I don't pretend to be a culinary expert, but I know a few things about French onion soup--Soupe à l'Oignon Gratinée. I've made it for years from Julia Childs's recipe, beginning with a ton of onions which cook down and caramelize into a little brown blob which produces a very fine flavored soup. The only place to order onion soup is in a good French restaurant, where you know it will be served hot from the oven with a large crouton and bubbling cheese melted on top.
What better way to start lunch on a chilly December day at Angèle? Located in Napa's riverfront area among the newest shops and some of our most prestigious dining establishments, Angèle is like a short visit to France--several brands of pastis behind the bar, French titles on the menu, and French music in the background. Despite the chill of the day, it is warm enough in the sun that some diners are having lunch outside. I sigh to see another empty counter but pull up a stool. Even at the bar diners get a cloth placemat and napkin. Memories of previous visits whet my appetite--I had a great birthday party here a couple of years ago in their private room. The wine list entices, but today I am saving my alcohol consumption for an evening party, so choose water for my beverage.
Even the french bread at Angèle is excellent. It's an Acme bread made to their specifications with lots of crunchy crust. The soup arrives in an individual tureen hot from the oven, the rim overflowing with browned cheese. Just delicious. Although the broth has salt, the combination of onions and cheese lends an earthy sweetness. A spoon of the broth-soaked crouton dripping with cheese makes my mouth happy.
Onion soup is very filling but the occasion calls for something more, if not a full entrée. I decide on the Salade Lyonnaise, which is on the appetizer menu, but is large enough to be a main course. Frisèe covers a bed of warm De Puy lentils and carrots in a vinaigrette with lardons, another French staple--Julia recommended them for many of her dishes. In America we would just use crisped bacon for flavoring, but the French use salt pork. You buy a slab of what is mostly fat with a thin strip of meaty rind. You cut it into pieces the size of a short french fry and sauté them to render out some of the fat. Then they go into your dish to add a chewy bit of flavor. The lardons in my salad are meaty and accent the dish with their familiar smoky taste.
The intrigue of this salad is the "crispy farm egg." The bartender explains the eggs are cooked in the shell sous-vide until they have the perfect runny yolk and firm white. Then they are peeled, coated in panko and deep fried quickly until brown and crisp. I easily cut the warm egg with my fork and the yolk runs onto the greens, a perfect complement. I could eat a lot of eggs served this way!
A couple enters and sits at the end of the bar for drinks. I think about asking if they are visitors or locals, but they're engrossed in their own conversation. I manage only a smile in their direction. No social encounters today--it's a good thing the food is so wonderful.
In the past some of my post-lunch-encounter feelings of bliss could be accounted for by the wine consumed with those meals, but today I have had no wine and am still feeling pretty wonderful at the end of my meal. I walk around the area, looking into the shops I haven't seen before, grateful to live so close to such bounty and for my mini trip to France thanks to Angèle.