It is difficult to believe that, despite the fact this blog is ostensibly about sandwiches and evokes the name of Proust, I was not aware of le croque-monsieur, the French version of grilled ham-and-cheese, or of its presence in volume II of Proust’s masterwork In Search of Lost Time.
To have stumbled across this oversite causes no undue red-in-the-face embarrassment, I can assure you. Thus, to assuage my hang-doggedness, I must pay tribute to this timeless treasure.
The best way to honor a food is, of course, to eat it.
Farmhouse, in the Rivermarket, offered croque-monsieur as a special about a month back. I had just decided to embark on a search for this sandwich, so I though it serendipitous and ordered without really discussing my options with our server. I should have stuck with their Reuben par excellence, which I’ve written about before.
My research had led me to believe that the sandwich was bourgeois finger food, a child’s café treat. The name literally means “Mr. Crunchy” and specific croque-monsieur molds are sold to ensure this double-cheese delight.
This plate, however, was laden with rich Mornay sauce and the sandwich itself stuffed with thick, fatty ham slices. The bread was more toasted than grilled, and didn’t hold up to the heft of the sauce. There was also mustard, which I wouldn’t have included, had I asked for the chef’s specifics. Mustard is, to my palate, always optional.
In Shirley King’s “Dining with Marcel Proust: A Practical Guide to French Cuisine of the Belle Epoque,” the author meticulously examines the foods described by Proust. It is well known that the catalyst for the Narrator’s reminisence is a delicate petite madeleine. Something covered in cheese is surely worthy of equal examination. She includes a version of the croque-monsieur which uses Gruyère or Emmenthal, with crusts cut off the bread, fried in butter in a frying pan.
Wikipedia lists quite a few variations, with different names: croque-madame (with fried egg), croque señor (with salsa), croque-provençal (with tomato), etc. They can be fried as a sandwich, just the bread fried, open-face or slathered in sauce. The ol’ ham-and-cheese offers a veritable trove of variety, in construction, addition, or even nationality.
A quick Google search found the sandwich on a few local eateries, so I’ll continue this quest, though with trepidation. I am intrigued by Charles Feruzza’s positive review of Prairie Village’s Urban Spoon, who ostensibly have croque-monsieur on their lunch menu.
And while croque-monsier preference, as with matzo ball soup, is largely open to interpretation, I don’t think this is the version for me. I’ll stick with Farmhouse’s excellent Reuben.
Update: While home for the holidays, we ate at the newly established La Mei Emilie French cafe in the “original” section of Carmel, IN’s prefab “Art & Design District.” I forayed again in “croque” country to much better results. The only hitch in the set-up was that the supposedly child-friendly restaurant had no place for a necessary diaper change.