The croque-monsieur at Lolo & Wren, Brunswick West.
The croque-monsieur at Lolo & Wren, Brunswick West. Photo: Luis Ascui

Simone Egger

Say it in English and it's ''Mister Crunchy'', and to describe it, you'd say it's like a ham and cheese toastie. But, say it in French, and taste it, and you'd have to admit the croque-monsieur is more than a tradie's staple with a cute name. At least, it is in Melbourne cafes, whose new-classic versions are the business.

If the croque-monsieur is a toastie, it's a characteristically regal and robust one, made with bread that can handle a potential soaking of bechamel on one side and melting, nutty gruyere cheese on the other.

East Elevation's take on the classic sandwich.
East Elevation's take on the classic sandwich. Photo: Patrick Scala

Across North America there are food trucks dedicated to the croque-monsieur. It's one of the world's most iconic sandwiches, according to the Huffington Post, and its cultural influence extends from Marcel Proust, who mentions it in his seven-volume novel Remembrance of Things Past, to Miley Cyrus innocuously nodding, apparently doing the croque-monsieur, an update on her twerking moves.

According to Larousse Gastronomique, the croque-monsieur is ''a hot sandwich, made of two slices of buttered bread with the crusts removed, filled with thin slices of gruyere cheese and a slice of lean ham. The croque-monsieur is lightly browned on both sides. The top may be coated with a gruyere bechamel sauce and cooked au gratin''.

Possible variations to the staple croque-monsieur, according to Larousse, include substituting gouda for gruyere and chicken for ham, even adding a slice of tomato or pineapple - aloha. According to Melbourne chefs, the modern monsieur keeps its crusts on and it's OK to be soft, not so crunchy. It has to be rich and able to traverse both breakfast and lunch.

Bistro Gitan's take on the croque-monsieur includes smoked pork sausage.
Bistro Gitan's take on the croque-monsieur includes smoked pork sausage. Photo: Anu Kumar

Larousse credits a Parisian cafe with first serving the croque-monsieur in 1910. Popular French myth credits its invention to workers who left their sarnies on the heater all morning and liked what they found - something of a happy accident. Melbourne cafes imbue it with particular character, ranging from quietly respectful, through tastefully accessorised to cranked, with a panko crumb crunch.

Here are 10 Melbourne renditions of the croque-monsieur.

1. East Elevation

Wee Jeanie's Welsh rarebit.
Wee Jeanie's Welsh rarebit.

351 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, 03 9381 5575, eastelevation.com.au
East Elevation's croque-monsieur ($18) is a benchmark. It has a conscience: filled with free-range ham. It has a double dose of bechamel: inside with the ham and Swiss gruyere, and outside, mingling with braised leeks cloaking the croque, which takes 20 minutes to bake. It arrives handsomely served on a wooden board, with a green salad and cornichons to lighten things up. Kids, order the croque-garcon: ham and cheese toasted brioche sandwich, ($11).

2. Wee Jeanie

50 Anderson Street, Yarraville, 03 9687 7187
Though not strictly a sandwich, Wee Jeanie's open Welsh rarebit ($10.50) has all the ingredients of a croque-monsieur: sourdough toast lashed with a cheesy, mustard, Worcestershire sauce and Guinness blend, baked then blowtorched before being topped with strips of gammon ham. Sister cafe Cornershop (9 Ballarat Street) has the same dish, but on crumpets.

3. Richmond Hill Cafe & Larder

48 Bridge Road, Richmond, 03 9421 2808, rhcl.com.au
One in five people orders the croque-monsieur ($16.50) at this venerable French-influenced cafe. Their version has pan-fried crunch, filled with bechamel, ham and ''famous cheese mix'' - a secret recipe. There's a gluten-free version, too ($18.50).

4. Lolo & Wren

484 Albion Street, West Brunswick, 03 9383 3712
The croque-monsieur most likely to put hair on your chest, Lolo & Wren's rocking version ($16.50) has thick slices of organic sourdough reinforced with panko crumbs sandwiching Swiss and parmesan cheese, Italian-style ham, and cheese and chive bechamel. It comes with home-made tomato and capsicum relish. See recipe, following, to try making it at home.

5. Chez Dre

Rear 285-287 Coventry Street, South Melbourne, 03 9690 2688, chezdre.com.au
Chez Dre's croque-monsieur ($13.50) is tres traditional. A thick slice of sourdough is carefully layered with bechamel, shaved grandmother ham, emmenthal cheese, another layer of bechamel, English mustard and finally bread. It's pressed and served with pickled baby vegetables. It just takes a fried egg to make a monsieur a croque-madame ($15.50), and she's a hit at breakfast.

6. Bistro Gitan

52 Toorak Road West, South Yarra, 03 9867 5853, bistrogitan.com.au
You'll probably be drinking a pinot noir from Burgundy between bites of croque-monsieur ($14) at the Reymond family's Bistro Gitan. Here, sourdough (crusts off) holds gypsy ham, gruyere and thin slices of locally made morteau (smoked pork sausage). The madame is like no other, made with shredded blue swimmer crab, gruyere and palm heart ($16).

7. Rouge

14 Beatty Avenue, Armadale, 03 9822 3310
It's a softer monsieur at Rouge, where brioche sandwiches bechamel, emmenthal and raclette cheese, and ham off the bone ($13.50). It's baked, then draped with more bechamel, more cheese and gratinated. The croque-madame has a fried egg in the middle ($14.50).

8. Cafe Vue

430 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, 03 9691 3899, vuedemonde.com.au
Cafe Vue makes a madame using white bread baked at sister venue Burnham Bakery ($13). It's a classy little number pressed together with rare-breed, free-range ham-hock terrine, gruyere, dijon mustard, and bechamel splashed with Dirty Granny cider and Worcestershire sauce. Top that with a fried chook egg.

9. Candied Bakery

81a Hudsons Road, Spotswood, 03 9391 1335, candiedbakery.com.au
This cafe-bakery makes outrageous sweets, such as cookie-dough soft-serve and Nutella-glazed doughnuts. It also does savoury its own way. Its croque-monsieur is actually a madame, filled with egg, dijon mustard, bechamel, gruyere and Istra free-range ham. It's in a ciabatta roll, fried crisp, and is a steal at $8.

10. South of Johnston

46 Oxford Street, Collingwood, 03 9417 2741, southofjohnston.com.au
SoJo's version is imbued with all the buttery goodness that gives a monsieur its signature croque - even though it goes under the name ''ham and gruyere pan-fried'' ($9.90). It's classic: bechamel, gypsy ham, gruyere and dijon mustard.