100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 4, XI Madame at Eleven XI
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.
Photo by Troy Fields Carefully extract the knife or risk the whole tower tumbling down.
Its alternate name on the menu is "7 Layers of Heaven." When I first read that, I thought it was pretty confident. Maybe overly confident. Like, maybe the chef is setting himself up for diners to be disappointed by declaring outright that something on his menu is "heavenly."
Then I bit into it, and I had to wonder if there's a word for something that is better than heavenly.
Chef Kevin Bryant at Eleven XI created the dish after one of his coworkers suggested he put a croque madame--a traditional French café or bar snack of a grilled ham and cheese sandwich with a fried egg on top--on the brunch menu. Not willing to settle for something ordinary, Bryant set about layering the best cured meat he could find with toast and cheese in the form of béchamel sauce. And "7 Layers of Heaven" was born.
The first layer is a thin slice of buttered and toasted challah, simple and slightly sweet. Atop that, the meat begins piling up--Prosciutto de Parma, speck, sopressata and smoked duck breast. In between, more challah, I believe seven slices in all (that would make sense, right?), though it's difficult to tell under the thick layer of creamy Manchego béchamel sauce and a tremulous fried egg perched on top, spilling over the edges of the bread until it, too, is almost drizzling down the sides.
To keep the whole thing together, a big steak knife is skewered through the middle. When it's brought to the table, you can see diners first gasp in awe and then lean forward a bit, examining the nearly 6-inch tall stack, trying to figure out how best to begin eating it.
On my first try, I carefully cut off one corner of the mound, scooping up all seven layers of bread, meat, sauce and frothy egg white on my fork, then quickly funneling it into my mouth. The individual flavors remained intact, proving the whole to be much greater than the sum of the already-enticing cured meats, warm bread and melted cheese.
It's funky in the way that aged sheep's-milk cheese tastes slightly of dank earth, but with the bright piquancy of prosciutto. The toasted challah is reminiscent of the simple, buttered grilled-cheese sandwiches of my youth, while the duck breast and fried egg add a luxurious richness not often associated with melted ham and cheese. After all, this is still a glorified bar snack, right?
In name, sure. But this variation on a croque madame puts all other croque madames to shame. I'm now disenchanted by a simple sandwich of ham and melted cheese, even with a gooey fried egg on top. I've seen heaven. Anything less just doesn't measure up.
See the full list of favorites on the next page.