Croque Monsieur, France
At its most basic, you could describe this is a toasted ham and cheese sandwich – though that's like calling pizza "flatbread with cheese", or saying tikka masala is chicken stew. It's technically correct, but misses all of the delicious nuance. Because France's famous croque monsieur is not just a ham-and-cheese sanger, but a creation that has a claim to being the world's greatest sandwich: two slices of white bread, filled with layers of leg ham and gruyere or Emmental cheese, plus a little Dijon mustard, toasted until crisp and gooey, then topped with the crowning, definitive glory of bechamel sauce and more grated cheese, and whacked under a grill.
As with many legendary dishes, there are various apocryphal stories of croque monsieur's origin. What is known is that the sandwich was first mentioned in print in Proust's In Search of Lost Time, in 1918, though croque monsieurs were being served in Parisian cafes as early as 1910. The name comes from the French word "croquer", meaning "to bite". There are tales of French workers leaving their lunches too close to a hot radiator, as well a Parisian brasserie that ran out of baguettes and used American-style sandwich bread, along with the meat on hand: "C'est la viande de monsieur," the restaurateur allegedly said. Or in other words, "it's that guy's meat", gesturing to a local butcher. And croque monsieur was born.
You will have no trouble finding a good croque monsieur in Paris, though one of the city's best is surely being served at Le Petit Cler (29 Rue Cler, Paris), a classic cafe in the 7th arrondissement.
In Sydney, order the whopping croque monsieur at Lane Cove's cafe Birdwood (birdwoodcafe.com), and stay tuned for a seriously good version at soon-to-be-opened French eatery Manon Brasserie. In Melbourne, the croque monsieur at Lolo & Wren (loloandwren.com.au) in Brunswick West is excellent.
ONE MORE THING
There is a famous variation of the croque monsieur that is even better than the original: the croque madame, the same sandwich topped with a fried egg with a white that's just set and a yolk gooey enough to blend into the whole creamy, bechamel-and-melted-cheese magnificence.