The classic sandwich of the French brasserie is the croque-monsieur. It features thinly sliced boiled ham (called “jambon de Paris”) and gruyere cheese melted on slices of sourdough bread, in a sort of hammy toasted cheese sandwich. Often, béchamel — a thick flour-and-butter sauce — is added to further glue the assemblage together. Lay a fried egg on top and the sandwich is called a croque-madame.
You won’t find a croquet monsieur on the menu at Balthazar, at least not by that name. This two-decade-old Soho restaurant certainly looks like a Parisian brasserie, almost painfully so, with its beveled mirrors, high ceilings, leather banquets, and brass rails, behind which you’re supposed to stash outerwear and packages. The menu, too, resembles that of a boulevard brasserie, serving a broad range of French breads, pastries, snacks, vins, and opulent but predictable full-course meals, in which melted butter flows like a river.
But, like its now-closed little sister Pastis, Balthazar is the brainchild of restaurateur Keith McNally. He’s a Londoner, and his take on French fare is suitably and subtly British — sometimes even tongue in cheek. Take the canned beans on toast, which was one of the stranger dishes offered for breakfast at Pastis; you can’t get more un-French than that. McNally’s croquet monsieur is also given a delightful British twist.
To begin with, there’s no béchamel, but the French boiled ham and gruyere cheese are still firmly in place. And between the layers of ham and cheese are placed several slices of red ripe tomato. This provides the extra moisture of béchamel, but also a grease-cutting acidity that makes the sandwich lighter and more refreshing (or less authentic, depending on which side of the English Channel you identify with.)
Yet, Balthazar’s sandwich — available only at lunch and called by the prosaic English name of “toasted French ham and gruyere sandwich” — is a noteworthy tweaking of venerable brasserie fare, almost a classic on its own. And the restaurant’s homemade bread, thickly coated with good butter before toasting, makes the sandwich even more memorable.