Robert St. John Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 7, 2008

‘World class eater’ waxes eloquent over fries

LAS VEGAS— What is a family man who doesn’t drink, doesn’t gamble, and has trouble staying up to watch David Letterman doing in Las Vegas with his wife and kids? Two words: The Beatles.

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I have pulled my second grader and sixth grader out of school to travel to Las Vegas to see Cirque du Soleil’s production “The Beatles Love.” I am a huge Beatles fan and have seen “Love” twice. My kids are huge Beatles fans, too. They have never seen “Love,” though they have heard me go on and on and on and on about it for the last two years.

My kids also love food (the apple doesn’t fall far from the chef coat). Over the last decade, Las Vegas has become one of the country’s top ten restaurant cities. Some of the country’s top chefs have opened branches of their most popular restaurants, here. The restaurants are, for the most part, manned by seasoned professionals who have been in that particular chef’s system for many years. The best thing about the upscale restaurant business in Vegas is that, unlike other big cities, all of the restaurants are within a few miles of each other— hundreds of them.

One of my favorite Las Vegas restaurants is Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in The Venetian hotel. Keller is the country’s pre-eminent chef. He mans the stoves at The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. and Per Se in New York, and serves food that is humbling to even the most accomplished chefs.

My daughter ordered Steak Frites, a classic dish found in French bistros and brasseries. It’s basically steak with a side order of French fries. In a good establishment, the fries can often match the steak in terms of satisfaction and satiety. Left in the hands of Thomas Keller, the basic French fry can become remarkable.

I love comfort foods. I love potatoes in all forms. There is a beautiful and ideal simplicity in a side order of perfectly prepared mashed potatoes or French fries. The best mashed potatoes I have ever eaten outside of my grandmother’s dining room were served at Watershed restaurant in Decatur, Ga. on chicken night. I was there for the legendary fried chicken, it was good. What I remember though, were the mashed potatoes.

One of the most memorable orders of fries I have eaten were enjoyed in Aspen several years ago in at the Ajax Tavern. The fries were fresh-cut, cooked perfectly in a small amount of duck fat, and topped with a sprinkling of kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, a drizzle of fragrant truffle oil, and finished with shaved Parmigianino Reggiano.

Beautiful. And a perfect example of taking a simple offering, adding four straightforward, yet ideal, accompaniments, and creating a masterpiece. The beauty is not only in the simplicity, but the combination of flavors. When duck fat is thrown into the mix the satiety level rises tenfold.

Bouchon’s fries were— as one would expect from Keller— excellent. My daughter had enough to share with her brother— who was busy putting away an order of gnocchi— and a few left over for her father.

Bouchon fries aside, possibly the best order of fries I have eaten in the last several years were at restaurant Char in Jackson, Miss. I know that proclaiming a “best fry” seems a little silly and trivial, but that’s my job. It’s what I do. Besides, I love fries.

Char’s French fries were every bit as good as Bouchon’s, probably better. A few weeks ago, my family and I were in Jackson for an event and visited Char before we hit the road home to Hattiesburg. My daughter ordered a steak with a side order of Char’s “House-Cut Fries.” They were great. At the time I was on a diet and hadn’t eaten anything fried in four weeks. One might think that my lengthy absence from the beloved fry might have clouded my judgment, not so. Char’s fries are that good.

So what have we learned today? One will leave Vegas with more money in his bank account if he or she stays out of the casino and spends time in the restaurants. The Beatles are a perfectly good excuse to miss a few days of school, and fries aren’t just fast food, anymore, though if we’re paying homage to the Beatles, we should probably call them chips.

For this week’s recipe, Robert’s Mashed Potatoes, go to the column link on

(Robert St.John is an author, chef, restaurateur, and world-class eater. He is the author of seven books including the newly released New South Grilling. He can be reached at