Grilled or baked. Built on sourdough or brioche. A layer of gooey cheese, blanketed inside or atop the sandwich. A jiggly-set egg spilling threads of golden yolk. Shaved ham, piled at least three slices deep.
Just give me the fork and knife already.
A croque madame is a sandwich so flexible, it’s served at breakfast or lunch.
At its most basic, a croque monsieur is a fancy French grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich with bechamel. The addition of an egg turns it into something magnificent, a croque madame.
Croque madames come in myriad combinations. Thinly sliced ham and gruyère cheese seem the constant, but the sandwiches can be grilled until golden or baked until puffy. The best croque madames always comes sauced, with either bèchamel or bèchamel’s cheesy counterpart, mornay. Sandwich bread can run the gamut from sturdy sourdough to a buttery croissant. Eggs can be fried over-easy or barely-set sunnyside-up.
A perfect croque madame is one requiring fork, knife and napkin.
My mission to find that perfect croque madame began in the spring when Aviateur, the French bistro, opened in downtown Tacoma. Since then, I’ve found three others worthy of your attention. My favorite? The brioche croque madame at Art House Cafe.
ART HOUSE CAFE
Chef Aimee Cox of the Stadium neighborhood’s Art House Cafe went straight for the good stuff: a sunnyside-up egg that, with a gentle nudge of a fork, unleashed a yolky river straight into a pool of buttery mornay.
Cox said she prefers the look of the sunnyside-up egg as much as the flavor it nudges into her creamy mornay, which she fortifies with grated Parmesan.
Of all the sandwiches sampled for this report, the Art House Cafe’s version on their lunch and dinner menu scored extra points for construction, with pillowy toasted brioche bread, triple layers of jambon, a layer of melted gruyere and that silky pool of mornay pooling across the entire plate. The Parmesan mornay tasted a bit on the thin side, but that just made it easier to sop up with the brioche.
This sandwich earned an A for flavor and construction, but push that up to an A-plus because of the accompanying arugula salad dressed with a syrupy balsamic vinaigrette, cashews and copious cheese crumbles.
AVIATEUR FRENCH DINER
When downtown Tacoma’s French bistro, Aviateur, opened in the spring, I was smitten with chef-owner Bertrand Young’s croque madame. The sandwich is available at dinner or on the bar menu, served with a green salad. A croissant is the foundation for this impressive tower of a sandwich with shaved jambon, melted gruyere and a custardy swipe of thickened mornay. What I appreciated most about Aviateur’s version was the topper of two puffy baked eggs. They weren’t quite over-easy enough to spill ribbons of yolk, but the golden innards seeped one layer deep into the buttery croissant.
Chef Scott Fuller of Gig Harbor’s Green.House Restaurant opted for grilled black forest ham, but the rest of the lunchtime sandwich held true to its French roots: melted gruyere, a buttery mornay sauce perfumed with a scrape of nutmeg and a fried egg. Griddled sourdough tasted of garlic oil, or was that the garlic aioli inside? This sandwich earned high marks for flavor, but I wish the egg had showed up over-easy, rather than over-medium. Served on the side was a mixed green salad dressed with fresh herbs.
NORDSTROM CAFE BISTRO
Here was another restaurant that opted for black forest ham. I just wish there had been more of it. Aside from the ham shortage, this sandwich hit all my hallmarks, but with one sly flavor addition: Dijon mustard. Golden-brown sourdough slices were topped with bubbled cheese, with more cheese reinforcement from gruyere and mornay inside. An over-easy egg provided the necessary yolky river, and that egg was well-peppered, to boot. Skinny fries on the side were dressed to impress with herbs.
THE RETURN OF THE CROQUE
Executive chef Matt Stickle at Tacoma’s Bite Restaurant at Hotel Murano said his popular croque madame sandwich will soon return. I asked Stickle to describe his sandwich: “We use grilled rosemary bread and add Cure 81 ham, gruyere, Dijon mornay. We then top it with another slice of melted cheese and finally a sunnyside-up egg. It comes with a lemon-arugula salad (to cut the richness) and our famous garlic herb fries.”
Stickle offered his hallmark for the best croque madame: The sandwich must be made with bread that stays crunchy, even under the soggy burden of mornay and egg yolk.
I feel compelled to note here that anyone with compromised immunity ought to ask for an egg that’s well done. Or skip the egg altogether and order a croque monsieur, the eggless version.