In 2004, Mireille Guiliano wrote a runaway hit called French Women Don't Get Fat. It was a non-diet book that encouraged women to think of food as a source of pleasure, not guilt, and to eat whatever they liked -- including bread and chocolate -- but to eat it sensibly rather than wolfing it down in a miasma of deprivation and remorse. I plan to follow Mireille Guiliano's lead as I tackle French onion soup today, an incredibly fattening bowl of Frenchy goodness built on beef stock and sweet caramelized onions, topped off with bread and a gooey dome of melted Gruyere. I will eat it slowly and I will savor each morsel (which will presumably keep me from gaining two pounds over lunch) and I will decide who makes the better one -- Zinc or Sophie's.
Of course, the French do not call this soup "French onion" because that would be silly. In France, it's merely soupe à l'oignon or soupe á l'oignon gratinée. So let's get started.
In this corner: Zinc Bistro
The setup: If you love coq au vin, moules marinieres, duck rillete, hanger steak, croque monsieur and chocolate souffle, then you surely already know and love Zinc, which not only specializes in French bistro classics but also manages to make us all feel as if a little slice of Paris has been plunked down in Kierland Commons. There's the nickel-topped bar, the magazines, the cafe atmosphere and their top gun Chef Matt Carter, who was mentored by Chris Gross and put in a stint at the prestigious French Laundry.
The Good: Zinc's onion soup (simply called "onion soup gratinee") arrives in a little crock, placed on a plate with a doily. Melted under the broiler before service, the Gruyere oozes over the edge of the bowl -- always a good thing. When it comes to French onion soup, most of us think the more cheese, the better. The beef broth is ultra-rich and wonderfully aromatic, augmented with slivers of sweet onion, caramelized to a deep brown. It's not too thick, which means there's actually plenty of broth to slurp. This is fabulous soup.
The Bad: Absolutely nothing.
In the Other Corner: Sophie's Bistro
The Setup: In 2000, owner Serge Boukatch opened his adorable, wood-floored bistro in a charming converted house on Osborn near 24th Street, naming the enterprise after his daughter Sophie. As a former Parisian, Boukatch keeps the bistro menu traditional, featuring quiche, crepes, Brie en croute, coquilles St. Jacques, duck confit cassoulet, beef Bourguignon and, of course, crème brûleé.
The Good: The stock is rich, although perhaps not as rich or as deep brown as Zinc's. But I can taste the sherry, which adds a little acid, and I like it. Lots of bubbly Gruyere on top and the parsley adds color.
The Bad: Absolutely nothing.
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The Verdict: This is an unbelievably tough call. Both soups are terrific. Zinc's broth is deeper and beefier, and the quality of the Gruyere might be a tad better, but Sophie's presentation is prettier, and I love that noticeable splash of Sherry in Sophie's soup. The winner is Zinc -- by the very tip of a nose.