Wednesday, January 25, 2012

[HOT LIST] French onion soup

French onion soup at Kiernan's Steak House.

There is a certain kind of restaurant that is neither neighborhood diner nor flashy fine dining, but exists somewhere in a weirdly indefinable food purgatory in-between. These places are dark and rarely have interior windows; the d├ęcor dates back to whenever the place was built (which could be anywhere from 20 to 50 years ago); the food would be considered American by the standards of when "American" fine dining was heavily influenced by French cuisine and all that really existed in the country's culinary oeuvre were steakhouses and burger joints.

They serve frog legs, filet mignon and planked fish usually in rich, creamy, butter-based sauces, specialize in tableside Caesar salads and chateaubriand, and serve oysters in various incarnations as staple items. These places are remnants of a bygone era in American dining history ... and more often than not, so is their clientele. These are the blue hair restaurants, serving up "old people food" to our most revered elders. 

Kickers All American Grill.
I remember having a conversation years ago with Diane Geiger TenHoopen about how a restaurant's French onion soup is the litmus test for the overall quality of the place itself--the richness of the broth, the sogginess of the bread, whether they use Swiss or provolone cheese--the devil is in the details, and if a restaurant can't get their FOS down then there's not much hope for the rest of the menu.  When I decided the world needed an EID Hot List on FOS, I contacted Diane immediately. She previously authored a blog that was dedicated entirely to French onion soup (called FrenchyO!), and I knew with our shared passion for FOS she would understand just how important it was to get this list absolutely right. Her assistance has been invaluable.

#1 The Brewery (Clinton Township)
The Brewery is a huge facility located at 17 Mile Rd. and Hayes in the heart of Clinton Township, an area not exactly known for dining refinement. The inside is dimly lit and yes, there are a lot of blue hairs here. The Brewery never ends up on any "best of" lists and isn't typically named among the local "foodie" favorites (its location in Macomb County doesn't help it gain new fans either, as popular opinion seems to hold that the world is flat east of Mound), but the French-inspired American food is fantastic (helloooooo escargot) and the FOS unmatched. The cheese bubbles over and drips down the sides of the crock bowl in buttery gobs, and the Brewery nails what many places seems to overlook: proper gratinization (with bread crumbs and butter along with the melted cheese). The top is browned and bubbled with a slight crunch from the bread crumbs; don't be ashamed to pick the cheese from the sides of the bowl.

#2 Kiernan's Steak House (Dearborn)
Kiernan's has been a Detroit tradition for nearly 50 years, a small remnant of early 20th century Irish heritage in the now markedly more ethnically diverse city of Dearborn. At this point it's something of a stodgy old steakhouse--the interior is DARK, there's fringed overhanging lights, faux Tiffany shades, lots and lots of wood paneling. It's dated but it's so dated that it has that retro hip potential ... speaking of hips, you'll hope the senior sentinels guarding the bar don't throw any out, but they're a jolly drinking crowd and the staff and stool fixtures all seem to know each other quite well. Prime rib is Kiernan's specialty, but their FOS is pretty tough to beat--very rich broth, hearty bread thoroughly soaked, bubbled and crisped Swiss cheese. They also have a small but respectable selection of Michigan craft beer (peep the Soft Parade in the pic), and upstairs is the more modern Silky's Martini Bar, which has a hell of a happy hour.

Weber's Inn.
#3 Weber's Inn (Ann Arbor)
Weber's Inn is the grand dame of all the old area institutions. It's been around for 75 years now and has managed to evolve with the times enough to stay relevant and popular with each generation (the different sections of the restaurant have a combined capacity of some 500 seats, and they still fill up on weekends), but not so much that there aren't still comfortable, familiar items that haven't changed much over the years ... particularly their prime rib, which they sell more of than any other restaurant in Michigan. Inside is a mix of modern (Habitat Lounge) and rustic Bavarian (the main dining room), and they even have their own sophisticated boutique hotel attached. This place is a true destination, and the FOS meets the same high standards of quality and excellence of execution as the rest of their menu.

#4 Redcoat Tavern (Royal Oak)
True, it's a burger joint, but it's so much more than that. A very dark, very comfortable British-style pub, they serve British-style pub food like beer cheese and Scotch eggs along with their multi-award-winning burgers (voted "Best in Detroit" by various publications over 60 times). They also have a phenomenal list of European beers for proper pubbing. Their FOS is solid and served piping hot; try it with Short's Publican Porter on tap while they've still got it.

#5 Lucy's Tavern on the Hill (Grosse Pointe)
Everywhere else mentioned here has certain specialties and good French onion soup. At Lucy's Tavern on the Hill, their specialty is French onion soup. They say the broth is "labored over" daily and they serve over 20 gallons of FOS every week. Patrons come out specifically for the FOS, which is made with caramelized Spanish onions simmered in beef broth, dry sherry and herb sachet, finished with garlic crostini and a gratin of provolone cheese. At $2.95 for a cup and $3.95 for a bowl, this is probably also some of the least expensive FOS you'll find.

Bubbling under Cadieux Cafe (Detroit), The Oxford Inn (Royal Oak), Terry's Terrace (Harrison Township), Max and Erma's (various locations), The French Gourmet (Ferndale), Mr. Paul's Chop House (Roseville), The Chop House (Ann Arbor), Peabody's (Birmingham), Kickers All American Grill (Livonia), Bath City Bistro (Mt. Clemens), The Hill Seafood and Chophouse (Grosse Pointe Farms), Bogartz Sports and Music Cafe (Detroit), Merriman Street Grill (Romulus)

Kiernan's Steak House on Urbanspoon