Would it have made any difference to the hungry Parisians who stormed the Bastille 210 years ago today if Marie Antoinette had urged them to eat snails and frog's legs rather than cake? Probably not.
But it might have made more sense.
"There are frogs all over France," says Bruno Fortin, chef-owner of Bistrot Lepic in upper Georgetown.
And these days, even though many American diners steer clear of both frog's legs and snails--either because of their "strangeness" or the butter that's almost inevitably a part of their preparation--those two French favorites are popping up with surprising frequency.
"They taste great," says Robert Wiedmaier chef-proprietor at Marcel's on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, where he proudly offers both as appetizers (the frog's legs--a special--are sauteed, stacked and served with caramelized garlic and parsley garlic butter atop a potato crisp; the snails, served in puff pastry, are prepared with artichokes and parsley garlic butter).
Now frog's legs and snails--unlike, say duck and crab--are not inherently loaded with taste appeal and could be considered, well, slimy. That's not a problem with current versions. Wiedmaier's dishes, for example, either imbue the snails with flavor (the classic French approach) or link them with other ingredients of different textures (a hallmark of more contemporary presentations).
Both approaches are around on menus these days. And a major reason is the availability of fresh snails and (though much harder to find) fresh frog's legs. "When you have good, fresh product, you end up with a better result," says Fortin, whose risotto with black trumpet and porcini mushrooms accompanied by sauteed snails with basil and garlic is a customer favorite. But because he can't get fresh frog's legs, he doesn't offer them. "If I found a source, I would definitely use them," he says.
Many chefs feel the same way. Gerard Madani, executive chef at the Willard Room, has tracked down both fresh frog's legs (from Nevada) and snails (from an Eastern Shore farmer [see box below] who services a growing number of area restaurants) for an appetizer he's featuring on today's Bastille Day menu. Pan-fried with garlic and parsley, the frog-snail combo is served with ratatouille in a small potato basket.
Gerard Pangaud, of Gerard's Place in downtown Washington, is also quite picky about using only fresh frog's legs, which he can sometimes get from Florida and Louisiana. "[They're] good when they're fresh," he says, "but terrible when they're not. Then they're usually pretty big, and very chewy." But two-star Michelin chef Pangaud is looser when it comes to snails. "You can get good quality canned and frozen," he says.
Some chefs have found ways to work with top-quality frozen frog's legs when fresh ones are not available. "They're nothing like fresh frog's legs, but if you marinate them, you can bring back good flavors," says Fritz Siegfried, chef-proprietor of the new Matisse restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue near Tenley Circle. Siegfried serves them two ways, both traditional, but less buttery than the classic recipes: a Provencal rendition with tomatoes, garlic, herbs and white wine, and a non-tomato version, redolent with shallots, garlic and herbs.
Do people order them? "They're very popular--surprisingly," says Siegfried. "When I first put them on the menu, my family said, 'Are you crazy, it's old-fashioned.' I didn't think so. Everything goes in cycles, and now I think we're back to basics but a little bit lighter."
Wherever chefs get these quintessentially French ingredients, they're having fun coming up with new presentations. At Melrose in the Park Hyatt Hotel, executive chef Brian McBride uses the same local farmer's snails to produce Escargots With Mirepoix Vegetables in Puff Pastry With a Syrah Reduction and Bay Leaf Essence. "It sounds very rich," he says, "but it's really a very light appetizer--and uses only a very little butter." He also likes using them in fish sauces. "A lot of chefs are incorporating mussels and clams in sauces," he says, "but snails are a very good alternative."
McBride has developed nontraditional dishes for frog's legs too, such as two different presentations he served at wine dinners this spring: poached atop a rich pea soup as a garnish, and boned and fried tempura-style with a little fresh watercress.
And then there's Jimmy Sneed, chef-proprietor of The Frog and the Redneck in Richmond and former sous-chef to Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate. Last year at the annual Masters of Food and Wine event at the Highlands Inn in Carmel, Calif., Sneed produced a very nontraditional Toads, Frogs and Snails dish for the 160 epicure attendees. The ingredients were all fresh: the toads--actually fillets of little blowfish from the Chesapeake Bay that Sneed says the watermen call "sugar toads"--were fried in a light tempura batter; the frog's legs from the Florida Everglades were lightly dusted with flour and sauteed; and the Pennsylvania snails were cooked in garlic butter and stirred into yellow stone-ground grits, with a few reserved for decoration.
Frog's legs aficionados looking for even more unusual preparations have yet another alternative: Vietnamese food. At Taste of Saigon in McLean, there are three different frog's legs dishes on the menu: sauteed in a coconut and curry sauce, a hot pot version with black mushrooms and baby corn, and--the most popular--deep-fried and served in a special sauce over a bed of salad. "Frog's legs are a type of delicacy," says Tung Tu, one of the grandchildren of the founders of the family-owned restaurant. "You wouldn't have them on a regular basis. They're more for special occasions, like family gatherings or engagement parties. They're something that would impress your guests."
Just in case all these different preparations make traditionalists out there worry about the fate of the familiar butter and garlic-laden versions of snails and frog's legs, consider this. Most French restaurants feature one or both of them at one time or another; among them these days are snails and frog's legs at L'Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls, Le Petit Mistral in McLean, and the new Bambule on Wisconsin Avenue in Chevy Chase.
And most serious culinary students learn how to prepare them. At L'Ecole restaurant in Manhattan, where advanced students from the French Culinary Institute cook contemporary French cuisine for the public, the kitchen advertised its modernity by proclaiming, "We're more than just frog's legs." But what's on the menu these days? Frog's legs--traditionally prepared with brown butter, lemon and parsley.
Robert Shapiro, the chef-coordinator of the institute's evening program, recently suggested two snail recipes for the menu too. "I love them," he says. "To me escargots and garlic and butter are French cooking--very, very classic bistro."
Andre Soltner, for 34 years the chef-owner of the four-star restaurant Lutece in Manhattan, and now a senior lecturer at the French Culinary Institute, remembers fishing for frog's legs and hunting for snails in his native Alsace. He brought them home to his mother to cook. At Lutece he prepared them many traditional ways, such as frog's legs in soup or sauteed with fresh garlic, or sauteed with mushrooms in puff pastry. He sauteed escargots in butter flavored with garlic, herbs and Pernod; and mixed them with garlic butter into a cake.
After all, they are classics. And real classics endure.
"If we don't do classics, we miss something," he says. "So I call them basics."
At a Snail's Pace
We can all more or less imagine how frogs, and therefore frog's legs, come to be--though we may not know that it's only the hind legs that make their way to the kitchen. And by the time the legs get there, according to Susan Furda, the fish buyer at A.M. Briggs wholesalers in the District, they're skinless (except for the membrane that holds the pair together), and ideally plump and creamy white.
But snails are another matter. The Food Section got a lesson in snail reproduction recently from Eddie Chupek, the owner of US Snails Inc., a snail farm he started in Caroline County on Maryland's Eastern Shore about a year and a half ago. Snails are hermaphroditic, he told us, that is both male and female. Each is equipped with a sort of spike on the side of its head, which, when mating, it hooks onto another snail's spike for about six to eight hours.
At US Snails, the act takes place in plastic barrels filled with flower pots of dirt with as many as 400 breeder snails clinging to the plastic sides or feeding at the bottom.
After two snails hook with and separate from one another, they work their way into the flower pots and lay clumps of eggs about the size of a ping-pong ball, which they cover with dirt. In 12 to 14 days, the eggs hatch, though it takes anywhere from four to nine months, Chupek says, for the snails to mature to market size.
Cleaning the snails is an arduous process that involves harvesting them from the barrels, heavy-duty rinsing and then blanching in rapidly boiling lemon water. Then the snails are removed from their shells with dental picks. Chupek packs them in one-pound containers. Unlike black, canned snails, his are "greenish gray or white, plump and tender."
"Most of the time," says Chupek, "people say 'I haven't seen these since I left France.' "
CAPTION: ESCARGOTS: At Marcel's chef Robert Wiedmaier's snails are presented in puff pastry with artichokes and parsley garlic butter.
CAPTION: FROG'S LEGS: A Provencal rendition with tomatoes, garlic, herbs and white wine is on Fritz Siegfried's dinner menu at Matisse.