Julia Child once said, “In France, cooking is a serious art form and a national sport.”
If my memory serves me correctly, no truer words have ever been spoken about French cuisine.
Every morsel I ate during my time there was more memorable than the last; each meal competing with the others to become the best thing I’d ever eaten. There was the crouqe-monsieur I ate while we visited Mont Saint-Michel and the rosewater ice cream I tried in Nice. I had the best pizza of my life in a town called Bayeux and tried goat cheese for the first time in Amboise.
Since that trip, I have found one restaurant that could satisfy my yearning for French confections. La Bonne Bouchee in Creve Coeur, MO knows how to make a Parisian pastry better than anywhere in the Saint Louis area. Every desert is delicately made and the artistry put into each piece almost makes it too hard to eat (almost). The macaroons are so good their maddening and the taste of their chocolate mousse cake is quite literally my happy place. Yet, I still wanted more. The cafe attached to La Bonne Bouchee’s bakery is wonderful, but their savory dishes don’t transport me to France as easily as their baked goods do.
I have tried to recreate some of the dishes we ate while traveling through France in my own kitchen. Crêpes suzette, pain au chocolat, salad niçoise and baguettes, just to name a few, but nothing seemed to come close to what I remembered.
Fast forward to a few weeks back, when a college friend asked if we could grab lunch. She was heading back to her final semester of grad school in a few days and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. She’s from just outside of Saint Louis in Webster Groves, MO while I’m from the Saint Charles area, so, more times than not, we try to split the distance by finding the most central Panera. It’s a quick meal, and since Saint Louis is Panera’s birth place (They call it Saint Louis Bread Co. out here) there’s usually one at every highway exit.
But, as fate has it, my day job is located in Ballwin, MO, a town much closer to the city–and Webster Groves. This also meant our central meeting point was Kirkwood, MO, a charming Saint Louis suburb with a lot of great options for lunch.
We went back and forth for a while about potential restaurants when my friend mentioned Café Provancel. She is a fellow French food lover, having spent a semester there her sophomore year, and said it was the best French food she had found in the Saint Louis area. I agreed, we picked a time, and our lunch was set.
I wasn’t expecting Café Provancel to be in a strip mall. Mentally I was prepared for a small stand-alone cafe with rod-iron patio furniture. I even imagined it would be near the Kirkwood train station for some odd reason, but the green and white striped awning was satisfactory enough, and it did have rod-iron furniture on its small outdoor patio.
I glanced over the menu online before going inside, wanting to be completely prepared for the meal I was about to thoroughly enjoy. Café Provancel had all of the classics from French Onion soup to Quiche of the Day. My heart, however, was set on the croque-madame.
Croque-madames are a slight variation of the croque-monsieur. Both are over-indulgent ham and cheese sandwiches with dijon mustard that are often baked or fried and topped with béchamel sauce. The slight difference between the madame and the monsieur is the fried egg placed on top of a croque-madame. My mind went straight back to Mont Saint-Michel just thinking about the sandwich. I thought I was set.
It’s all thanks to our waiter that I didn’t start at the croque-madame. He just had to go and tell me about the soup of the day. Now, this soup is going to sound strange, but I’ve often found that when a French dish sounds odd, it’s usually innovative and delicious. Case and point: while in Northern France, just outside of Normandy, we were served a salad topped with thick slices of cantaloupe. I had never had cantaloupe on a dinner salad before, but the sweetness of the fruit with the vinaigrette and peppery greens was one of the most memorable salads I have ever eaten. So bear with me when I tell you the soup of the day was a chilled cucumber bisque. Yep –cold cucumber soup–but my God, was it great.
The velvety texture of the bisque was paired with a vivacious acidity that I think had to be lemon. There was a hint of herb-iness incorporated into it as well (my guess is thyme or herb de provence). Garnished with diced red onion and chopped parsley, it was a perfectly refreshing intro to the rich sandwich and fries I was getting for the main portion of my meal.
The reason French cooking is regarded as one of the best cuisines in the world has everything to do with the way they can balance and layer flavors. Sour, sweet, salty– the French know how to work and manipulate ingredients. They understand restraint, but also know when to push the limits. It turns each dish into its own symphony.
Everything about that meal was so French. Even the fries, or pommes frites, were as thin as I remembered. The only Americanized aspect of the dish was probably the amount of ham shoved onto my corque-madame. Take away half of the meat, and that sandwich would have been perfect.
Without even realizing it, my everyday lunch out with my college friend turned into a cultural adventure filled with reminiscent moments and storytelling from both of us. Food is one of the easiest ways to travel the world without leaving your home. Food can create some of the greatest memories and nothing brings people closer than sharing a meal with each other (why do you think we eat so much around the holidays?).
Food is one of the few things that everyone can relate to and one of the easiest ways to show someone where you come from. My first post even proves it. So, if there’s a place you want to go visit but you just don’t have the time or money, go to your local library and rent a cookbook featuring recipes for that country. Transport yourself in your own kitchen by trying to make sushi from Japan or shortbread from Scotland. Another fun option I’ve personally been eyeing is Try the World, a food box subscription that features a different country’s culture and cuisine each month.
If you aren’t interested in cooking the food yourself, find restaurants near you that serve food from countries you hope to explore. There are also a lot of great festivals in the summer and fall that can open your eyes to other worlds. Two are happening right here in Saint Louis this weekend and next, so if you’re in the Saint Louis area go check out the Festival of Nations (August 26-27) or the Annual Saint Louis Greek Festival (September 1-4), which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The opportunities are endless, so stop sitting around and hoping to go somewhere new. Go out into the world and find your own adventure.