French onion is the most romantic soup of all. Where to eat it in Los Angeles

I'm the last person you should talk to for romantic advice. Notoriously single and allergic to commitment, I'm not sure I'm qualified to even categorize a restaurant as particularly romantic. But if you ask me, as I did during last week's Valentine's Day festivities, I'll tell you to plan a date night at Le Champ. And do it a few weeks after Valentine's Day. When you make the effort outside of a fake vacation, it tends to carry more weight.

Le Champ is a new French restaurant in the Arts District that is primarily an outdoor garden under twinkling lights. It's dim enough for privacy or something. The dishes sound even more appealing with the waiter's thick accent (he was Spanish, not French), and did I mention the garden and twinkling lights?

And the most romantic dish you can order is French onion soup. I'm not talking about the kind of romance one associates with chocolate-covered strawberries, champagne, and maybe oysters. The best way to show romance or show that you care is with time. And this soup requires a lot. It's also a one-bowl, two-spoon dish that's really only appropriate for sharing with someone you're already with or plan to exchange bodily fluids with.

French Onion Soup at Le Champ

French onion soup at Le Champ in the Arts District of downtown Los Angeles.

(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Justin Hilbert's version at Le Champ has an especially attractive cheese lid that hugs the bowl in all the right places and puffs out in the middle, giving it the appearance of a pie crust. Below is a half-beef, half-chicken broth made from slow-roasted beef bones and chicken legs.

“A lot of people make broth with mirepoix,” says Hilbert, referring to the trio of carrot, onion and celery that is often used as a base for broths, sauces and a variety of other dishes. “I just focus on a lot of bones.”

The broth has a notable brightness and the depth and richness of a bone broth that has been simmering for hours. Hilbert caramelizes a lot of Spanish yellow onions, adds Chardonnay and “a ton of brandy” before pouring in the broth and letting it all blend for hours with a little thyme and bay leaf. He then he adds more brandy.

He says he learned the basic recipe at a Philadelphia bistro, where they used beef broth and sherry. “The first time I made it here I used brandy because I didn't have sherry,” Hilbert says. “I had a couple of bottles of brandy and I liked it.”

The sweet and alcoholic aroma of brandy is always evident along with the fresh and floral aroma of thyme. It's a broth that stands on its own, even without the round of buttery toasted brioche and the sheet of Emmentaler cheese slathered on top.

“I'm trying to separate what we do from other French restaurants in Los Angeles, so it's not redundant,” Hilbert says.

I shared the dish with someone I didn't think twice about sharing a bowl of soup with. We broke up the wall of cheese, swirled some of the melted mass around our spoons, and then slurped it under the heat of space heaters.

Hilbert doesn't remember if the soup made it to the menu in December or January, but says he might remove it in March, once the weather warms up. “As long as it sells,” he says. “Once it's hot and people aren't asking for it anymore, it may not make sense to have it.”

I politely disagreed.

Gratin Onion Soup at Musso & Frank Grill

A bowl of gratin onion soup from Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood.

A bowl of gratin onion soup from Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood.

(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

The onion soup at this 105-year-old Hollywood steakhouse is the golden retriever companion I want if I ever get married. It's consistently good, engaging in a way I'll always appreciate, and it's there for me when I need it.

Its reliability is due in large part to executive chef JP Amateau, who has led the kitchen at Musso & Frank Grill for 14 years. He is only the third chef to hold that title.

“It's been on the menu since we opened,” Amateau says. “The original chef, Jean Rue, had it on the menu. Like most chefs, you tweak it. “I kept it in the sense of being the classic traditional French onion soup, but I went a step further.”

Brothing is a multi-day process that begins by simmering beef shank bones, chicken bones, and short ribs for hours. It is strained, cooled, reheated, and reduced several times with the addition of roasted beef neck bones, mirepoix, fresh tarragon, thyme, and garlic. The soup is finished with sweet Maui onions caramelized in butter and a little beef broth.

The beauty of Musso & Frank Grill soup is in the proportion and construction of the different components. Until about a year ago, the soup was served with a single round of bread in the middle of the bowl and some grated Gruyere on top.

Now, Amateau fills the soup with sourdough croutons and seals the bowl with a slice of Gruyere and grated Gruyere to avoid a single chunk of cheese. You end up with delicious toasted pieces of bread that maintain their crunch in the soup and cheese that you can mash into the broth for repeat cheese pulls and bites. I like to sit and pick up the chunks of crunchy Gruyere from the edge of the bowl long after I've finished the soup.

If I see some version of French onion soup on a menu, I'll keep ordering it. I don't care if it's 100 degrees outside or snowing, if I'm single, attached, or in a situation. I will always be unable to resist the deliciousness of caramelized onions and bubbly cheese. Maybe I'm a romantic after all.

Where to Find Great French Onion Soup

Le Champ, 1200 E. 5th St., Los Angeles, (213) 466-2046,

Musso & Frank Grill, 6667 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, (323) 467-7788,

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