It is not widely known, but I am the world’s foremost authority on French onion soup. I am a connoisseur of this soup, which I consider to be the food of the gods. Put me in a new restaurant and I will scan the menu instantly and hopefully for French onion, which I will invariably order. Put a steaming bowl of French onion soup in front of me and my day has been made, no matter what has gone wrong. For me, tasting French onion soup is a lot like having sex: it is always good, it is just better sometimes than at other times.
I have kept track of my French onion soup obsession for at least thirty years. I have had this soup in South America, North America (U.S. and Canada), Europe (England and France), the Caribbean, on ships at sea, including an aircraft carrier (U.S. S. Stennis), and on an airplane traversing the Atlantic. I have had it prepared by my mom, my wife, countless chefs (including several fancy cooking school graduates), and made it myself (not bad, but not great). I have had it out of a can (yuck) and had it scratch made in front of me. I have watched Julia Child prepare it on her TV cooking program, as well as virtually every TV chef you can think of. Everyone who cooks seems to have their own recipe, which they claim is the best. Certainly some are very good, but the best? Only I can be the judge of the best.
The best French onion soup I have ever had was in Bayeaux, France. I had employed a professor of history who had written his PhD dissertation of the D-Day invasion to give me a personal guided tour of the invasion beaches. One evening he asked if I was hungry for any particular food. I, of course, said that I would like French onion soup. He made us a reservation at a tiny restaurant that had only six tables. The restaurant had been in the family for five generations. It had a floor of solid stone that had grooves in it from the scraping of the table legs.
At one end of the dining area was a large stone fireplace where the chef cooked in plain view of the patrons. I was mesmerized watching him make several different meals for the customers all at the same time. Of course, the ambiance of the restaurant was not hurt by the waitresses. They were both very slender and tall. Each wore a very short black skirt with an almost translucent white blouse with a bra matching the skirt. They also wore a small white apron and three inch black heels. A living fantasy!
Back to the soup. I asked the professor to ask the chef how he
made his soup stock. The chef said it was never actually made; he just kept putting left over beef drippings in the pot and would occasionally add some salt. I would not be surprised if the pot was original and that the beef stock dated back to 1600. At any rate, the soup was quite thick. It was not runny at all, but it was not like peanut butter, either. You could take a spoonful and turn the spoon sideways and the soup would run off, but just barely. The onions had caramelized perfectly. The bread was stale from the day before, when it was freshly made by the baker next door. Consequently, it was a bit crunchy, even when soaked in the beef broth. The gr Gruyère cheese which had melted into the solid piece of bread floating on top of the soup, hiding the small bits of bread and onions below, had melted all over the outside of the large bowl. The soup was quite salty with a dash of pepper and a scoop of whipped butter on top of the bread. Despite the salt and pepper, the soup tasted sweet with a little tang to it. The soup was presented on a plate covered with a white napkin under the bowl. On the side was a warm croissant with homemade butter. I am not sure French onion soup gets better than that. Even without the waitresses.
Until recently, second place was held by a small restaurant at the Culver Military Academy on Lake Maxintuckee. While I could not see the soup being prepared, it was very similar to the Bayeaux soup, but differed in that the soup was served with a baked crust completely over the top of the bowl, much like a chicken pot pie. Gruyère cheese was melted on top of the crust which had been slathered in butter. The usual cheese was under the crust, also. Like the soup in Bayeaux, it was thick, just short of being paste-like. Just the soup makes a meal.
Like I said, it was second, until recently.
I took a short get away trip to New York City two weeks ago. I spent all of the trip in Manhattan, watching people, while I ate at several of the many sidewalk cafes. At the corner of Broadway and 47th is a restaurant called Le Maisson. It is never closed and has French onion soup. It is not cheap. $8.50 for the soup and $3.00 for a freshly made, warm croissant with whipped butter and apricot jam (my favorite) or a small saucer of honey with part of the honeycomb present. Your choice.
The New York soup was superbly made. Like in Bayeaux, it was served on a plate with a white cloth napkin separating the bowl from the plate.
A separate soup spoon was provided, as well as a butter knife. The soup was piping hot with the Gruyère cheese melted all over the top of the bowl. There was enough cheese in the soup that any attempt to get to the onions also netted the cheese, which drug along the thoroughly soaked pieces of bread. It was very salty, evened out with at least a tablespoon of butter melted into the soup. The cheese was excellent as it passed my homemade test. If you take a spoonful of soup, the cheese should stretch out of the bowl at least a foot, while still sticking to the spoon. This makes eating it fun and challenging.
I think that French onion soup is good date food for couples. If you are in Manhattan and the weather is warm, order two bowls of French onion soup at Le Maisson. Watch the Manhattanites from a sidewalk table for two. It isn’t cheap, but the best rarely is.
For those of you readers who live in Kokomo and share my obsession for French onion soup, I am afraid I have only bad news for you. Soup, which masquerades as French onion soup, can be had at Whiskey Creek and Panera. Don’t bother with either. It is poorly made in both places with inferior ingredients. The inadequacies are many. Both managements insult the consumer by offering such swill.
So there you have it. A complete description of where the best French onion soup is. Go get it.