Versus: The Battle of the Steak Frites

Pitting two versions of this bistro classic against each other.

Steak frites. For many, the dish calls to mind romantic visions of whiling away hours in a perfect Parisian brasserie, where time floats away on a river of red wine and calories are meaningless. But for less Francophilia-addled folk, steak frites speaks a more universal language: meat and potatoes. Specifically, an indulgent steak and the golden glory of French fries.Steak frites crosses the usual borders between halls of fine dining and more casual bistros and restaurants. And while the dish is traditionally French, its fundamental beef-and-potato-ness lends itself to new interpretations. This week, Versus seeks comfort outside the bistro, trying steak frites at two more casual places that take their meat seriously, Brouwer's Cafe and The Tin Table.Brouwer's is best known for its obscene selection of craft beers on tap, but don't sleep on the food here. The hardy Euro-fare menu is stacked with high-quality ingredients (a look at the cheese selection speaks volumes), and the steak frites on the menu offers you a choice between a 12-ounce ribeye ($18.50) or New York strip ($20). (You also can add a Laphroaig whisky cream sauce or blue cheese for $2.50.) Brouwer's is not messing around when it comes to beef: the massive ribeye comes off the grill tender and luscious, cooked exactly medium-rare and bearing the flourish of perfectly criss-crossed grill marks. Although the Belgian grand cru reduction touted on the menu is potent, it comes tepid and congealed in a little metal cup next to the one bearing curry ketchup for your fries. Surely a Belgian "grand cru" reduction deserves better treatment than this. Brouwer's frites are fine examples of Belgian frites—hand-cut and thick, with a papery, crackly skin.At $15, The Tin Table's steak frites will have you believing you've stumbled across the greatest deal in town. The steak they use is hanger steak, not particularly tender but deep in its beefy flavor. And by God does the kitchen know just how to treat it: The cut comes expertly grilled, a perfect medium-rare, with a dark, smoky crust and red, almost oozy interior. The meat's topped with a bacon blue-cheese butter that in truth is nothing significant (the bacon bits were initially suspected to be chopped walnuts, which would have given the butter less of a novelty "Everything's better with bacon!" feel). But what is memorable is what lies underneath the steak: a small but wonderful secret layer of demiglace-based sauce—dark, luscious, and almost over-the-top rich. There's just enough for you to dip every bite of meat into it, and enough to soak into the bottom layer of the massive nest of shoestring fries. Those fries are crunchy and so light that eating them all doesn't leave you feeling full; plus, they're barely dusted with the intoxicating aroma of truffle salt. A simple arugula salad, peppery with a nice lemon lift, keeps the dish from feeling too heavy.Verdict: Brouwer's serves a massive, mighty fine, reasonably priced steak. This is steak you want to get to know. But when matched against the Tin Table's steak frites, with all its well-executed elements and small details, Brouwer's ends up looking like a steak thrown over a pile of decent fries—amateurish at best.Tin Table all the way!

 
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