Café Levain's onion soup is number 34 on our 100 Favorite Dishes list. But is it the only place in town with strong soup game? We don't live in some competition-mad, Talladega Nights-style dystopia where "if you ain't first, you're last." (At least not when it comes to food, anyway.) But a search for the silver medal soup is not without peril. There are restaurants -- even French restaurants -- foisting inauthentic mugs of cheesy-salty brown brine on unsuspecting customers. Don't give those dishes a moment of your time. Instead, stay on the watch for those telltale signs of real French onion soup: nutty gruyere, rich broth, mellow onions, and a meaty crouton.
The Venue: Cave Vin shares the same building as the extraordinarily popular Pizzeria Lola on Xerxes Avenue in south Minneapolis. With its warm, autumnal feel, intimate banquettes for two, and longer tables for larger parties, Cave Vin is a great place for either a hard-to-impress date or a light evening meal that suddenly feels like a special occasion. Located in downtown St. Paul, Meritage always feels like springtime. Its high ceilings, huge windows, and rich wood paneling remind everyone who enters of a Left Bank restaurant far, far away.
The Weigh-in: Cave Vin is a more intimate, relaxed space that encourages you to dig into some excellent roast chicken and garlic frites with your hands before hastily wiping them off and enjoying a fine glass of wine. Meritage is more formal and middle-aged (and upper-middle class) but it's no less friendly or welcoming. As the bigger name of the two, it enters the Onion Soup Octagon as the favorite.
Round 1: The cheese It's tough to take your spoon out of a hot bowl of French onion soup without subsequently fumbling with several long strands of cheese wrapping themselves around your silverware like dairy-based tentacles. Somehow Cave Vin has found the secret of non-stringy cheese. It's easy to bite through yet loose enough to let the steam escape so the broth doesn't burn. This cheese is only missing one thing -- the crusty bits that cling to the crock. Meritage's cheese does have the crusty bits that peel off the crock, but unfortunately it's still pretty stringy. This round goes to Cave Vin.
Round 2: The broth The broth in a great bowl of French onion soup should be beefy and a bit boozy, yet rich with herbs and vegetables. It's a difficult task, and man, is it gross when it's done poorly; bad onion soup is like eating a melted-down piece of heavily-salted asphalt. Cave Vin's broth is satisfying, but not rich enough for our taste. Meritage has an even blend of all the aforementioned flavors and a richness that made us want to lick the bowl clean.
Round 3: Bits and pieces Onions and crouton (and baguettes) are the tasty bits that make or break this soup. Both places serve soup loaded with stringy onions cooked to translucency. Both places feature croutons that have been soaked into the beefy goodness. While Meritage's servers will fill you so full of bread that you feel like you're the foolish child in a Grimm's fairy tale, Cave Vin charges you a bit extra for its refillable bread bowl. All things considered, though, the two dishes cost about the same.
The winner is... Meritage. This St. Paul darling has the stronger bowl, but Cave Vin is not far behind it. As we all wait for the snow to melt and for spring to arrive, enjoying a bowl of French onion soup in the bright, sunny space of Meritage is a great way to pass the time.