For some people it’s the sight of the Eiffel tower, but to me nothing says I’ve arrived in Paris like biting into a croque-monsieur — a glorified grilled ham and cheese sandwich. The quintessential café lunch first appeared on Parisian menus a hundred years ago. The one I ordered at the historic Deux Magots in Paris earlier this year is likely unchanged from the original — right down to the super-white square pain de mie. The slightly sweet and squishy sandwich bread gets lost in a blanket of bubbly nutty Emmental and béchamel sauce contrasted with a thin slice of good smoked ham. It remains a satisfying and ubiquitous snack.
It took a century and Ottawa’s own Kevin Mathieson to improve upon the French classic — not by getting fancy with it or adding bacon or truffle oil, but by staying true to the original and upgrading the bread. At Art Is In, the croque (the French word for bite/crunch) is made using slices of fresh crusty Puglia bread, a rustic loaf filled with holes that has an amazing light crunch when toasted. Mathieson layers rich homemade béchamel sauce along with ham and good quality Gruyere cheese between the bread and tops it with more of the sauce and shredded cheese. Each sandwich is placed in a hot oven to order and served when the cheese is bubbling and toasty golden brown around the edges. The kicker is that the holes in the bread fill up with the creamy sauce. It’s the perfect marriage of crunchy and gooey so be sure to grab a knife and fork.
Mathieson says he fell in love with the sandwich when he was working at François Payard’s bakery in New York where the classic croque was famous around town. “The staff would always get the day old ones that were left and fight over them, “ he says.
Art Is In’s croque debuted last Wednesday and sold out by 1 p.m. so leftovers weren’t an issue. If it remains on the menu, I predict we’ll see it giving the popular Chicken Caesar and pulled pork sandwiches a run for their money. Don’t be surprised to see a croque on the brunch menu too — a croque madame — the same sandwich topped with a runny-yolked sunny side up egg. Mais bien sur!
Cost: Croque-Monsieur, $ 8.95
Hours: Tuesday to Friday 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Closed Mondays
Art Is In Bakery, 250 City Centre Ave., Bay 112-114 (from Scott road), 613-695-1226.