The first soup of the year: where to get the best French onion soup

Rumor has it that the French version of onion soup was originally created by King Louis XV. In his hunting lodge with champagne, onions and butter, he is said to have created the soup to satisfy a midnight craving.

The midnight craving tradition has changed little over the years, and it is now a quirky custom in France to recover from a New Year’s eve of heavy partying with a 4am bowl of onion soup. (A possible hangover remedy? Worth a try!)

While there’s no guarantee these Cairean restaurants will be open this New Year’s at 4am (in fact, I doubt they will be) if you, like I, need a dose of this delectable appetizer every once in a while, the following are my findings in my quest for… The best French onion soup in Cairo!

Bottom of the list: Tabasco Zamalek
Despite a menu that offers a palatable pizza and some interesting fillets with mustard and pepper sauce, Tabasco needs to either toss out its onion soup or give the recipe a severe overhaul. "The soup is watery and tasteless," claimed one taster. "It’s luke warm and lacking in cheese," piped another. Definitely the worst onion soup we tried. One might say it is unreasonable to expect a tasty onion soup from a restaurant that doesn’t specialize in French food, but we thought we’d let you know all the same.

Misplaced and misrepresented: Trattoria
Trattoria’s onion soup may be ENORMOUS, but the quantity does not make up for the severe lack of quality. "Creamy and stocky," was the complaint by two of the four tasters at the table. This soup is dwarfed by Trattoria’s home-made, authentic Italian dishes, some of which are actually quite scrumptious. And since onion soup is also not an Italian dish, we think that maybe they should look into replacing the soup with something they know how to do a little better!

Cream with Onion?: La Rosa
La Rosa also has an authentic, personalized feel – it’s a little-known restaurant in Maadi and Katameya where you can bring your own wine and order tasty pizzas with toppings like spinach, arugula and artichokes. Your meal begins with some of their super sinful garlic pizza bread, but if you plan to dip it in your Cream of Onion soup, think again!  The soup lacks that onion-y taste and is, once again, too creamy, stock-tasting and unusually large.

Getting Closer: Cafe Mo
Although the soup is not presented in a ramekin and may not overflow with cheese, Cafe Mo’s French onion soup is a welcome surprise! Deliciously enticing, the arrival of the soup at the table was enough to make us all abandon the hot fresh rolls with tomato and olive tapenade and dive into the onion-y goodness. The bowl was laden with what one taster could only describe as "luscious melty cheese and steaming hot caramelized onions," warming us up without killing our appetites for the rest of our meal. 

Cairo’s best onion soup: La Bodega
Unsurprisingly, La Bodega’s onion soup was about as "French Gratinée" as was possible. Broiled to perfection in what we suspect was a ramekin made specifically for onion soup, the La Bodega bowl was absolutely mouth watering. "You know you like your soup if you are willing to burn your mouth repeatedly because you can’t wait for it to cool," explained one taster, while another blew repeatedly at his spoon in order to avoid another tongue scorching. Although some of La Bodega’s simplest dishes may fall short of your expectations (the Arrabiata, for instance, or the crème brûlée) a steaming bowl of onion soup and a thick steak with Maître d’Hôtel butter might likely be one of Cairo’s best winter meals.

Want to make your own? With a few tweaks and some careful practice, you too can make a fantastic onion soup and experience the French tradition of eating French onion soup after your New Year’s celebrations. Here is one recipe, for 4.

French Onion Soup:

1/4 cup of butter at room temperature
3 large yellow onions – sliced to your liking – traditionally, they’re thinly sliced rings, but if you want your eating experience to be less messy you can chop the rings into four to better fit them on your spoon
A pinch of salt
1 cup champagne (or dry white wine)
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
5 1/4 cups of water
3 small cubes of beef stock
1 cup shredded Gruyere cheese
1 tsp dried thyme
4 slices toasted French bread, broken into little pieces
1 stove top cover for simmering
4 oven-proof ramekins

1. Melt butter over medium heat and, when frothy, toss in the sliced onions.
2. Caramelize onions – cook them in butter, stirring constantly for 20 minutes… do not burn!
3. Add champagne or wine to de-glaze the pan and stir gently.
4. In the meantime, mix beef stock into water in a large, heavy-based pot.
5. Add the onion and champagne mixture to the pot, and put in the Worcestershire sauce and thyme.
6. Cover the pot and place it on one of those stove top covers for simmering, leave on low a flame to simmer for 4 hours.
7. At the end of the 4 hours, light your stove’s broiler.
8. Pour the soup into the 4 ramekins and top with toast and cheese.
9. Place in the oven and bake until the cheese is melted.
10. Enjoy!

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