It was 1973 and La Bonne Soupe on West 55th Street had recently opened. Our fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Schuldenfrei, wanted to expose my class to “le vrai cuisine de la France.” I had recently forced my mother to "bake" frozen croissants, which I liked to stuff with jam. My buddy Jay had threatened to bring maple syrup to pour on his crêpes and was told he'd be in big trouble if he did.
Flash forward to 2015 — same place, same décor, and still serving their classic onion soup, one that’s on par with my subsequent New York City go-tos for this dish, Balthazar and Artisanal (neither of which are really French!). I have to smile as I remember Mrs. Schuldenfrei attempt, too late, to stop Jay from pulling out a little plastic pill bottle he snuck into his coat pocket. The container was filled with maple syrup, of course, which he did indeed pour all over his pancakes — er, crêpes.Just as the availability and quality of croissants and soupe à l'oignon gratinée have improved immeasurably in New York City (and America) since 1973, there has been a recent paradigm shift in onion soup in New York City that should make the French as nervous as the 1976 Judgment of Paris...
But just as the availability and quality of croissants and soupe à l'oignon gratinée have improved immeasurably in New York City (and America) since 1973, there has been a recent paradigm shift in onion soup in New York City that should make the French as nervous as the 1976 Judgment of Paris, when California wines thrashed French wines across the board in a blind tasting — by French judges, no less!
First up, M. Wells Steakhouse in Long Island City, where Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon alum Hugue Dufour wields a sense of humor similar to that of his former boss, Martin Picard. Dufour serves his French onion soup in a giant casserole dish with what appears to be an entire cow femur sticking out of it. It looks like the most horrific sports injury imaginable. Of course, the femur has been conveniently split in half lengthwise, the better to scoop out the unctuous bone marrow so as to mix back into the incredibly beefy (and porky) broth. It really seems like a bottomless dish of melted Gruyère and an entire loaf of bread.
By contrast, Hunt & Fish Club on West 44th Street is outwardly about as far from M. Wells Steakhouse's converted Long Island City auto-body repair shop as you could imagine. Sparing no expense with mirrors, chandeliers, and 55,000 pounds of imported marble, chef Jeff Kreisel, formerly of Porter House, is paying homage to old New York City steakhouses and places like La Bonne Soupe. But along with the décor, he also beefs up his rendition of the bistro classic. Like Dufour, Kreisel uses bone marrow — though sans actual bone — to deepen the broth’s taste and color. And Kreisel goes one step further: He shreds oxtail into the soup! Every spoon is meaty and cheesy — it’s downright soulful.
Come to think of it, the onion soups at M. Wells and Hunt & Fish Club make all others taste like the equivalent of my mom's Sara Lee frozen croissants.