Despite the fact that it’s been years since we’ve been there and it’s been well over a year since it closed, every once in a while I still get a craving to go to Pastis. In spite of all of the irritations about the place–the crowds, the rather ridiculous prices, the cramped banquettes and tiny tables–every visit there would still be a pretty fantastic food experience, and I’ve even taken their lead on a few dishes and incorporated them into our normal recipe rotation.
Plus, it was arguably the prettiest of Keith McNally’s very pretty restaurant empire: lots of dark wood and penny subway tile, but not as dark as Balthazar nor as intentionally run-down as Lucky Strike. (I have yet to visit his newer places so I can’t speak to them, but I imagine they are also very, very pretty but probably not as aesthetically pleasing to me as Pastis.) While it helped that there always seemed to be a preponderance of European tourists eating there at all times of the day, you really did feel like you were being swept into a bustling bistro in a hip Parisian neighborhood and the only thing missing was being able to light up a cigarette or two while you lingered over French 75s and omelettes.
This is not the first time I’ve felt this craving: a while ago now I was searching the internet for any recipes from Pastis, and lo and behold Williams Sonoma had posted a few that came directly from the restaurant itself. The link has since been removed, but thanks to the powers of the Internet Wayback Machine I was at least able to find the recipe I had bookmarked ages ago to make one time when Michael was traveling, and so when he flew to Kansas City a few weeks ago I felt that there was no time like the present to finally give their croque monsieur the old college try.
There really isn’t much to this dish: it’s bread and cheese and ham and a béchamel sauce, but the sum far exceeds its components. The original recipe calls for slices of country bread, but that only works if you’re cooking for a crowd; personally, part of a nice baguette does very nicely if you’re cooking for one or two and you can always turn any leftover bread into homemade breadcrumbs.
What really drove me to finally make this was to get another shot at making a béchamel sauce. The last time I made one was in New York for the canelons de festa during another sabor de soledad, and at the time the first attempt did not come out well. I’ve been able to get quite a lot of cooking experience under my belt since then, of course, but not so much in the realm of creamy sauce-making, so I felt it was a 50-50 shot that this sauce would come out well on the first attempt.
Maybe it was because the recipe was better, or that I paid more attention this time around because I didn’t have a million other components to make, but holy hell, this béchamel was fantastic. It took a ton of willpower not to stand there and drink it out of the saucepan, but I definitely helped myself to several spoonfuls to make sure it passed muster while cooking. The other thing I think that really helped was the usage of freshly grated nutmeg–we picked some up while we were down the shore over the summer at this cute little spice shop off the boardwalk in Rehoboth, and you really can smell and taste the difference between that and the ground stuff.
Served with a simple arugula salad I first had at Pastis years ago now, this makes for a very simple, very elegant little dinner for one along with a nice glass of white wine. No, you’re not in New York and there isn’t an extremely attractive waiter bringing you your food, but it still goes a long way to brighten up a dreary and dark late autumn or winter evening.
Open-Face Croque Monsieur
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma from Pastis
For the béchamel:
1.5 T unsalted butter
3 T all-purpose flour
1 cup hot milk
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg
For the sandwich:
1/4 baguette, sliced in half (for a more stable base, slice part of the top of the bread to create a flat resting surface).
4 oz prosciutto or ham of your choice
4 oz grated Gruyère cheese
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and install a rack in the lower third of the oven.
For the béchamel, melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Whisk in the flour and cook until there is a nice nutty fragrance, about one minute or so. Slowly add the milk (a quick turn in the microwave did a good job of heating this up for me) and whisk, whisk, whisk until the mixture is lump-free. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, increase the heat to medium and then simmer for about five minutes until the sauce has reduced and becomes very rich and creamy, stirring occassionally. When it’s to your desired consistency, reduce the heat to low to keep warm while you assemble the rest of the sandwich.
Line a baking sheet with foil, and place a cooling rack on top and then place your bread halves on the rack. Add the ham, then spoon on a couple of tablespoons of the sauce on each half, and then cover each half with the cheese. Carefully place this in the oven and bake for about 12-15 minutes, or until the cheese melts and is bubbly. Serve with salad immediately.