The Perfect Croque Madame

CHICAGO He says he's found the ultimate Croque Madame.

In France, the Croque Monsieur is simply a ham and cheese. But a Croque Madame has the addition of a fried egg, and it's rare in Chicago. However, a new French brasserie has a dynamite Croque Madame on its lunch menu.. And it happens to be one of the better knife-and-fork sandwiches in town.

It is simple, yet sublime. Some call it a ham and cheese - that's a Croque Monsieur, actually. Brasserie Ruhlmann - which occupies the ground floor of the old Montgomery Ward's headquarters - the Croque Madame is the sandwich to get.

"A Croque Madame is a Croque Monsieur with an egg on it; that's it," said Christian Delouvrier, Brasserie Ruhlmann.

And the difference is critical. Delouvrier begins with sturdy country bread, slathered with a bit of melted butter; he then adds a slice of Swiss cheese, then some sliced ham, arranging it on the bread; a second piece of cheese goes over that, and the sandwich is topped off with bread. Into a skillet with a little clarified butter, just to brown the bottom, he adds a thick bechamel sauce, based on what's called a roux - essentially equal parts flour and butter.

"A bechamel is milk, flour and butter. We make a roux, put the milk on top of it and it's a little bit of onion inside of it, nutmeg a little bit and that is the bechamel, it's pretty thick," said Delouvrier.

A little grated Swiss cheese goes on top, then it's into a 420 degree oven for three minutes.

"So inside is slice of Swiss cheese, ham, cheese between two slices of bread, the bechamel and grated Swiss cheese on top," said Delouvrier.

Directly from the oven, the crusts are cut off. Then the sandwich is placed into a broiler, which browns up the top layer of cheese. Finally, the crucial part: an egg is fried in a skillet. And after the sandwich is sliced in half and plated, it is crowned with the cooked egg, dusted with a bit of freshly-cracked pepper.

At the table, the real drama occurs when you dig into this knife-and-fork sandwich, and witness the running of the yolk. Paired with golden, crisp French fries, it's a lunch fit for a monsieur or madame.

"I see that in a brasserie outside in a terrace in Paris or big city in France, or New York, or in Chicago for instance," said Delouvrier.

Even though they didn't play a starring role in my story, the frites that come with the sandwich are excellent.

Brasserie Ruhlmann
500 W. Superior St.
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