Comfort foods represent a deeply personal territory- one that I have continuously revisited through the years. Growing up, my sore throats and fevers were assuaged by a steamed egg dish my mother made that drove away mild illnesses with its watery powers of blandness. To power through the stress of organic chemistry finals during my college years, I turned to the deeply guilty and artery-clogging embrace of KFC Famous Bowls. And now, in my adulthood, I’ve rediscovered once again what comfort food means to me: onions caramelizing for hours, simmering beef stock, a languid sheet of Gruyère roping me in for yet another spoonful. Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking taught many things to legions of home chefs through five decades. To me, it uncovered the beautiful depth found in a single pot of onions.
French onion soup is a genuinely simple recipe to perfect at home, if you have the time and don’t mind the social ramifications of smelling like onions for a week. Though there is no substitute for the happiness of soup simmering in your own kitchen, I hit up some French restaurants in Dallas to discover my comfort in their menus. I visited Cadot in North Dallas, Toulouse Café and Bar in Highland Park, and Boulevardier in the Bishop Arts district.
Cadot, helmed by former Lavendou chef Jean-Marie Cadot, has always been a reliable restaurant for my French food cravings, the onion soup gratinée chief among their lauded offerings. Cadot’s broth is a combination of both beef and chicken stock, cooked down for two hours with red wine and thyme, and broiled with baguette crostini and Swiss cheese prior to serving. Despite my companion’s grousing about the small portion, this version does not skimp on the cheese. My soup was draped in a mattress of Swiss, beautifully browned but far too thick to meld nicely with the broth. And though the onions were well caramelized and gave way for sweetness, the rest of the broth suffered slightly from being otherwise one-note and a bit bland. Perhaps a longer reduction time and less cheese would have me flocking back to the restaurant on a regular basis- the excellent service and their killer French 75 is reason enough for a return.
I wanted Toulouse to blow me away. I was excited by the menu, excited for the three cheeses topping their French onion soup gratinée. Comté, mozzarella, and Parmesan- how could you go wrong with those? I thought giddily. As it turns out, you can go wrong by burning them. My soup arrived much later than my companion’s, almost as an afterthought. Its untimely neglect beneath the salamander was spelled out by a crusty, blackened layer of cheese. Beneath it, I excavated a great broth with the depth and salinity lacking at Cadot, but the joy of that discovery was immediately tempered by the volume and texture of the onions- a mushy, chewy mass that left me hunting fruitlessly for more broth. I found comfort in the beautiful coriander braised carrots served with their duck leg confit, but none whatsoever in the soup.
Boulevardier’s French onion soup boasted the most expensive price tag of the three ($10). A server helpfully informs me that the onions are caramelized for three days, which is well beyond the 2-3 hours estimated by the previous two restaurants. I am not quite sure how one can cook down onions for 72 hours and still retain any texture, but Boulevardier’s rendition is superb. White wine in the broth bolsters the sweetness of the onions, which have sweated richly in loads of butter. The beef stock here is more complex, elevated by chervil and star anise. The server tells me there is no thyme, but I pull several sprigs out of my soup. The only drawback here is ratio- the soup is topped with a Titanic-sized crostini that soaks up too much of the broth- but I would happily drown in another bowl or five.
Boulevardier takes the win this round for a rich and satisfying rendition of French onion soup. Sure, it may cost more than 10 pounds of onions you could caramelize at home, but it’s always nice to know where to find a bowl of comfort on demand.