It’s time for the second instalment in my project that has me reading New York restaurant reviews and recreating one of the dishes in my home kitchen here in Kirksville. I’ve decided to stick with Pete Wells and the New York Times as my source material for a while, so let’s see what he’s brought us this week: Chevalier in midtown. It’s a French restaurant for rich people. Seriously. Wells saw more than one silver-handled cane on his visits there, a gin and tonic costs $20. It’s described as a place where Bruce Wayne would have dinner. This sounds like the kind of restaurant people imagine when they think of fine dining in New York City. It’s like a New Yorker cartoon come to life. This ought to be fun.
Unfortunately, the review isn’t particularly glowing, at least as far as the food is concerned. I’m sure it’s all delicious, but when a three course dinner costs just shy of $100 per person, one expects the food to be better than good. One expects excellence, a marvel. I’m looking to recreate the best food available in New York City, not very good but mostly disappointing. Two dishes, however, garner outright praise and thus my attention. The “marvel”? A $26 charcuterie plate that sounds like it’s worth every penny and which there’s no way I’m going to attempt to recreate here. The other “an excellent gratin dauphinois.” That’s the one.
You might think “excellent gratin dauphinois” isn’t enough of a description for me to accurately recreate this dish. But French cuisine is based not only on tradition, but on written history. It’s learned in schools, taught with military precision and specifically codified. And luckily for all of us, one of the foundational texts of French cuisine is available to English speakers in an unabridged format. Esscofier’s Le Guide Culinaire isn’t a cookbook; it’s a manual for training chefs written by a titan of the industry over 100 years ago. Kaiser Wilhelm called Escoffier “The Emperor of Chefs.” His book is like the bible for French chefs. And guess what? It’s got a recipe for Gratin Dauphinois in it. Alright, on to the cooking.
Except of course that’s not all. No, it couldn’t be that simple. As it turns out, Escoffier might be on the wrong side of history when it comes to Gratin Dauphinois. Gratin Dauphinois, commonly known now as potato gratin, is a simple, very rich side dish from the Dauphiné region of France, near the alps. It features a few ingredients no one argues about. Potatoes, sliced thin, and cream. It’s cooked in an buttered earthenware dish rubbed with garlic. However, Escoffier adds beaten eggs and grated Gruyere cheese as well, as many do today. There’s only one problem; people from Dauphiné would never put eggs or cheese in their potato gratin. I could cite several sources, but this French article does it better than I could. (It’s in French. Google Translate is your friend.)
So what is an excellent Gratin Dauphinois? Is it simply potatoes cooked in cream or should there be cheese? As I did last week, I look to the pictures, this time by Daniel Krieger. That gratin, whether truly traditional or not, is clearly topped with melted cheese. With apologies to the good people of Dauphiné, Chef Shea Gallante at Chevalier has clearly sided with Esscofier in this matter, and so shall I.
So, now that I’ve decided to go with Escoffier’s method, let’s look at that “recipe” of his.
“Finely slice two lbs. of fair-sized Dutch potatoes. Put them in a basin, and add there to salt, pepper, grated nutmeg, one beaten egg, one and one-half pints of boiled milk, and four oz. of fresh grated Gruyere. Thoroughly mix up the whole. Pour this preparation into earthenware dishes, rubbed with garlic and well buttered; copiously sprinkle with grated Gruyere; add a few pieces of butter, and cook in a moderate oven for from forty to forty-five minutes.”
That’s actually more precise than I had feared from a book that often treats instructions like “Roast a hare,” as completely informative. And thankfully, because most of these are basic ingredients, I actually had everything I needed right at home so no shopping trip. Here’s what I had:
5 Russet potatoes
3 cups heavy whipping cream
a good hunk of Gruyere Cheese
salt, pepper, nutmeg
First things first, boiling the milk, or in this case, cream. (C’mon, I’m sure that what Escoffier really meant, right?) So I’m not sure why you’re supposed to boil milk before using it for creating sauces, probably to reduce the water content? All I know is it makes the resulting food taste better so into the saucepan goes my cream. When boiling milk you want to bring it up to temperature slowly, stirring often so the milk doesn’t scald on the bottom of the pan. And you’re looking for a low, simmering boil, not a full, rolling boil situation. Also, toss in a bay leaf at this point. Ain’t gonna hurt you. If you want to cut down on the fat, replace some of the cream with whole milk or maybe buttermilk, definitely not 2% or skim. That will result in a watery mess. This is a fatty side dish. Let it be fatty, just don’t eat too much in one sitting.
So, while the milk was getting hot, I got to peeling the potatoes, then soaked them in salty water for a bit while I dug through the closet in search of my mandoline. Obviously all of the potato slicing necessary for this recipe could be achieved with a decent knife and a cutting board, but as my friend Charles says “Evenly cut, evenly cooked,” so I definitely recommend a $20-$30 investment in a slightly terrifying razorbladed slicing device. In no time, all of my potatoes were sliced into thin, translucent coins.
I sprinkle on some salt, pepper and nutmeg, and then it’s time to strain my milk (now fully boiled and cooled) over the top. Add my beaten (and by some accounts verbotten) egg, and it’s time to mix up the lot by hand.
I grated some cheese, three different ways, reasonably thick, ultra thin and on a microplane. I rubbed down my chosen baking dish with plenty of butter and a peeled clove of garlic. When my potatoes were chilly and flavors were melded, I took them out of the fridge and layered them up. Creamy potatoes, coarsely grated cheese, potatoes, cheese, etc. until I got to the top and finished it off with the ultra thin grated and powdery microplane cheese. A little sprinkle of salt on top for luck and into a 375 degree oven it went. After about 45 minutes I checked on my gratin and turned up the heat to 450, to get a nice browned top. Feel free to finish it up with a short broil for that really beautiful crackly crust. Like this one.
Yeah, as it turns out, potato gratin is pretty hard to screw up. But was this an “excellent Gratin Dauphinois,” one worth a $12 price tag in a swanky Manhattan restaurant? Is any gratin worth that? I’d say with a an upgrade from normal, grocery store Gruyere to some fancy kind made by a Swiss nuns or something, this could definitely pass for “excellent.” Keep it coming, Pete Wells.