(by request for Tom and Jeanne…)
First off – be aware that we at the branch did not hate French fries… However, when we bought Amanda’s Slip in 2006, there was no fryer, nor was there money for a fryer… and further, our insurance guy made it clear that the minute we put in a fryer, out insurance would go up. Suffice it to say, there was no money for that either.
This was not, initially, an issue as the branch was not to be a ‘fast food’ joint, our plan was to just skip those types of dishes or pan fry things if we really needed them. AJ from ‘the Slip’ had worked out an elaborate fry system involving his magnificent knife skills, blanching the hand cut fries in ‘well-loved’ oil and a crusty wok with long ago burnt away wooden handle… When the order came in, he finished them with a final flash fry. The results were kind of amazing, but the process was one of many techniques that, really, only AJ could pull off.
Nicole and I carved out a getaway at some point in the first year… certainly not a full-fledged vacation, but it was at least a night or two in Toronto, where friends of Nicole’s took us to a lovely bistro. It was one of the few dining experiences outside of our own place we had that year, so as anyone who has ever survived a restaurant launch can tell you, it was definitely memorable. It also helped me get over a personal hump.
We had made a decision early on to use organic and local product wherever possible, and, as a result, I had been dead-set against the branch competing directly with other menus in town. I knew that if we did, as we would always have to spend more for our better quality ingredients, we would also have to charge ‘more’ than the other places for similar portions. In my mind, we would never be able to go head to head on the nebulous concept of ‘perceived value’… So, no nachos, no pizza, and, definitely, no burgers… We were to be an ‘alternative’ experience not another place to try a variation on the few themes that already existed in our village.
It also meant people had a hard time figuring out what we did do. The people who ‘got’ us, really got us, but most folks just walked by and wondered ‘what the heck is that place?’ Or they presumed the ‘organic’ in our marketing meant ‘health food’ or ‘vegetarian’… We did offer those items, sure, but it was also not our core mission… our core mission was to de-mystify ‘organic’ foods and make them fun, accessible, and crave-able… Instead? Lots of folks categorized us in their heads before they walked through the door, (or didn’t walk through the door, technically…) and we were left, somewhat lonely, in a state of constant questioning and trying to find a new way (short of abandoning our values) to convince folks to give us a try.
So, Toronto. That trip away was exactly what we needed. Taking a breath in the middle of that crazy year was a blessing in every definition of the word… And the bistro? It was lovely… Not necessarily a “5 star” experience, but that was not the intention. It was definitely in the ‘upscale casual’ range we had been studiously aiming for with our own restaurant, and the food was well presented, and in what was a fairly new practice in this area at the time, farm names even showed up next to some menu items. It was a ‘local’… not a pub, just a respectable, inviting, homey place with good service, good portions, fair prices… And it was PACKED. Oh, and did I mention the burger?
That was the real revelation. Right there in plain sight, no apologies, was a ‘gourmet’ burger. Not my first (we did move here from San Francisco after all) but my first in a while (…keeping in mind that this was well before ‘The Works’ re-wrote the Ottawa script on the potential of this here-to-for humble meal). Where I had previously avoided the idea of ever serving burgers… fries… pizza… this experience helped me re-write the story in my head. Burgers were not a ‘no’ they were an ‘if’.
To clarify… ‘If’ we wanted to do a burger, (or fries, or nachos, or pizza) it had to be like this one… A gourmet burger. It had to be the BEST.
So, that’s what we decided to do, and that’s what we did.
We ground our own local beef (a blend of chuck and striploin) with a ridiculously rich fat to lean ratio… We perfected a spice/seasoning blend for the hand-formed oversized patty… We designed and had an organic bun custom made for us by the local bakery… We shredded veggies and invented a sauce… We even made our own pickles and mustard! When it hit the menu, the branchburger was the most expensive burger in Kemptville (possibly Ottawa) at $9.99 base cost plus toppings (by the time we sold the restaurant it was closer to $20) and for toppings we offered a wild selection of additions including fried egg, house pickled hot peppers… local blue cheese, old cheddar… caramelized onions…
Burgers, let’s face it, need fries. But we still didn’t have a fryer. We considered AJ’s method… but without his special skills, it would have been a challenge… Then Nicole remembered ‘Cato’s’ (‘Cato’s Never Closes!’) a 24 hour diner in Oakland, our old stomping grounds… Cato’s did not have a fryer either, which, given the business model, could certainly have been an enormous problem… a problem they solved with giant, golden, garlicky roasted potato wedges. In our Oakland years, we both had come to regularly crave this big basket of salty carb-a-licious-ness… often bypassing many other perfectly snack-able stops on our way to get there. After her revelation, we both knew that if we could figure out the formula, we could certainly have a worthy side for our most excellent burger. Add another splash of that sauce we invented for the burger (roasted tomato aioli) and a signature dish that endured the full decade of our ownership was born.
So without further ado…
BRANCH ROASTED POTATO WEDGES WITH TOMATO AIOLI:
1-2 large or 2-3 medium potatoes (about 1 pound), cleaned and cut into long wedges, about 1-inch (2-3 cm) per side (we mostly used starchy russet potatoes for the best results)
1 generous tablespoon vegetable oil (we used refined sunflower or canola)
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons dried thyme
2 teaspoons paprika
Salt and black pepper to taste (Nicole says kosher salt, but as I remember we used a blend of coarse and fine sea salt… It was probably kosher…)
1/2 cup roasted tomatoes (we used ripe tomatoes or scraps, oil, salt and pepper and roasted them on racks fitted over sheet trays at about 300 F for an hour or two until leathery) or reconstituted sundried tomatoes (pour over boiling water and rest until soft, drain well)
3 egg yolks
½ lemon, juice
2-3 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon chili flake
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
2-3 cups vegetable oil
Line a sheet pan with parchment (not waxed) paper and preheat the oven to 375 F.
In a large mixing bowl, toss the potato wedges, oil, and spices together until quite well coated. Feel free to add a pinch more oil at this stage if it seems dry… there should be enough oil for the spices to adhere completely to the wedges.
Lay out the wedges, skin side down, on the lined tray (…important step for even roasting.)
Transfer to the oven and roast for 40 minutes, or until golden brown and crispy outside and just soft in the middle. Rotate the tray once during the cooking. (Oven times and temps may vary, and some wedges may need to be removed from the edges earlier than the full cooking time if the oven has any hot spots…)
Use a food processor fitted with a chopping blade and a pour-though spout on top for best results.
Squeeze out the tomatoes a bit, reserve juice. They should be soft enough to blend but not wet.
Combine the tomatoes, egg yolks, lemon, garlic, mustard, vinegar, chili flake, and salt in the processor and blend until smooth. Do not allow the mixture to get hot, if it does, refrigerate briefly before adding oil.
The amount of salt is dependent on your taste, and also the amount of salt in the tomatoes – if using sundried tomatoes, be aware that some varieties are very salty, and that the softening process will remove some, but not all of the salt, taste as you go for best results.
While the processor is running, add the oil in a slow, steady stream until the mayonnaise is fully formed. The amount of oil will vary depending on your preferences, with the finished product, but 3 yolks should be enough to bind all three cups of oil. If the aioli is too thick, add a bit of the reserved juice from the tomatoes or water.
Serve the potatoes hot – If you make them ahead, reheat in a 350 F oven for 8-10 minutes.
The aioli is pretty good on a burger too, or so I’ve heard…