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As surely as a gravy boat means Thanksgiving and corncob holders mean the Fourth of July, the French onion soup bowl means winter. Though it makes regular appearances year-round, that squat ceramic crock in two-tone brown promises a particularly keen restoration on slushy days. It’s a vessel that connotes pots tended and fires stoked, and it’s as standard as its contents’ components: braised onions in broth, toasted bread, and a cap of bubbling cheese. In fact, of seven local French onion soups—the versions at Adams Morgan’s La Fourchette, Woodley Park’s Petits Plats, Dupont Circle’s Bistrot du Coin and the Childe Harold, Georgetown’s Bistro Français, and Capitol Hill’s Bistro Bis and the Dubliner—none is served in anything but the classic bowl.
Given the approximately 400-year history of the dish, it’s no surprise that even provolone-topped pub versions come in the customary crockery. It also follows that the best of these brews is strictly, almost ceremonially prepared: From the house-made stock to the final browning, Bistro Bis’ classic sticks closely to the traditional Lyonnais preparation. “I think it’s best not to get too fancy with onion soup,” declared a server at Bis one night. “It’s best when it’s straight-up.”
But straight-up doesn’t always come easy. “You don’t know how many times a week I yell about the onion soup,” laughs Jeffrey Buben, owner and proprietor of both Bistro Bis and Vidalia, an eatery known for its reverence for all things allium. “Sometimes, for such a simple dish, you just want to stick a pencil in your ear rather than teach it one more time….It takes constant attention.”
And it’s a testament to Buben’s attention that he deems several steps in the soup-making process “most important.” Uniformly thin-sliced Spanish onions are caramelized in butter until “almost dissipated”—oil won’t do, because “you need the milk solids,” he says—and sprinkled with flour, not so much for thickening but to “keep the onion suspended in the soup. That way you get the proper ratio of broth to onions” in each bowl. After a red-wine deglazing, in goes that beef stock and a thyme/bay-leaf/peppercorn sachet. The soup is then simmered for an hour with constant skimming.
The onions are brought to a full boil and then portioned into bowls. Two or three crusty baguette slices, about an eighth-inch thick, are floated on the surface. Finally, two slices of Gruyère—“a No. 4 or 5 on the cheese slicer,” says Bistro Bis chef Joe Harran—are laid atop the toast, stacked with rotated corners “like a Star of David” and sprinkled with an ounce of grated Swiss, for better bubbling and a crisper texture.
All of this results in a bar-setting “simple” dish, a perfect sum of parts fatty, crunchy, sweet, earthy, and salty and a perfect antidote to D.C.’s soul-sapping “wintry mix.”
Like Buben and Harran, Bistrot du Coin chef Adrien Marsoni respects the time-consuming effort of this bistro staple, and his diligence pays off: His soup is lush and full-bodied, due to a from-scratch beef stock and slow-cooked onions. “You need at least two days” to cook the soup, says Marsoni, indicating that the stock itself takes an entire day. “It’s a long process, but if you try to rush, you won’t get the right flavor.”
Indeed, the chefs who attest to the ease and quickness of this soup’s preparation tend to turn out less flavorful versions. “It’s very easy,” begins La Fourchette owner and chef Pierre Chauvet. “You sauté your onions until a little bit brown.” From Chauvet’s assertion that too-brown onions are “bitter,” one can deduce that he means to disparage the burned onions that result from quick cooking over high heat, not the sticky-sweet tangle that results from prolonged, patient stirring on low. At La Fourchette, the onions certainly aren’t bitter—but neither are they as concentrated or as complex as they could be.
La Fourchette’s onions also suffer from their immersion in a relatively bland chicken broth. And though Bistro Français’ 30-year-old recipe results in an admirably robust and spicy chicken-stock-based soup, it, too, lacks the depth and mouthfeel of a beef-enhanced version. “Some people do the beef broth,” says Chauvet, “but chicken broth is much better, because most of the people who use beef, they don’t do beef broth. They use concentrate.” Buben does concede that “the most elusive part of the soup” is a true, beefy stock: “You could fudge it—use beef base, you know—but the hard part is to extract it from beef,” he says. It’s something his restaurant achieves through the expensive practice of roasting chain-meat scraps along with its stock bones.
Naturally, that expense is passed along to the customer: Bistro Bis’ soup runs $9.75 at dinner; other places’ can range from two to six bucks cheaper. Pierre Bedha, chef at Petits Plats, admits to economizing. “Usually, we use the beef bones to make…brown sauce,” he says, “so we don’t use it for the soup.” His chicken-stock-based version is also a bit mild—though it’s alleviated by a crock-worthy presentation. “When you don’t use enough cheese, you can’t get the good color,” he says, “and you can see the soup coming [through]. That is no good.”
All of the chefs observe that complete coverage is key for browning and heat retention. The cheese needs to form a seal to keep the soup from bubbling up around the toasted-baguette croutes. Crisping the bread helps keep it from dissolving in the hot liquid; usually that’s the only preparation used here, though Marsoni rubs his toasts with garlic, and Buben and Harran make a sourdough version. “A more traditional baguette, as soon as it hits the liquid, it has the tendency to turn into a sponge,” Buben explains. “The sourdough has more structure and has a little tang to it.”
But the bread’s real task, aside from adding body and yeasty flavor, is to serve as a life raft for the blanket of cheese, not only the most immediately appealing part of the dish but also the trickiest to eat. It’s not so much overabundance that can be a problem, but texture, which depends on the type of cheese used. Both the Childe Harold and Dubliner versions are made with melted provolone, which reconstitutes more quickly than Gruyère, leading to the dreaded chewy blob.
French onion soup is common in pubs due to its near-mythological status as a hangover cure, but it follows that tap-focused sensibilities could lead to less careful work over the stove and under the broiler. Cheese troubles aside, the Childe Harold’s soup packs an unexpected peppery kick—and at $3.95, it’s a solid deal. The Dubliner version, however, is nearly inedible, its beef-concentrate-based broth insanely salty and its cheese nearly devoid of give from the first bite.
According to purchaser Hugo Malone, the Dubliner uses provolone because “I don’t have any other use for [Gruyère].” The restaurant has had the same soup recipe for more than three decades, says Malone, who’s worked there for nine years, “and they didn’t need me to come in and change it.” So is Malone a fan of the Dubliner’s French onion soup? “No comment.” —Anne Marson
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Illustrations by Max Kornell