Versus: When Steak Frites Meet Outside the French Bistro

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Tin Table's beautifully composed steak-frites
Steak frites. For many the dish calls to mind romantic visions of wiling away hours in the most 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 the halls of fine dining and more casual bistros and restaurants. And while it's traditionally French, its fundamental beef-and-potato-ness lends itself to being interpreted in new ways. 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.

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Brouwer's: one gorgeous, honkin' piece of meat
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 the beef: the massive ribeye come off the grill tender and luscious, cooked exactly to 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 hangar 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 give 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 all of them 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 up a massive, mighty fine, and reasonably priced steak. This is steak you want to get to know. But when matched up against the Tin Table's steak frites, with all its well-executed elements and small details, Brouwer's version ends up looking like a steak thrown over a pile of decent fries -- amateur at best.

Tin Table all the way!

 
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