A round of applause for Jeff Janssens, who very capably headed up the Eat This feature over the last year. And now we're happy to welcome Deanna Fox, who's next to occupy this seat at the table.
There are few times when eating soup requires the use of a knife. The French onion soup at The Ginger Man in Albany is one of those instances -- unless you plan to use your fingers to rip at the gooey cheese and broth-soaked toasts that encrust the soup.
I wouldn't blame you for throwing decorum aside and just going for it. This soup -- which is so much more than the typical French onion soup -- is worth it. But, just in case, keep the knife at the ready.
A good French onion soup (FOS) should be topped with a molten layer of cheese. A great FOS should be broiled until crackling shards of nearly-burnt dairy can be broken with the smack of a spoon's back. Once the cheese has been burrowed through, a hearty slab of baguette is all that remains before delving into a mid-layer of briny broth and a base layer of onions clinging to their final moments of life.
What I've described sums up the FOS at The Ginger Man on Western Avenue. Chef Ian O'Leary takes a ubiquitous bistro-style menu item and elevates it to its best potential.
There are a few key components to O'Leary's interpretation of the soup. First are the onions (it is onion soup, after all). O'Leary cuts each onion in half, and then slices thin semicircles around the core of the onion, instead of vertically dissecting the onion as most would. Picture the onion as Earth: Cut the onion from the North Pole to the South Pole. Lay half of the orb on its flat side, then begin to slice the onion starting at the South Pole diagonally towards the mock-Earth's core, working towards the Equator, then the North Pole. Make sense? Good -- that's what O'Leary is doing, except with fancier knifes and more deft skill than likely you or I have. The purpose here is that O'Leary's method changes the way the the onion breaks down as it's cooked. Instead of ending up as lifeless, fibrous strings, the final product is silken strands of onion that are cooked nearly to the color of molasses. The onions nestle in the bottom of the soup crock and melt in the mouth.
Next is a combination of long-cooked beef consommé and veal demi-glace to create the liquid portion of the soup. Whereas many versions of FOS rely on a basic beef stock (or even plain water), The Ginger Man's offering is especially pungent thanks to the concentrated meaty tones melded with the caramelized sweetness of the onions. (And is that a hit of a sherry or even Cognac in the broth?)
While many eateries relegate FOS to an overlooked, obligatory menu fixture, O'Leary's soup feels like a small luxury that aims to highlight what FOS should be, instead of something just to fill out a menu.
A cup of French onion soup at the Ginger Man is $3.95, while a crock costs $5.95. At this price, you get the delicious soup described above, topped with Provolone cheese. O'Leary has also created a secret sub-order for the soup, tacking on a two dollar upcharge for the use of specially crafted, six-month-old "baby" Gruyere cheese in place of the Provolone. (The Gruyere is sourced from The Cheese Traveler, on Delaware Ave, and is also used on The Ginger Man's beef short rib sliders.) It's worth the two extra bones to get the Gruyere, as it is the classic cheese option for FOS and offers an assertive, nutty taste that helps break up the rich saltiness created by the broth and onions. The Gruyere option is not listed on the menu, and you won't be asked about it, so be sure to make special mention to your server if you plan on trying it.
Eight dollars for a crock of soup might sound like a crock of something else to many, but this soup is a satisfactory midday meal, and that price is on- or below-par as compared to upscale dining options in the Capital Region. The space at the Ginger Man -- with its copper accents, wood paneling, and reference to Irish writers and poets -- is a good setting to enjoy the soup, especially on a damp early spring day, perhaps the last days of "soup season."
The restaurant itself has been a longstanding fixture in the Pine Hills neighborhood. Its romantic bistro décor and quaint outdoor seating area feels better suited to Center Square, or even a side street in downtown Saratoga Springs, than squeezed between a block's worth of college bars and apartments. Regardless of occasionally overstepping a rogue beer can on the sidewalk, The Ginger Man attracts a clientele that ranges from business people holding a lunch meeting to a group of ladies catching up over wine and fondue.
At my last visit, I enjoyed the French onion soup with a side salad and a a glass of Anchor Steam. I later realized that The Ginger Man had Nine Pin Cider on tap, the bubbly effervescence of which would have been the perfect choice to cut through the rich soup. Bread is served to each table with a side of olive oil. (The soup, side salad, and beer came to $24.41 after tax and tip.)
For more delicate palates, the soup might seem a bit on the salty side; however, for a variation of the traditional dish, I doubt one could find a better version than the Gruyere-topped FOS offered at The Ginger Man.
Deanna Fox writes about many things, mostly about food. More can be found on her website.
The Ginger Man
234 Western Avenue
Albany, NY 12203
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