Whenever a cuisine is having a moment, its most iconic dishes are also enjoying a lift – like onion soup, courtesy of the resurgence of French restaurants during the last several years.
Onion soup, however, has become so ubiquitous that it has ventured beyond its homeland, showing up at steakhouses, sports bars and American bistros. When more than half of all diners like or love it, according to food research firm Datassential, onion soup is a contender for sales, especially with cooler months ahead.
To stand out, chefs are relying on technique, presentation, additional ingredients and even turning the classic on its head. While the soup is simple broth, caramelized onions, cheese and bread, its soul-satisfying complexity is achieved by layering flavors.
“When you consider the role of each part of the soup, you are rewarded with a deep and flavorful result,” says Alexandre Viriot, executive chef at La Société in San Francisco.
CAMPHOR, LOS ANGELES
Details: Co-executive chefs Max Boonthanakit and Lijo George execute a menu that's anything but ordinary at their French-influenced modern bistro, which reflects their global travels and work experience, including Boonthanakit's time at Alain Ducasse's restaurant in Thailand.
Chef Tip: Their version of French onion soup remedies the ratio problem that results after the bubbly, cheesy, soup-soaked crouton is gone, leaving plenty of soup and onions. Instead, they feature an exceptionally large, thick slice of toasted sourdough on a plate with brûléed cheese. The soup, which is poured tableside, encourages sharing. Each bite is soupy and cheesy.
CHEZ MAGGY, DENVER
Details: French Chef Ludo Lefebvre, beloved in Los Angeles for his sometimes offbeat but always exceptionally-executed take on his homeland's cuisine, opened his first restaurant outside California last year. The restaurant pays homage to his mother-in-law, who's from the Mile High City – appropriately local but decidedly French.
Chef Tip: Beef or chicken bones are often the go-to for French onion soup, but in France, it's veal bones, which is the route Lefebvre takes. A thick slice of sourdough sits on top of the soup, but the cheese –Comte and Gruyère – is draped generously, so it oozes all over the sides of the serving vessel. It's a head-turner, one that entices other diners to order if they hadn't already.
LA SOCIéTé BAR & CAFE,
Details: U.S.-born Alexandre Viriot brings a trove of experience to this restaurant, which opened a year ago. He's worked with legendary greats Guy Savoy, Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse.
Chef Tip: Oxtail provides the base for Viriot's dramatic presentation of onion soup. Instead of tossing the meat, he turns it into a ragout presented on a split bone, atop smoked marrow. He also prefers white over yellow onions, sliced into chunks so that the allum doesn't turn to mush. His soup gets a splash of sherry, sherry vinegar and brandy for depth and brightness. For cheese, he prefers the tang of 24-month-aged Comte, but Gruyère works, too.
LE CLOU, WASHINGTON, D.C.
Details: One of several French restaurants that opened in the nation's capital in the last year features Michelin-star Chef Nicholas Stefanelli's take on the modern French brasserie.
Chef Tip: Caramelizing onions takes time, so it's important not to rush it; otherwise, the result will be bitter. As a rule, the onions are doused with a spirit, wine or some kind of acid. Stefanelli goes with sherry and uses a mix of Comte and Gruyère on a raft of pain de mie, a neutral-tasting fluffy bread that allows the depth of the onion and beef-fortified broth to deliver deep, straightforward flavor.