Sunday, 20 July 2008

Le Meilleur Steak Tartare (Suprise: Ce n'est pas de Paris)

Whatever the NYT might say about the new fashion for burgers in Paris, neither the outré (and wildly expensive) versions they profiled, nor the sad, unembellished steak hache served in some brasseries here, have particular appeal. Even making a proper burger at home isn't simple. Heinz ketchup can be had for a price, the mayonnaise is unimpeachable, and the rolls adequate. The problem is with the beef: even when ground to order by a butcher, it's invariably too fine and lacking sufficient fat.

Where the French have historically excelled, however, is with the native cousin of the (very) rare burger: steak tartare. In traditional tartare, the beef is coarsely hand-chopped, with the additions of capers, Worcestershire sauce, and Tabasco or horseradish adding the tang and complexity provided by the classic burger condiments of ketchup and mustard and the raw egg lubricating in much the same way as mayonnaise. A popular variant on tartare even has the top of the otherwise raw patty quickly browned under the salamander. And both are normally--and appropriately--accompanied by frites.

Tartare is as ubiquituous in Paris as burgers are rare , and ordering it is a good way of testing the integrity and attention to detail of the kitchen. Sadly, from the most modest corner cafe to the more ambitious brasseries, all the ones I've tried have come up short. The egg is often pre-mixed, suggesting that the dish hasn't been made to order. Seasoning is rarely as precise and punchy as it should be, and the beef usually lacks the tell-tale irregularity of having been hand-cut. As for the frites, if the Americans can now make them as well, if not better, than the French, they are entitled to call them Freedom Fries or any other silly name they choose.

I'm not alone in seeking--and not necessarily finding--great tartare in Paris. But while I'd guess that my opinion on such matters would carry little weight here, I'm convinced that the best tartare can actually be found at Galvin Bistrot Deluxe, an absolutely classic French brasserie some 500 kilometres away in London. I wasn't lucky enough to be along the night this picture was taken, but I can attest that the only things which stand between this tartare and absolute perfection are the fact that it is made in an appetizer-sized version only, and that it therefore doesn't come with frites.

I should be in London very soon, and I'm hoping that a tartare excursion can be arrranged. In the meantime, I've discovered that the ever-reliable Clotilde has what looks like an authentic and straightforward version in her new cookbook. Here's the recipe, in case you're not in Eurostar distance of London. I may be making it too, if the butchers in my neighborhood would ever reopen from les vacances. (Ah Paris, j'adore...)

Tartare au Couteau
taken virtually unadapted from Chocolate and Zucchini
Serves 4

3 tbsp strong Dijon mustard
3 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp Tabasco
3 tbsp ketchup
1 tbsp brandy (optional)
3 medium shallots, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 tbsp small capers
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp chopped fresh tarragon
700g extra-fresh high-quality beef fillet
4 egg yolks from very fresh eggs

Mix the first five ingredients together in a small bowl. In another bowl, comb ine the shallots, garlic, capers and herbs. Chop the meat into 1/2 cm dice using a large, sharp knife. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the meat, egg yolks and mustard mixture with a fork. Season, fold in shallot mixture and blend well. Divide the meat in four equal portions and arrange them in patties on serving plates. Serve immediately with additional condiments.

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