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Soupe du Jour



Soupe a l’Oignonat Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro.

What can be said about French onion soup that hasn’t been said before? Well, lots. Especially since versions of this great dish have been around since the ancient Romans, so there is always more to add to the story. The soup started humbly, because onions were easy to grow and subsequently plentiful in the good old days.

The 18th century French elevated this once-lowly broth to a marvel topped with cheese and served with croutons. Traditionally, a beef stock is used, but chicken stock makes a great alternative, resulting in a lighter colored version.

Today’s best chefs add a pinch of herbs, garlic and other condiments for their own special twist on this familiar tale.

But why keep talking, let’s sup.

Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro
3133 E. Newberry Blvd., Milwaukee
(414) 962-6300

Look under Les Soupes selections on the Bistro menu to find "Soupe a l’Oignon," the restaurant’s signature baked onion soup, topped with a toasted baguette and melted Gruyère cheese. Prep for the soup is time-consuming, made in 15-to-20-gallon batches. The process of caramelizing Spanish yellow onions takes for three to four hours. A house-made chicken stock is augmented with thyme and bay leaf for subtle flavoring. Among its most popular dishes, the restaurant serves upwards of 3 to 4 gallons daily. The soup makes a perfect opener for a dinner overlooking the wintery Lake Michigan.

Chez Jacques
1022 S. 1st St., Milwaukee
(414) 672-1040

The irrepressible Jacques Chaumet hails from Le Puy, a south-central French city famous for its shrines, green lentils, Verveine herbal liqueur and lace-making. Chaumet arrives early each morning, even before his staff, to quietly make his secretive soup concoction, one that brings in diners from throughout the area. Croutons are made from fresh baked French bread drizzled with olive oil, flavored with pepper, salt, garlic and the ever-glorious "Herbes de Provence" and then toasted. To locate Jacques, seek out the signage with the French national symbol, the rooster, in the shadow of the Allen-Bradley clock tower. Sensationnel!

Coquette Cafe
316 N. Milwaukee St., Milwaukee
(414) 291-2655

Four things are de rigueur when making exceptional French onion soup, according to cafe chef-owners Chris Hatleli and Nick Burki: utilize a sharp knife, take time for proper onion caramelization, create a rich homemade chicken stock, and go naughty with Swiss-imported Gruyère by adding two 1/8-inch slices of the cheese per serving. Pastry chef Hector Reyes performs double duty as head onion slicer, using an initial 300 pounds of onions in a caramelization process that extends at least two-and-a-half hours, to get the final 50 pounds of flavorful product. Coquette’s team prepares some 20 gallons of soup at a time, enough for three days’ supply. A special twist is adding sherry and white wine to the soup. Croutons are made in-house from scratch.

Jerry’s Old Town Inn
W15841 Main St., Germantown
(262) 251-4455

Owners Kerry and Teri Turner enjoy bragging about what they rightly can call their "world famous" baked French onion soup. They have an undisclosed formula for improving on the traditional way of doing things. But the result is great enough to draw raves from dinner guests from as far away as Paris and New York. After purchasing the restaurant seven years ago from previous owner Gerald Grosenick, who had opened the comfortable suburban getaway in 1978, the couple adapted and tweaked his original recipe. Today, executive chef Mike Genre makes the soup fresh daily, which is served in 10-ounce crocks.

Le Reve Patisserie & Cafe
7610 Harwood Ave., Wauwatosa
(414) 778-3333

Soupe à L’Oignon Gratinée is a specialty of the house. Chef Andrew Schneider prepares 12- to 15-gallon batches at a time, which lasts only a mere two days at the cheerful, airy Wauwatosa cafe. He makes his own beef stock, which he says "is 40 percent of the battle" in the preparation, and uses superior quality Gruyère cheese from Saxon Homestead Creamery in Cleveland, Wis.; top-grade Spanish onions; and a "little smidge" of sherry. Accompanying sourdough croutons are made from French baguettes.

Pastiche Bistro & Wine Bar
3001 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., Milwaukee
(414) 482-1446

Chef Michael Engel knows his onion soup. It’s one of his favorites. Engel used to add a small amount of roux to give body to his soup, but with gluten-intolerant diners these days, he now uses tomato paste that is caramelized along with the onions, adding a richness to the soup that he couldn’t get with roux. He seasons the stock with all the usual suspects; thyme, bay leaf, peppercorns, a few cloves and a pinch of marjoram. Engel also likes to little caraway seed for the flavor when it is combined with Gruyere cheese and the crouton. He puts two slices of Gruyere crosswise across the top of the crock and crouton, then a small handful of shredded cheese on top of that. It’s then browned under a high heat broiler and sprinkled with shaved chives prior to serving.

Trocadero, Milwaukee’s Grand Cafe
1758 N. Water St., Milwaukee
(414) 272-0205

Milwaukee-born chef Lucas Wenthur learned his French onion soup techniques while studying at Le Cordon Bleu and training as a master chef at the fabled La Rouche Le Roy. The Michelin star-rated chateau restaurant is a prime dining locale in Tours, south of Paris. In a three-step process, Wenthur caramelizes yellow Spanish onions to bring out the flavor and tops his presentation with fresh Wisconsin Gruyère cheese. This is not ordinarily on the regular menu, but is a soup of the day, so call ahead to be sure it is being served.

The Union House
W31320 Highway 83, Genesee Depot
(262) 968-4281

The Union House is famous for its Sweet Spanish Onion Soup, served "three-topped," which means not just one, not just two, but with three cheeses. Chef John Mollet includes 1/4-inch thick slices of Swiss or Gruyère cheese carefully cut so they seal the dish. The preparation is then topped with shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack for extra deliciousness. Hearty servings arrive tableside in a 12-ounce crock or a 6-ounce cup. For value-added, freshly grated Parmesan cheese layers the accompanying croutons.