It is my intention to celebrate the sandwich this year by finding as many tasty examples as possible, with a special emphasis on fringe styles, but also presenting sandwiches that were considered more normal 30 years ago that now seem quaint. I will do this weekly and periodically present round-ups of the ones I consider best.
The elements that go into France’s iconic croque-monsieur — a specialty of Paris brasseries, in particular — are deceptively simple. A couple of pieces of white bread, a slice or two of ham, the same of gruyere or emmental cheese, and the stealth ingredient that often goes undetected by the consumer, béchamel. And for those who don’t quite know what béchamel is, it’s the world’s simplest sauce, made of flour, butter, and milk, sometimes with variations adding a little bit of mustard.
How these elements are assorted to make a hot sandwich is up to the cook. Sometimes it is grilled, sometimes deep fried. The béchamel may be tucked here and there, or the sandwich may be coated with it. The ham is usually jambon de Paris, a low-brow boiled ham not unlike American luncheon meat. But when you taste a croque-monsieur, you’ll be knocked on your ass by how good it is, gluey and gooey. This is so clearly a case of the sandwich whole being much greater than the sum of the sandwich parts.
But now let’s kick it up a notch, as Emeril used to say. While the croque-monsieur can be eaten with the hands, which in some ways is the definition of a sandwich, its spouse the croque-madame cannot be. That’s because a croque-madame is identical to a croque monsieur, except with a runny fried egg added on top. Try to eat this sandwich with your hands, and your clothes will be smeared with yellow and white, like a farm hand who has been cleaning the henhouse.
Yes, the croque-madame begs to be eaten with a knife and fork, as I did recently at the revamped Pastis in the Meatpacking District. The place, now under the tutelage of Keith McNally and Stephen Starr, still manages to seem like a parody of a Parisian brasserie. And it offers a perfect croque-madame — which means not too fussy, so the thing remains edible. I’ve had a croque madame in Paris that was so huge and messy that even a knife and fork were insufficient; you really needed some table implement like a vacuum cleaner, and you’d still feel slightly nauseated afterwards.
And after tasting croque-madame in a half-dozen restaurants in three boroughs, most of them disappointing, I’d have to conclude that Pastis serves one of the best in town. Tell me if you’ve found a better one. 52 Gansevoort St, between Greenwich and Washington streets, Meatpacking District