When I first saw the soufflé potatoes ($7.25) at Antoine's Restaurant as a kid, they seemed unreal: smooth, balloon-like cylinders of fried potato that had nothing inside but caverns of air.
I thought this creation could only exist by painstakingly molding potatoes for visual effect. My grandmother—who had taken me to Antoine's because of its storied history—insisted that these were just cleverly fried potatoes. After our waiter joined the discussion, I wound up in the kitchen, watching a cook drop thin slices of potatoes into tall vats of hot oil. One vat was being constantly shaken, and marvelous "puffed" potatoes emerged.
Each one felt as light as air and tasted like a french fry/potato chip hybrid. One side had a thin strip of white potato "meat" resembling a fry, and the other was crisp and thin as a chip. They seemed to be the highest form that a fried potato could aspire to take. While I remember a distinct beef tallow flavor from way-back-when, they're now fried in cottonseed oil, but are still quite flavorful.
It's traditional to complement them with Béarnaise sauce for dipping, a decadent mixture of mostly butter, lemon, and egg yolk with the flavor of tarragon.
For this dish to be successful, the potatoes must be thinly and consistently sliced, dried, and twice-fried—once at a lower temperature, then again at very high heat. The potato slices get constantly agitated while frying, and results aren't always successful, even for the professionals. Jacques Pepin makes it look easy in this soufflé potatoes tutorial with Julia Child on Martha Stewart's show. If only I had watched it sooner—it would've shaved countless hours from my many attempts to perfect these in my first college apartment.
Other established local restaurants also serve soufflé potatoes, but Antoine's is where it all started. French-born Antoine Alciatore founded his eponymous restaurant in 1840. Not only is it one of the oldest restaurants in the country, but it brought many French haute cuisine dishes to New Orleans.
Alciatore was trained in Marseilles in the early 1800s. There, he learned the technique for these potatoes—known in French as pommes de terre soufflées—from a chef named Collinet, who stumbled upon them quite by accident. The story, according to Antione's Cookbook, is that Collinet was preparing a feast for King Louis Philippe, but just as he began frying the potatoes he discovered that the king would be delayed. He pulled the par-cooked potatoes from the oil and finished them later in oil that had grown very hot. The potatoes unexpectedly inflated. Needless to say, they were a big hit.
If you can't drop the big bucks at Antoine's, at least stop by for the soufflé potatoes. It's also worth visiting to see the dining rooms—it's like stepping into a forgotten era—and for the cheerfully accommodating service. But the soufflé potatoes, a pre-molecular gastronomy wonder from the early 19th century, are the most compelling reason to go; they're an essential must-eat New Orleans dish.