We once taste-tested lobster rolls in Maine and coastal New Hampshire. Somewhat to our surprise, the most famous joint did not provide the best. A few days into this trip, we realized a similar project was underway.
Having shoehorned ourselves out of those coach-class seats on American Airlines and fidgeted for two hours in gridlock on the Périphérique, we arrived at our rental both tired and more than a little peckish. We needed lunch. Soon. Nearby. The weather was chilly, a little windy, and rain threatened.
A cubbyhole of a restaurant, Le Tout Petit on nearby Place du Dr. Félix Lobligeois in Batignolles, looked traditional and had boeuf tartare on the menu. My Dear One makes an excellent tartare and remembered a very good one in Paris from a long-ago visit. He pronounced this one very good, a little heavy on the shallot perhaps, but good. I, too, remembered some fine French meals but soon discovered that three courses were two courses too many. Had to call it quits halfway through the mousse au chocolat.
Around the corner from the Musée Picasso we found Le Sévigné, a brasserie with a view over a handkerchief of green, the Square Leopold Achille. We approached the menu with caution and decided to share: to drink, a pichet of red wine; to eat, a croque madame. What arrived was a plateful of toasty, cheesy, yolky goodness accompanied by a generous salad of fragrant greens. More than enough for the two of us.
Croque madame is just a monsieur with a couple of fried eggs on top. Croque monsieur is ham and gruyère cheese between slices of bread (some say brioche), layered with sauce béchamel, then baked or fried. The traditional layers are, from the bottom: buttered bread (butter side down), béchamel, ham, cheese, bread, béchamel (and maybe a sprinkling of cheese). A trip under the broiler crisps the top and the sandwich comes to you hot and oozing and salty-sweet.
Thus began the taste-testing of boeuf tartare and croque monsieur.
We departed the Musée du quai Branly as storm clouds piled up behind the Eiffel Tower, and ambled across the Seine on the Passerelle Debilly. We could see a restaurant across Avenue de New York on the narrow rue de la Manutention. La Marche was all happy diners, red-checked tablecloths and the aroma of Gauloises. Normally I don’t like the smell of cigarette smoke, but there is something for me of Proust’s madeleine in the scent of Gauloises. Anyway, boeuf tartare again for My Dear One and a lentil salad with a kind of sweet sausage studded with pistachios for me. My lentils were wonderful; the tartare not good at all. For whatever reason, the chef added ketchup. Ketchup! What was he thinking? Mustard always, ketchup never. The locals nearby seemed to love the flavor of Heinz. My Dear One ate it anyway, reluctantly.
At Café le Dante on a quiet corner where Rue Galande meets Rue Dante on the Left Bank, we continued the test. The tartare was very fresh, well prepared and garnished with a raw quail’s egg in its speckled shell. My croque? Edible but the bread was barely warmed underneath, the cheese on top was probably not gruyère and there wasn’t a speck of béchamel involved.
Some days later Chez Jay popped into view across the street from an entrance to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. We ordered boeuf tartare and an omelet. The beef in the tartare had been chopped by hand rather than ground. Nice, a little meatier than usual. My omelet was really, really overcooked. I guess they ignore Julia Child’s instructions in Paris.
Le Mouton Blanc in Auteuil (an ancient and venerable eatery that served the playwright Molière in the 17th century) produced a very decent boeuf tartare. A little too much cornichon, perhaps. No quail egg. The lapin à la moutarde on my plate was utterly spectacular: half a rabbit, skinless and roasted, a pile of fresh pasta and a sauce that seemed to be all butter and grainy mustard. Perhaps a touch of salt and pepper. I don’t remember whether croque monsieur was even on the menu.
There would be one more chance for a boeuf tartare and a croque monsieur on our final day in Paris. The Louvre had been a madhouse and we sought sanctuary at Le Musset on the corner where rue de l’Échelle crosses rue Saint-Honoré. The room was quiet. My Dear One’s tartare was okay. My croque was sorta meh.
The test results. Drumroll, please!
Le Sévigné was the hands-down winner of best croque monsieur (ou madame). Although the fried eggs were a delicious addition, it was all about the béchamel. The other sandwiches were indifferently toasted ham-and-cheese. Le Sévigné made a true croque monsieur and an elegant Parisian lunch.
Boeuf tartare at Café le Dante was best in its class: fresh and perfectly seasoned. Right amount of mustard, cornichon, capers and onion. No ketchup. Then there was that tiny quail egg.