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May 26, 2014 09:44 PM

Ne plus ultra of onion soup?

I was a new bride living in Cambridge, MA when Julia Child burst on the scene. Our circle of friends was made up of impoverished grad students and our primary way of socializing was dinner parties where we all cooked from mimeographed copies of her recipes mailed to us in SASE by the TV station broadcasting her shows. Julia Child ' s recipe for onion soup remains my gold standard: great stock and loads of slow cooked onions. Where can I get a great bowl of onion soup in town?

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  1. "the TV station"
    Good old WGBH; and you were not the only one.

    1. I'm afraid onion soup died with Irma La Douce. And when you find something called onion soup, it is just salted dishwashing water.
      Wait, a couple of days ago I was invited to - gulp - Procope. One of my dining companions had onion soup, and it was not half bad.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Parigi

        Is it distortions in our memories or was the onion soup around Les Halles before they tore it down really that good?
        I keep searching to and I'd agree, soup too watery, onions too sweet, cheese too scrimpy.

        1. re: John Talbott

          "Les Halles before they tore it down"
          This is stretching this thread a bit but since a friend mentioned going there for a wine tasting a few days ago, I'm not sure CH-ers know that the remains of the Pavillon Batard (the original Halles) are only a few clicks from Vincennes - an ideal midpoint en route to Les Magnolias for instance. Impressive and smelling of onion soup.

      2. The world of Julia Child is now simply an echo. Of course, onion soup remains on the menu of many restos in the tourist zones because that's what the tourist want. Unfortunately, the versions served at these places are usually sub-standard, cheaply made, or from a jar or vacu-pack.

        Yet there are some classic versions that remain authentic:
        Flottes on the rue Cambon off the rue de Rivoli near the Tuileries/ pl de la Concorde... brasserie open 7/7 and continuous service from 7:30am to 12:30am:
        La Rotonde on the boulevard de Montparnasse @ bd Raspail ... continuous-service brasserie open 7/7 and cafe with great terrace so quite suitable for a late afternoon snack of onion soup;
        and (my favourite) Chez Denise on the rue des Prouvaires in Les Halles.... bistro so lunch and dinner service only, open until 5am Mon-Fri, and just in case you're in the mood for a little old-age raving, fabulous for an after-clubbing bowl of soupe a l'oignon gratinée at 4am to recover one's senses.

        19 Replies
        1. re: Parnassien

          How interesting, been going for many decades and have never seen on menu.
          Who knew ?

          1. re: Delucacheesemonger

            I rarely look at the menu at Chez Denise... but it might be called "Gratinée des Halles" or something of that ilk rather then soupe à l'oignon...usually I just ask for "une gratinée" when ordering. I only have it in the wee hours and never when having a full meal at normal meal times so not sure if it is actually available then.

          2. re: Parnassien

            "because that's what the tourists want"

            Can't help asking "how is it that Parisians have lost interest in such an admirable on many levels item?"

            1. re: chowyadoin99

              I quite agree. I think a bowl of gratineed onion soup and a lovely vinaigrette green salad is the perfect lunch to cope with the cool/overcast/rainy weather we've experienced since we arrived in France nearly 10 days ago.

              We've been able to get superb renditions of other classics like rillettes and pate compagne. Why is onion soup in a different category?

              1. re: chowyadoin99

                Lost interest, no. It is such a simple dish that people make it at home.

                1. re: Parigi

                  Did Americans lose interest in Meatloafs ? Probably not, but what American would order one at a restaurant ?

                  1. re: Rio Yeti

                    I don't know where you live but in Washington DC there are several restaurant's where the meatloaf on the menu has rock star status. One such place, RIS offers meatloaf only on Monday night and people have been known to plan their visits based on that fact.

                    1. re: Indy 67

                      "in Washington DC there are several restaurant's where the meatloaf on the menu has rock star status"

                      And the same for onion soup in Paris. There are a handful of places where the gratinée rocks. Unfortunately, you left them off your to-do list.

                      1. re: Parnassien

                        Our mid day eating plans took a back seat to other activities. Typical experience: We were on Ille St. Louis and arrived at at Vieul Ami (sp? Done from memory) too late for lunch service . Didn't think to keep walking west to Brasserie Ille St. Louis and ended up someplace forgettable. Our lunch at Le Berbere and a falafel sandwich (sit down not take away) a Ana du Falafel were two of our better lunch meals.

                        My posts about lovely dinners at Terrior Parisien and Ferrandaise may have to wait until we're home .

                        Thanks for the good advice before the trip and the online company during the trip.

                        1. re: Parnassien

                          " Unfortunately, you left them off your to-do list."

                          That's absolutely true. When I planned my trip to Paris, I had no intention of eating a single bowl of onion soup. I certainly didn't know that the factors that made onion soup emblematic of an era and a way of life had disappeared. But more significantly, I had no expectation that temps for our late-May/early-June visit would be in the high 50s/low 60s with rain and that I would need and crave a bowl of gratineed onion soup.

                          I hope for all concerned, recent/current visitors are enjoying better weather.

                          1. re: Indy 67

                            Nearly too hot these days.Well, weather happens.

                            1. re: Indy 67

                              (addressed more to others than to Indy).

                              Weather, another reason why visitors should be prepared to improvise and adapt rather than plan too much.

                      2. re: Parigi

                        The context has changed. The classic gratinée elevated to star status by Julia Child had very defined roots in a Paris that no longer exists..... a cheap and filling late night/ early morning snack for market porters in Les Halles, a hangover preventative after a night of revelry, a cure for indigestion, a meal in a bowl for skint students and starving artists. But now no more Halles, the working classes have moved to the suburbs, indigestion is cured by over-the-counter remedies, and students have their subsidized cantines and a preference for hamburgers and couscous. And most locals can no longer afford to eat out as much they used to... and, as Parigi says, it's easy to make at home or open a supermarket version for just a few euros.

                        Very authentic versions are still available at a small number of old-school bistros and brasseries where traditions are respected. If you expect to find good and authentic gratinée everywhere, you will be sorely disappointed.

                        1. re: Parnassien

                          To continue on the context, onion soup in Paris was the last remaining example of "bouillon restaurant" that was served in the early restaurants at the end of the 18th century and gave birth to the term. And before disappearing almost completely, it was mostly considered early-morning restorative food for people who had been partying all night long.

                          Now, the only people affluent enough to party all night long don't restore themselves on onion soup. Not even on food.

                          1. re: Ptipois

                            Lionel Poilâne (1992): "less than a century ago, the average Frenchman ate a kilo of bread per day. Soup was another way of eating bread, hot and soggy."

                          2. re: Parnassien

                            "skint students"
                            and proud we were.
                            As I said upthread, I do think until 1971, one could get a very decent onion soup around the market(s).

                        2. re: chowyadoin99

                          It's interesting, there are a number of dishes which are relatively easy to prepare at home and yet are commonly found in restaurants, but the very idea of onion soup (not all that easy to prepare a really good one at home in my opinion) seems to meet almost with contempt - a dish for "tourists" and "newbies" ...

                          1. re: chowyadoin99

                            How can I put it? Onion soup in Paris is somehow, unfortunately, a form of culinary Amélie Poulain.

                            1. re: chowyadoin99

                              Good authentic and classic onion soup can still be had in Paris. Admittedly it is no longer all that popular anymore. But it's kinda annoying that visitors who complain about not being able to get it persist on going to places that don't have it and ignore the restaurants that do have it.

                              I gave 3 suggestions upthread: Chez Denise, La Rotonde Montparnasse, and Les Flottes. Choose one and go.

                        3. I enjoyed mine at Au Pied de Cochon when we vacationed nearby.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: hychka

                            For me waaaay too salty, onions/cheese good though.

                          2. I am 5500 miles away, trying to survive the currently fashionable plague (horrendous bark and chest congestion) while reading about gratinee. I think you have given me just enough energy to stagger downstairs and start slicing onions.