French Dip, Once Hip

The past and present of a legendary soggy sandwich

I wish that some smart chef would go back to the original sandwich and doll it up slightly with superior, caramelized-on-the-edges roast beef or an unctuous brisket, either baked or boiled. Actually, since 1938, we've had a reliable facsimile of the French dip in Brooklyn. The venue is Brennan and Carr (3432 Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-769-1254), a landmark at the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Gravesend Neck Road, which was built when this part of the borough was mainly farmland and country lanes. The building looks like a Tudor cottage, with a rustic wooden sign that beckons "Hot Beef." The place makes its sandwiches ($5.50) on Kaiser rolls pre-dipped to sogginess in consommé and loads them up with tender, long-steamed roast beef.

The sandwich set me thinking: Given the place's name and the way the meat is cooked into oblivion, the assemblage at Brennan and Carr certainly seems Irish, rather than French. (My Irish grandmother cooked her beef that way when I was a kid.) Yet it was probably partly inspired by the faddish L.A. French dip, being identical in every respect save for the bread choice, leading me to believe that the first story of the French dip's origin is true: The sandwich is so named not because anyone Gallic created it, but simply because it was made with a baguette.

The inevitable conclusion: L.A.'s celebrated French dip is, at heart, an Irish sandwich.

Walter Foods tries it with skirt steak and sourdough.
Liz Barclay
Walter Foods tries it with skirt steak and sourdough.

Addendum: I'd finished this piece and turned it in when a close friend called to tell me that she'd just eaten a spectacular French dip at Minetta Tavern (113 MacDougal Street, 212-475-3850). "But it's $24 and only at lunch," she'd warned, "I hope that's not out of your price range." Oh, what the hell, I thought as I jumped on my bike and pedaled over there. The restaurant's vibe at midday is way more laid-back than the scrum of supplicants one finds in the evening, and I was given my own comfortable table with a view of the kitchen.

I immediately ordered the sandwich, styled Minetta French dip, and was pleased to see the price also included fries. When it came, I couldn't help but let out an admiring sigh. The thing was ensconced in a baguette-size bun, and I could see a wealth of pink roast beef sticking out the sides. The halves had been brushed with meat juices, with an extra teacup of lubricant provided. When I bit in, my mouth was suffused with rich, beefy flavor and a stealthy taste of garlic butter. I also noted that fresh horseradish had been grated on top of the meat.

Altogether, it was the best French dip I'd eaten either here or in L.A. and well within the canon as so defined (except for the doneness of the beef). Well, I thought as I wiped the lovely gravy from my lips, if Irish cooking keeps evolving in this manner, maybe someplace will soon be offering Irish haute cuisine.

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