Maybe the battle over the thermostat in our too-cold-for-me house has addled my brain, but I have been pondering the beauty of French onion soup lately. Is it the best soup ever? Could it possibly be the most perfect dish when the weather turns chilly? When done well, the simple bowl of peasant food can be as transcendent as anything you put in your mouth.
Maybe I’m overselling onion soup. Or maybe a rhapsodic essay on its loveliness is long overdue. Either way, Vincent’s in Escondido (113 W. Grand Ave.) ladles out one of the best bowls of l’oignon I’ve had in possibly ever.
Vincent’s is a classy joint in a town not particularly famous for elegance and style. This quiet little outpost of French cuisine with a California attitude has been filling bellies for more than 16 years. Executive chef and restaurant namesake Vincent Grumel has put his fingerprints all over the Gallic side of San Diego restaurants for decades, including stints at Mon Ami in Solana Beach and Bertrand’s in Leucadia. He’s no amateur at turning out excellent food that’s totally sophisticated yet joyfully lacking in pretense.
The menu abounds with classic flavors, from duck confit to steak au poivre. Duck country pâté stands in for the now-outlawed goose liver. If you’re visiting at lunchtime, you can’t go wrong with the selection of “tartines,” open-faced sandwiches piled with savory flavors. The peppered and crusted roast-beef tartine is particularly delectable, with powerful flavors that make no apology for punching up your lunch plate. Pickled Swiss chard adds a unique and surprising garden tang to the hard-working beef. Combined with a swipe of horseradish cream sauce and crunchy, toothsome, multigrain bread, the sandwich has a confident balance of heat and zing to make the back of your mouth shiver just a bit.
But, oh, the soup. Please, can we get back to the soup? This is no sad little ramekin of broth with a disintegrating crouton floating tepidly at the surface. The hefty serving arrives dramatically, spilling over the lip of the large, footed terrine. Hot, bubbling gruyere and parmesan messily coat the side of the bowl with toasty patches spotting the top where the cheese has begun to caramelize. Work your way through the stretchy, gooey goodness and you’ll find a rich, chestnut-colored broth with a depth of flavor that only comes from a long and patient simmer. The onions are sweet and tender, and the croutons baked just below the layer of cheese hold up on their own, giving a creaminess to each bite without ever making the word “soggy” enter your brain. This is what salad croutons aspire to be.
Contrary to what the clear blue sky and bright sun out my window is saying, this is soup weather. Yes, Vincent’s is a lovely place to go to imagine you’re tucked in a rustic eatery in the French countryside. But this year, you should also resolve to mindfully meditate on the simpler things. Slurp.
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