flavored-fry inspiration. For example, at the new Zoe Townhouse in New York City, executive chef Matthew Zappoli anoints fresh, hot fries with compound gremolata butter containing parsley, lemon, garlic, shallots, orange, lime and chives, for a $5 à la carte side dish. At the just-opened MGM Grand Detroit, the Bourbon Steak restaurant sets a Trio of Duck Fat Fries on every table as an amuse, or welcoming amenity. Guests nibble the likes of truffle-flecked fries with truffle aïoli and rosemary-and-onion flavored fries with onion ketchup as they peruse the menu. "[The fries] come out crispy from the duck fat, but this is primarily a flavor thing," said Anthony Carron, corporate chef of Mina Group Inc., Bourbon Steak's San Francisco-based parent.
Of course, it's just as easy to turn an idea with the common touch, like loaded potato skins, into fancier fare as well. That's what chef-owner Michael Wagner does at Lola's on Harrison in Hollywood, Fla. His Purple Potato Skins ($9) top specialty spuds with chives, applewood-smoked bacon, roasted garlic, sundried tomato crème fraîche and American sturgeon caviar. "I don't want to be like everyone up and down the block," said Wagner. "This is special to our restaurant."
In contrast, the focus at Ted's Montana Grill is on putting top-quality Fresh-Cut French Fries ($1.99) on the table, rather than flavoring fancies. Director of purchasing Randy McAdoo said he reckons the 52-unit, Atlanta-based casual chain spends about twice as much to source custom-grown potatoes in Washington and Idaho and painstakingly prepare them than it would for commercial frozen fries. The spuds are cut, washed and spun dry in Ted's open kitchens and cooked in a three-stage process. The outcome is worth the added expense, he said, adding: "We get rave reviews. We can barely keep up with the orders."
Apopular new dish called Smashed Potatoes with Corn and Bacon promises to win a permanent menu spot at O'Charley's, the 241-unit, Nashville, Tenn.-based casual chain. Russet spuds are peeled, cooked and fork-smashed to leave a few homey lumps before folding in butter, cream, roasted corn and bacon pieces. "In casual dining, there's a sea of sameness," said vice president of culinary development Stephen Bulgarelli. "We want to break free of that."
Of course, mashed-potato mix-ins can go much further than that. Take the Potato Puree Trio at Bourbon Steak. Priced $13 per order and designed to complement a $48 all-natural, certified Angus filet mignon and a $170 Japanese Kobe ribeye steak, it features three silky, creamed potato purées: horseradish cream; lobster cream with lobster chunks; and sour cream and onion cream.
For a perspective on spuds that's distinctive — at least to most Westerners — customers can bite into Dali Chicken ($12) at P.F. Chang's China Bistro, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based, 164-unit, casual chain. A stir-fry of chicken and Yukon Gold potatoes in a spicy chili sauce, Dali Chicken recreates a dish that wowed corporate chef Bob Tam in Yunnan, China. Although potatoes are a rarity in Americanized Chinese restaurants, they're common in homestyle Chinese cooking, Tam said, typically used as a vegetable, not a starch.
"I think putting Dali Chicken on the menu has definitely opened some doors" for greater use of potatoes in Asian cooking, Tam said. "It has created awareness."