Good-tasting food has a funny way of staying alive in memory. In your mind’s palate, you start with the flavor, and then fill in the time, surroundings and state of mind.
And so I have a memory of what seemed to be the ideal croque monsieur. This French quick lunch staple is essentially a ham and cheese sandwich that has been slicked with white sauce (béchamel) and lightly broiled or baked. The world is full of lousy ones, as well as a few good ones that turn up in surprising places.
The good one I remember so fondly came on a thick, burning-hot earthenware plate. It was an ugly thing, flat and spotty, the edges of its pain de mie (soft white bread, like our sandwich bread) curled from the heat and tinged with spots of glazed white sauce. A dark ring of near-black sauce surrounded the sandwich. A few sad parsley bits were there for false cheer.
It was a weird mix of crisped crust, lava goo, funky molten cheese, sweet shaved ham. Every bite was rich, different, dangerously hot.
Where was I? France, but where in France I couldn’t tell you. It was when I was there 25 years ago as an exchange student. I was traveling in some provincial town, where I arrived late one afternoon, starving, and all the restaurants were closed save this one café. The man there said the kitchen was closed, but he could offer me a croque monsieur, take it or leave it. It was kismet.
I’ve spent far too much of my life looking for this croque monsieur and never finding it, my own weird ham-and-cheese odyssey.
I did not find it yet again at Anis Café & Bistro, the popular and charmingly ramshackle little French joint on a side street in Buckhead. As you can see from this particularly poorly lit picture, Anis serves the more-is-more version ($10) popular in America. It is springy, corpulent, piled high with Black Forest ham. The glossy gruyère cheese seems little different from Swiss sandwich cheese. Indeed, it is fairly easy to peel off, slice by holey slice.
This is an OK sandwich, and to some people it might be a praiseworthy croque monsieur, but I’ll keep looking.
My dining companion, the lovely Peach Buzzer Jennifer Brett, chose the more satisfying lunch entree, this homemade ratatouille ravoili ($12), served with fava beans and capers in a nice, bright tomato sauce. Anis is best when it primps.
But it does seem a little more attention to detail would benefit this kitchen. The salade maison ($6) featured straight-from-the-bag mesclun mix with lots of algae-like wilted bits.
But the service is excellent, and the meandering setting with its Citroën Deux Chevaux parked out front, delightful patio and bright main dining room is always a pleasure. In a city with few French restaurants of note, it’s nice to have one that at least helps me remember a way in which French food once spoke to me a long time ago.