Diner food and bistro food might originate on different continents, but at the root, they’re two sides of the same coin. They’re draped in cinematic mystique, with iconic dishes that can spur argument over the smallest variation, and they both represent comfort food to locals and visitors alike.
Where they differ, at least to the North American eye, is in sophistication. What’s a steak sandwich got on steak frites? Or chef’s salad against salade niçoise? Or a ham and cheese on rye in comparison to a croque monsieur?
In general I’d say the problem is that familiarity can breed contempt, but for the last entry on the list, the answer is béchamel. And prosciutto. And lots and lots of Emmental. I’ve had wonderful versions of the croque monsieur at restaurants, but this one might be one of my favourites and it happened in my own kitchen.
I’m not sure I needed to know how easy it is to make a croque monsieur at home, but it will come in handy the next time I want to make an impression at brunch. And David Lebovitz’ version of bechamel is worth knowing, even if it leads me to less healthful eating on a more frequent basis. It’s so easy and perfectly creamy, with just a hint of heat from cayenne in place of the usual nutmeg.
Even if I can make bistro food (or diner food for that matter) at home, there’s still a place for those restaurants in my heart. Both kinds of establishments have been put on the endangered list, but they seem to be reinventing themselves at home and abroad. That’s good news. As long as they make room for classics like the croque monsieur, reinvention is the key to longevity.