A Fry Bread Furor Hits New York City’s Restaurants
Covina’s Hungarian fry bread comes with New York–appropriate toppings: smoked salmon, capers, onions.
Suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, New York is in the middle of a fried-bread renaissance. This has, of course, always been a doughnut-loving town (lore has it that America's first doughnuts were brought to the city by the Dutch), but other types of fried dough, particularly the savory kind, have been slower to catch on. Slower, that is, until recently, when in the span of a few months at least four new restaurants have put some version of fried bread on their menus. The latest are the bites of hearty fried potato bread that appeared on the tasting menus at Agern, the Nordic restaurant from Noma co-founder Claus Meyer, which opened in Grand Central Terminal late in April. But just since February, fried breads have also appeared at Nix, the new vegetarian restaurant from chef John Fraser; Covina, the Mediterranean spot from Boston restaurateurs Tim and Nancy Cushman; and at both the new midtown and original Tribeca outposts of Marc Forgione's American Cut.
Not that there hadn't been a few outliers before now. Blue Smoke, Danny Meyer's Southern-barbecue joint, served a great fry bread with chipotle-herb butter for years, and Forcella introduced the city to montanara, a traditional Neapolitan fried pizza, back in 2011. For the past couple of years, the Langos Truck (now defunct) peddled its namesake dish, a Hungarian fried bread usually topped with cheese, sour cream, and garlic. But only now, with a bounty of new options in a few months, has fried bread reached trend status.
Is any one chef to blame for this sudden fry bread furor? It's not uncommon for a hit dish to spawn copycats (recall the Cronut frenzy of three years ago, which culminated in even Dunkin' Donuts releasing its own "croissant donut"), but every fry-bread-creating chef insists that he came up with the idea on his own. Be that as it may, they didn't pull their versions out of thin air. Behind all of them are traditional recipes that show just how universal our love for fried bread is.
First, a clarification: By definition, fry bread (or frybread, as it is also styled) is a Native American dish, typically leavened with baking powder instead of yeast. It has a dark history; it was created from rations the U.S. gave to the Navajo of Arizona when it forced them to move to barren land in New Mexico. But over the years fry bread has evolved into a symbol of Navajo cultural pride, so the distinction between fry bread and fried bread is an important one, and not just for matters of taste.
Other cultures make different, yeasted fried doughs; they have their own names but often end up translated as "fry bread" on menus. So, though all but Agern call their dish "fry bread," only American Cut makes actual fry bread. "I was in New Mexico last summer and tried a dish with Navajo fry bread and freaked out," chef Forgione tells the Voice via email. "As soon as I got back I immediately asked our guys in the kitchen to start researching the recipe and make it for me to try." Resulting variations made it on the menu at Restaurant Marc Forgione several times, but it landed for good at American Cut — where it's served, rather incongruously, given its origins, with wagyu and caviar — just a few months ago.
The fried bread at Agern — made with sourdough and potatoes and described only as "potato bread" — looks nothing like Forgione's or any of the others. It comes in a procession of six different snacks served at the start of chef Gunnar Gíslason's two tasting menus (one vegetarian, one not): Reminiscent of ragged, golden-edged doughnut holes, the dish is paired with a dollop of skyr yogurt. The city's other fry breads, meanwhile, look like bubbly, chewy flatbreads, prettily dressed with a riot of toppings and big enough to share. Explaining how his differs, Gíslason relays to the Voice, "In Iceland, this fry bread is called soðið brauð and is usually eaten with butter and cheese, fresh from the pot. As a young man, I worked for a lady named Idda á Bakka who was a professional soðið brauð maker. This is where I learned to make fry bread." As for those other versions: "I have been so busy opening Agern, I did not realize three other restaurants started serving fried bread."
Nix and Covina tell a similar story. "Honestly," says Tim Cushman, "I didn't know Nix had the fry bread on there until someone told us about it, but we already had ours planned. I started conceiving this menu three or four years ago." He originally thought he'd make montanara pizza, but the restaurant evolved from Italian to Californian-Mediterranean, so Cushman found new inspiration in Eastern Europe by way of San Francisco's beloved Bar Tartine, which has had a fried potato bread on its menu for years. Like Bar Tartine's, Covina's fry bread resembles the Hungarian lángos, made with yeasted potato dough, but the Cushmans' version comes topped with New York–appropriate smoked salmon, capers, onions, and an herby, tart kefir dressing, marrying the city's signature ingredients with a distinct California sunniness. Nix's Yukon potato fry bread looks similar but has different toppings (cheddar, sour cream, and broccoli florets make it more like a baked potato than a bagel). It's also inspired, Fraser says, by lángos, but if it tastes like any of the others, he wouldn't know. "I've never tasted any version of fry bread except ours," he writes in an email.
So if you believe all these chefs, the fried-bread boom erupted spontaneously. But given New Yorkers' bottomless appetite for novel sources of decadence, it was probably inevitable that some clever cooks would find inspiration in various fried-dough traditions. And now that the city has a taste for these savory creations — which are not only delightfully greasy but also creamy, chewy, salty, and bright with herbs — expect to see them proliferate, and in ever wilder permutations. One is already upon us: the just-released "doughpods" from the always creative Doughnut Plant, fried in olive oil and stuffed with savory fillings in flavors like avocado toast or samosa. Fraser sums up the phenomenon aptly: "It's just a new way of sinning. Sinning is popular."
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