The Search for Croque Madame Perfection in Paris

An American in Paris has a ham and cheese epiphany at Café Marly.

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There will always be that one glorious dish that is near and dear to your heart, a food that is synonymous with satisfaction and perfection. We asked our friends in the food and editorial world to write #FoodOdes to the dishes that they love. Here, an ode to Café Marly’s Croque Madame, from First We Feast contributor Matthew Schonfeld (@MBSchonz).

The menu at a Parisian café is intimidating to most Americans. The dish pronunciations are deceptively difficult (just as King Louis XVI would have wanted), the cheese selection is extensive, and an espresso is wildly overpriced. But cuisine is central to French culture and traditions, so, as an American student living abroad in France, I decided to familiarize myself with French food ASAP. But the question was: How?

Like any wide-eyed American student I was enthralled by the unfamiliar culture and hyperaware of everything around me. And, like anybody living abroad in Paris, I ate a lot. Baguettes, crepes, croissants, cheese—I devoured anything my host dad put in front of me. But after two weeks, one dish stood apart. I’m talking about the classic French comfort food, croque madame. In an attempt to familiarize ourselves with this decadent French staple, two friends and I started a blog. Yes, we were aware that many a college kid pens a self-serving abroad blog to map their day-to-days. But what started as a snarky, half-ass project quickly became a calculated, targeted, one-subject Tumblr, “I’d Croque That Madame”.

Now, some might say, “That’s just a fancy, rearranged bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich.” But they’d be wrong, because the spectacular Croque Madame is delightfully French and entirely more satisfying.

For those unfamiliar, a Croque Madame is a traditional French sandwich consisting of ham and cheese, typically Gruyère or Emmental. The sandwich is generously draped in melted cheese and topped with a fried egg. It’s on just about every menu in Paris, but each chef has a slight variation. The sandwich can be assembled on a long baguette, country bread, or (as they call it) American sandwich bread. The quality of the ham and cheese used is imperative. The proportion of ingredients can be either spot on, or horribly off. With strict metrics, we broke down each Croque by composition, presentation, taste, and price. I’d like to think we understood this sandwich on a fundamental level. From the base bread to the egg topping, we had Croque reviewing down to a science.

After months of exploring and evaluating, we all had our favorites. We loved a café on the East corner of Sacre Coeur for its crisp open-faced rendition, and a bistro by Les Halles for it’s pillowy bread and sprawling sheath of cheese. But we needed an end game. A capstone to our Croque Madame castle, if you will. And with a quick Google search for “Best Croque Madame in Paris,” we learned of Café Marly’s lauded, 16-euro version. Let me offer you some perspective on the restaurant: Café Marly is a hoity-toity, high-class establishment located in the same courtyard as the Louvre’s glass pyramid. This Croque is prepared just yards away from where Mary Magdalene lies. As borderline broke American students, we had no place in this kind of establishment.

Sitting in that old French dining room, with a uniformly attractive wait staff running the floor, I was naturally skeptical of the sandwich. If you break it down, this dish is merely ham, an egg, and cheese, but Café Marly was charging me 20 dollars for it. Previously—after a subpar 12 Euro Croque—we had concluded that anything above 10 Euro was complete bullshit. But we took the risk.

Once delivered, it looked smaller than most, took up half my plate, and was visually underwhelming. But don’t underestimate the French and their minimalist mystique, because the craftsmanship in this Croque was astonishing. Just hours after eating the Croque, I ran to my computer and wrote, “The ham, the cheese, the crustless bread, and the egg are all leveled evenly and with purpose before they are synthesized into one entity. What is truly impressive about this Croque Madame is its synergy.” Excuse the hyperbole, you must remember it was my first truly gourmet Croque Madame, and the first we’d seen that featured an extra layer of ham, which the chef had unsuspectingly slid between the top slice of bread and the melted cheese.

Café Marly’s Croque Madame is undoubtedly one of the best sandwiches of it’s kind. Now, some might say, “That’s just a fancy, rearranged bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich.” But they’d be wrong, because the spectacular Croque is delightfully French and entirely more satisfying.

All photos by Matthew Schonfeld (@MBSchonz).

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