Monday, March 10, 2008

belgian fries at 4500 feet

Yesterday I flew to Portland, Maine, for the express purpose of eating potatoes deep-fried in duck fat. Harry, the British mad hippie engineer, was mostly to blame.

You see, I tried to get a group of friends together for a road trip to Duckfat. The road trip didn't happen because no-one had a car. I mentioned this unfortunate turn of events to Harry, who is apparently hell-bent on having triple bypass surgery before the age of thirty. (Remember those life-expectancy-curbing scones? Those were his fault, too.)

Harry agreed that it was a terrible shame.

And then he mentioned that he had a pilot's license.

And that Mike, another of the mad hippie engineers, also had a pilot's license.

And that the two of them were planning on logging some time in the air this weekend.

You can guess where this is headed.

Sunday morning, the three of us set off in a Piper Warrior, a single-engine four-seater. The skies were clear but windy, and one rather turbulent flight later, we arrived in Portland, Maine. The Portland airport helpfully provided us with a courtesy car, and armed with directions from Google, we headed out on our quest for heartstopping deliciousness.

Duckfat is located on a quiet, unassuming street in downtown Portland. The restaurant itself is similarly unassuming. Located underneath an unmarked red-and-blue striped awning, the restaurant's only signage is the lettering on the window.

Inside, the restaurant feels a little like a Parisian bistro, with wooden floors, small round tables, and a long, curving bar at one end of the room.

The menu is short, but leaves plenty of room to be indecisive: Soup or sandwich? Churros or beignets? And would it be excessive to order all eight dipping sauces to go with the fries?

I finally settled on a duck confit panini, a large cone of Belgian fries with truffle ketchup and roasted garlic mayonnaise, and an order of beignets with spiced sugar. Harry, true to form, chose the Duckfat poutine and a "five dollar" milkshake. And Mike went for simplicity, with a tuna melt and fries.

The photos that follow are blurry. (For better photos, you should visit the Duckfat website.) This is partly due to Harry's camera, and partly due to my impatience. But given how amazing the food smelled, you're lucky there were any photos at all.

Potatoes fried in canola oil or palm oil smell like oil. Potatoes fried in beef tallow (like McDonald's fries, before they switched to palm oil with "beef essence") smell faintly, though pleasantly, of beef. Duckfat's Belgian fries smell like... well, if they hadn't been served piping hot, I might have stuck my face in the cone and not come up for air until I'd reached the crumbs at the bottom.

Fried to a glorious golden brown, they had thick, crispy exteriors, and soft, mash-like interiors. They were a little on the salty side, but the dipping sauces compensated for that.

The roasted garlic mayonnaise had a light, creamy texture, and the garlic was assertive without being overpowering. Mike's sweet and spicy mustard was flecked with little bits of cornichon and had a pleasant kick. But it was the truffle ketchup that stole the show: sweet and fragrant, it elevated the fries to another plane of delicious. If all ketchup tasted like Duckfat's truffle ketchup, I could honestly say I liked ketchup.

The Belgian fries are also delicious, if even more artery-clogging, when layered with cheese curds and drenched in duck gravy in Duckfat's version of poutine. (Harry generously let me have a taste.) The cheese curds didn't squeak, but the gravy was particularly dark and savory.

Duckfat also makes an excellent panini. Served on crispy, dense bread, the duck confit was moist and meaty, and raisin-mustard chutney added sweetness and bite.

After fries and poutine and panini, we had just enough room for a few beignets. I like my beignets closer to fried dough than doughnuts, so they weren't strictly to my taste, but they were nicely crisp on the outside, with a light, cakey interior, and fragrant with cinnamon and cloves.

Warm and satisfied, we made our way back to the airport, and had an uneventful flight home. Harry is already talking about going back. Next time, though, I think we'll drive.


Joy Hui Lin said...

you didn't enjoy flying?

adele said...

Oh, I did. They let me take the controls for a bit on the return trip!

But it's not really practical - renting a plane is expensive.

Ann said...

How fun!

Paipai said...

So glad you got to try Duckfat, too! As I'm sure you know from my plan, it's a regular stop every time Fiance and I go to visit my parents. The truffle ketchup is my favorite condiment ever, I think. I am considering buying some truffle oil and mixing up my own at home.

Matthew said...

I had poutine for the first time the weekend before last when I went skiing. It was good. Do you know anything about where it comes from?

adele said...

Apparently someone came up with the idea of putting cheese curds on fries, and supposedly the gravy was added to keep the whole thing from going cold too quickly. I'm not sure if I believe it, though - it makes more sense to me that the fries with gravy came first.

tammy said...

Wow, that's so cool. I really like the idea of the spontaneity of that (and the fries), but the reality is that I would have soiled myself on both legs of the trip in that small plane.

Cakelaw said...

How cool - even more fun that road trip! Those fries look soooo good - well worth the trip.

adele said...

Tammy - It really wasn't any more frightening than a commercial flight. I've been on car trips that were more nerve-wracking. :)

Cakelaw - Oh, it was definitely worth it.

Virgin In The Volcano said...

My brother and I tried this place this weekend. You were right about the truffle ketchup--excellent. But the fries were disappointing. Ours were far too dark and overcooked, but even if they'd been timed better, they were nothing like the real Belgian fries we we're dreaming about on the drive up there. But I wish we had tried the cheese curds. Next time, I guess.

adele said...

I'm sorry to hear that the fries were underwhelming. Maybe the kitchen was having a bad day?

Spoit said...

Just to set things straight: here in Belgium almost all fries shops (we have container-sized shops with fries.. like pizza stands) switched to vegetable oil.

I believe what makes the difference is that the potatoes should be fresh (manually cut :) and they should be baked twice (it's called pre-frying). The first time for about five minutes and then, after they cooled down, again until golden brown. The oil should be about 180° C (sorry don't know the Fahrenheit values)

adele said...

Oh, I know they're not usually cooked in duck fat, though I didn't know that most of the fry stands had switched to vegetable oil.