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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.

                            1. I too am onion soup obsessed and quite by accident had an excellent thyme infused bowl at le Relais Madeleine on
                              Rue du Chevalier de Saint-George. We ducked to a table to avoid rain and decided on a light bite for lunch. My soup full of carmelized onions with just the right amount of cheese was wonderful. My husbands salad not so much . Not a destination but if you are in the neighborhood .....

                              1. Every year when our crew makes it to Paris and we have a couple of newbies, at least one commonly has to have “French Onion Soup”. So my approach is to stop for an early lunch on our cycling ride at the first cafe we ride by in Paris that looks like they cater to “visitors” and probably has onion soup on the menu. The servers figure out the situation fairly fast and make a big deal about it. They understand that the visuals are very important and make sure the crock has cheese bubbling over the side. I have a beer or coffee and enjoy the morning. After that the newbies never ask about onion soup again.

                                22 Replies
                                1. re: BlueOx

                                  Clearly your newbie travel buddies are faster learners than I am. ( And they may not have the personal history I have with Julia Child's estimable recipe that I have.) Last night I gave onion soup one more try at Terrior Parisien in the 5th. The stock passed muster. The onions passed muster with regard to their preparation but there were way, way too few in each portion. The gratinee was strange: essentially little croutons of bread and melted cheese. I am now officially declaring my onion soup hunt over. I'll wait until I get home and do the deed myself.

                                  Incidentally I had hope for Le Pichet in Chartres. When we walked into the place it smelled of long simmered food. While my husband's pot au feu and my lapin au pruneau were excellent, my onion soup was one more vapid example.

                                  1. re: Indy 67

                                    While not what l search for in an onion soup, the Terroir Parisien version was very enjoyable to me, quite well flavored, non greasy and refreshingly light.

                                  2. re: BlueOx

                                    yesss .... and boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, moules mariniere ... they are for tourists and newbies as well?

                                    It's just that I'm intrigued - onion soup is, as noted several times already in this thread, certainly available (in a few places, for those who seek it out) ... but it seems to be, as an item in French cuisine, despised. Just wondering why that is.

                                    1. re: chowyadoin99

                                      I think that Ptipois explained it upthread. It is not despised but rather something that is so easily done at home that at local would seldom think to order it out. Compounded, this suggests that few restaurants that cater to locals would include it on a carte. This does not make it a bad dish or even badly done in those few places who care enough to feature it and make it well.

                                        1. re: mangeur

                                          "It is not despised"
                                          However, it does mean that there is no reason to travel across an ocean to find the ultimate onion soup. Waste of a Chow meal.

                                          1. re: Steve

                                            Indulging in a little hyperbole are we? Would those of us whose reason for traveling across the Atlantic was to find the ultimate onion soup please raise your hand? Hmmm. I thought not.

                                            We poor tourists get bombarded with admonitions that we can't get authentic bouillabaisse unless we're eating the dish within sight of the Med and the recipe includes specific fish that only swim in Mediterranean waters. Some of that attitude applies equally to onion soup and its understandable that folks want to try gratineed onion soup on their visit. However after the last 10 days of off and on rain with temps in the high 50s to mid 60s the best reason to order onion soup for lunch is that it is a wonderful antidote to hours spent touring outside.

                                            Thanks to the posters who are educating us about the current state of French cooking and about the location of the places to eat when only a golden oldie will do.

                                            1. re: Indy 67

                                              I ordered onion soup from a "duck in" restaurant because we were caught in a sudden shower, very hungry, very wet and cold. The onion soup wasn't the best I've ever had, but it was comforting and filling. That's why I "wasted" a meal in Paris on an average onion soup.

                                              1. re: Indy 67

                                                Of course experience does not always confirm stereotypes. It is not the end of the world. If one is willing to be open to other culinary discoveries, the trade-off is always positive.

                                                1. re: Indy 67

                                                  Many years back took a trip to Paris expressly for that purpose, ate 26 over a week or two and found all wanting.

                                                  1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                    I bow before your devotion and single mindedness.

                                                    1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                      You beat my craziest foodie binge of five buffets in five days in Vegas!

                                                      1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                        I have a feeling that in this case, the failure was already entirely contained in the endeavor.

                                                      2. re: Indy 67

                                                        "We poor tourists get bombarded with admonitions that we can't get authentic bouillabaisse unless we're eating the dish within sight of the Med"

                                                        One of the signers of the 1980 "Bouiilabaisse Charter" is Chez Charlot in Paris. Here is their menu on the internet:


                                                        I can't tell you if it's any good, though.

                                                        1. re: Steve

                                                          Re "authentic bouillabaisse "
                                                          John Baxter (not a friend) has an amusing Chapter (10) entitled "First Catch Your Rascasse" in his book "The Perfect Meal" Harper 2013.
                                                          Unfortunately he, or his fact-checkers (are there any out there anymore?) missed his reference to the New Yorker food reviews - there are no food reviews in the New Yorker - he probably meant the New York Magazine or the New York Times, which is too bad, because it makes you doubt other statements he made in an otherwise interesting book about modern French food.

                                                          1. re: John Talbott

                                                            Indeed, doubt them all. The memories of the venerable ones are often far superior to the research of young writers meeting a deadline.

                                                            1. re: mangeur

                                                              But Baxter was born in 1939 and was not writing on deadline.

                                                              1. re: John Talbott

                                                                Should I have said the memories of some venerables?

                                                            2. re: John Talbott

                                                              There are food reviews in The New Yorker. Not very good ones, but the magazine reviews restaurants.

                                                    2. re: chowyadoin99

                                                      Maybe we are losing sight of the purpose/ function of traditional onion soup in the local eating landscape and traditions.

                                                      I can't speak for other locals but this Parisien would never order a classic gratinée as part of a meal... just way too heavy... maybe a simple soupe à l'oignon without the cheese and bread or the thoughtfully updated and lightened version at Terroir Parisien.... but never a classic gratinée unless as a late-afternoon or pre-théàtre snack (at La Rotonde or, if for sheer convenience, Le Grand Café des Capucines) or a wee-hours post-clubbing pick-me-up (at Chez Denise or, when Chez Denise is closed, La Poule au Pot).

                                                      1. re: Parnassien

                                                        Indeed, onion soup is sort of a midnight snack, in a time-machine way.
                                                        I can't speak for other locals, but onion soup, like canard à l'orange, is by no means a signature dish for French cuisine. Not in France in any case.

                                                  2. I had a (French) French teacher in high school who organized a French club fundraiser at a local fair each year (now that I am - much - older and have done similar endeavors, big big props to her for that agony). Anyway, the funds were raised by selling onion soup. Hers was onion, cooked down in butter (only! she was definite about this) to caramelized but not extremely, water and salt. It was very light actually, cheese and croutons on top. It was good, and people loved it, but it was not rich.

                                                    1. A question for the group: in your opinion, does a correct gratinee contain stock or water?

                                                      11 Replies
                                                        1. re: mangeur

                                                          The recipe l use has stock, wine, and apple cider and boy does it work.

                                                              1. re: Ptipois

                                                                So glad to read this consensus. I really liked my recipe but somehow read about the real deal using only water. Back to the broth!

                                                                1. re: mangeur

                                                                  Water is cheaper, so there's that. I can't imagine it tasting better?

                                                                  1. re: mangeur

                                                                    We used beef broth when I was at Bocuse and I still prefer this. However, I went through a phase when I used chicken stock, as it is lighter, and some think more digestible. If you make a great stock, either can be used. And if you are truly poor, literally, or just stock-poor, I imagine water is better than nothing.

                                                                2. Sorry I can't recommend a local source for you. For no reason I can figure out, there's a waterfront restaurant here in Berkeley called Skates on the Bay that makes a pretty darn good gratinee version. A glass of white, the soup and some oysters makes me a very happy luncher.

                                                                  The only weak spot of their onion soup is that sometimes the cheese (a nice buttery Swiss or gruyere) isn't browned enough. The broth was such a surprise -- beefy depth, cognac (I think), not too salty. Onions, crouton all as they should be.

                                                                  Honestly, I can't speak to authenticity but it tastes really good. As Calvin Trillin put it, "I realized that the main difference between the gazpacho I was eating and the classic gazpacho was that it tasted better."

                                                                  1. We had great onion soup at La Rotonde...beef stock base, a couple of cheeses, heavy with onion, good thick bread, broiled for a crust. Wonderful! Wine was good, too.

                                                                    1. By chance I noticed it on the carte at Bistrot du Peintre on Avenue Ledru Rollin.