by: L. John Harris
in: Parisian Culture
You can judge a Parisian cafe by its croque. If a cafe can’t get these simple ham and cheese sandwiches right, what hope is there for their more complex fare? After tasting a dozen croques this summer, I must insist that France place Monsieur and Madame Croque (and the traditional cafe) on the endangered species list.
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Fortunately, the few delicious versions I tasted prove all is not lost. Monsieur Croque is, of course, a grilled or toasted ham and cheese sandwich on sweet white bread — pain de mie — that’s dressed (ideally) with either creamy béchamel or cheesy Mornay sauce. Grated cheese, either Gruyère or Emmental, is layered inside (over the ham) and on top of the sandwich, and then browned top and bottom (with butter) until the melted cheese (with or without added sauce) starts to drip down the sides.
Madame Croque is exactly the same, but she sports a fried egg “hat” on her saucy head. This ever-popular culinary couple celebrated their 100th anniversary in 2001, according to most culinary historians.
The word croque comes from the French verb, croquer, “to bite,” or in some circles, “to crunch.” Hence the awkward translation, “Crunchy Mister.” Here then are the croques I crunched during my recent summer sejour (stay) in Paris — the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ve grouped them by price because with the Parisian croque, you generally get what you pay for.
Croques less than 8 euros
Le Duc d’Albret, rue Danielle-Casanova, 6 euros
La Fontaine, rue Cuvier, 7.5 euros
When I came across Le Duc d’Albret, a hole-in-the-wall cafe near avenue de l’Opéra, and saw croques on the menu starting at 6 euros (add 1 or 2 euros for the madame version and Poilâne bread, Paris’ popular upscale artisanal loaf), I assumed it would be a disappointment. Au contraire, it was excellent, toasted (top and bottom) by the owner in a commercial toaster oven while I watched. This croque even had béchamel in the center, giving it a creamy texture. Funky as the setup was, this was a made-to-order croque. As the owner, Madame Madeira, explained to me, “You cannot make a croque in advance.”
At La Fontaine, a friend’s favorite morning mom-and-pop cafe near the lovely Jardins des Plantes in the 5th arrondissement, their somewhat pricier croque set the stage for a string of similar disappointments — most notably croques preassembled (sometimes off premises or frozen), untoasted bottoms and with little if any béchamel sauce to help moisten an otherwise dry sandwich.
What good are Monsieur and Madame Croque without toasty bottoms and gooey interiors and tops? It can be done without the sauce, which was not part of the recipe for the original croques 100 years ago, but sauceless croques need lots of cheese and some butter in the toasting to produce a juicy croque.
Croques from 8 to 10 euros
Le Ponthieu Café, ave. Franklin Roosevelt, 10 euros
Café Dada, ave. des Ternes, 8 euros
Café Les Deux Palais, blvd. du Palais, 9.5 euros
Café Les Mouettes, rue de Bac, 9 euros
Café La Palette, rue de Seine, 10.5 euros
At this higher price point, you’d expect croques at least as good as Le Duc d’Albret’s, but that was not the case this summer. At upscale Le Ponthieu, the Poilâne croque was not toasted on the bottom and there was no sign of béchamel. Too dry!
At hip Café Dada, I boldly sent back the half-toasted béchamel-free Poilâne croque and it came back a bit warmer but far from toasted. A double homicide! At elegant Les Deux Palais, things got even worse — untoasted bottom, commercial sandwich bread, no béchamel and minimal ham. Utterly inedible!
The croque madame at Les Mouettes on charming rue de Bac was decently made, but the fried egg was overcooked. Madame Croque without her runny yolk? Sacre bleu!
At La Palette, in the heart of the artsy 6th arrondissement, the open-faced croque was made on Poilâne’s rustic sourdough bread. It was nicely toasted, but I don’t think sourdough bread is right for a croque (Poilâine’s pain de mie is perfect). The slight sweetness of pain de mie complements the dark nutty flavor of the Gruyère cheese, which may be one of the secrets of the croque’s enduring international success.
Croques from 12 to 16 euros
Café Select, blvd. du Montparnasse, 16.5 euros
Les Deux Magots, Place St. Germain, 12.5 euros
La Closerie des Lilas, blvd. du Montparnasse, gratis at bar
These three celebrated artist cafes on the left-bank, though no longer the center of the avant garde in Paris, are all producing very good croques. The well-made and tasty Croque Select at Café Select is, in fact, a croque madame — there is no choice on the menu.
At Les Deux Magots, the open-faced croque had the distinction of being the only one I had this summer with a béchamel sauce tasting of nutmeg, the favored spice for this creamy white sauce. A pleasant croque.
Hemingway’s haunt, La Closerie des Lilas, did not have croques on the menu, but the night I had dinner there, tiny tooth-picked croque squares, buttery and properly toasted, were served at the bar as hors d’oeuvres. Delicious.
Croques over 20 euros
Café de la Paix, Place de l’Opéra, 20 euros
Café Fouquet’s, ave. des Champs-Élysées, 28 euros
For 20 euros and above, a croque should be everything a croque can be, and much, much more. This was indeed the case at Café de la Paix, a fashionable cafe/restaurant with Belle Epoch interiors and a rich literary history dating back to the 19th century.
The Paix croque tasted like rich pastry; the moist interior, adequate béchamel and a well-toasted top and bottom provided an explosion of flavor and texture. The pain de mie was sliced thinner than with most croques I sampled, to the sandwich’s crispy advantage, and the ham a bit thicker, which gave added flavor and texture. The presentation was impressive: The center was cut out of the croque body and served as a separate “croquette.” Green salad was stuffed into the body’s circular void. Excellent pommes frites came in a separate basket.
This was now my benchmark for a great croque. Although ridiculously expensive, the Paix croque was 8 euros less and more satisfying than the double-decker monster croque at the elite watering hole, Café Fouquet’s, on the Champs-Élysées. Sure, the Fouquet’s croque was enough for four and came with salad, excellent frites and several miniature financier dessert cakes at the end. But the sandwich itself, again on the dry side, does not sit as high in my pantheon of Parisian croques as Café de la Paix’s tour de force.
Will the Parisian croque croak?
Something has to be done to save the Parisian croque! Especially at a moderate 8 to 10 euros. If a good croque cannot be made profitably at that price, it should not be on the cafe’s menu.
There have been stories of late about the official Parisian tourism office’s efforts to boost the sagging fortunes of traditional Parisian cafes by transforming the often arrogant and unfriendly garçon de café into a nicer tourist-friendly fellow.
I suggest, instead, that the grand panjandrums at the Parisian tourism office apply their resources to improving Monsieur Croque, not Monsieur Garcon, who is just fine the way he is. Why not create AOC (Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée)-style guidelines for the croque monsieur, as for wine, cheese, eggs and other products?
For a sandwich to be labeled on a Parisian menu as a croque monsieur or madame, it must be:
- Assembled on the premises
- Cooked to order
- Made with imported Gruyère or Emmental
- Butter used in the toasting or grilling process
- Toasted top and bottom
- Contain either béchamel or Mornay sauce
These simple standards would help elevate the moribund Parisian croque (and cafe) to its former glory and help restore France’s reputation as the gastronomic capital of Europe — one croque at a time.
Main photo: Stacked in a Parisian shop display case, these inexpensive croques can be taken home and reheated as snacks or light meals. Note the translation on the sales tag, “Toasted Ham,” directed, no doubt, at hungry Anglophone tourists. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris