100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 4, XI Madame at Eleven XI
Carefully extract the knife or risk the whole tower tumbling down.
Photo by Troy Fields
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.
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.
The list so far: No. 5: Brisket at Killen's BBQ No. 6: Aji de Gallina at Latin Bites No. 7: Chilorio at Pico's Mex-Mex No. 8: Pickled Butternut Squash Salad at Coltivare No. 9: Uni Chawanmushi at Kata Robata No. 10: Seafood Gumbo at Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen No. 11: Grilled Fish Masala at Himalaya Restaurant No. 12: Curry Noodle Soup at Mamak Malaysian Restaurant No. 13: Foie Gras au Torchon at Étoile Cuisine et Bar No. 14: Caramelized Pork Spare Ribs at Cafe TH No. 15: Kobe Beef at Nara No. 16: Okra With Crème Fraîche at Oxheart No. 17: Alba White Truffle Soufflé at Tony's No. 18: Phat Ass Ham Hock at Goro & Gun No. 19: Dahi Puri at Shri Balaji Bhavan No. 20: Fried Catfish and Cajun Crawfish at The Cajun Stop No. 21: Foie Gras Crème Caramel at Just Dinner No. 22: Roasted Pear Salad at Backstreet Cafe No. 23: Fluffernutters at Fluff Bake Bar No. 24: Som Tam at Vieng Thai No. 25: Chips and Queso at Fusion Taco No. 26: Spicy Miso Ramen at Soma Sushi No. 27: Kim Cheese Fries at Coreanos No. 28: Fried Cauliflower at Roost No. 29: Caesar Wedge Salad at Provisions No. 30: Ice Cream in a Waffle Cone at Fat Cat Creamery No. 31: Cochito con Mole Xico at Hugo's No. 32: Carnitas at Molina's Cantina No. 33: Taleggio Pizza at Dolce Vita No. 34: Chiles de Padron Asados at Caracol No. 35: Morning Thali at Pondicheri No. 36: Fried Mini Fish at House of Bowls No. 37: Trompo Tacos at Taqueria La Macro No. 38: Spicy Tamale Plate at La Mexicana No. 39: Mum's Chicken Curry At The Queen Vic Pub No. 40: Canestri alla Funghi at Paulie's No. 41: Biscuit with Marmalade and Crème Fraîche at Blacksmith No. 42: Fried Oyster Po'Boy at Goode Company Seafood No. 43: Roasted Duck Red Curry at Morningside Thai No. 44: BBQ Pulled Wild Boar Sandwich at Sammy's Wild Game Grill No. 45: Guanciale Burger at Plonk No. 46: Parma 600 Pizza at Pizzeria Solario No. 47: CFC Deviled Eggs at Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar No. 48: The El Real Burger at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe No. 49: Custard Sandwich at Petite Sweets No. 50: Black Pepper Beer Lobster at Hai Cang Seafood Restaurant No. 51: Red Dragon Roll at Michiru Sushi No. 52: Fried Bananas Foster at Custom Confections No. 53: Bánh Canh Hue at Simply Pho No. 54: Kimchi Koagie at Koagie Hots No. 55: The Juicy Lucy Burger at Lowbrow No. 56: Eggplant Fries at Batanga No. 57: Macarons at Ganache Dessert Bar No. 58: Grilled Cheese at The Golden Grill No. 59: Baklava French Toast at Harry's Restaurant & Cafe No. 60: Patata e Funghi Pizza at Pizaro's No. 61: Old Fashioned Frito Pie at Armadillo Palace No. 62: Korean Spiced Brisket Plate at Revival Market No. 63: Bánh Mì at Les Givral's Sandwich and Cafe No. 64: Squirrel Master Burger at Cottonwood No. 65: Shorty Mac at H-Town StrEATS No. 66: Enchiladas de Mole at La Guadalupana No. 67: Bad Ass Hambur-Torta at Pistolero's No. 68: Green "Hurry Curry" at Nit Noi No. 69: Dozen Raw Oysters at Pappas Seafood No 70: Banana Split at Cloud 10 Creamery No. 71: Lazy Lane Frites at Brasserie 19 No. 72: Chicken Pot Pie at Kenny & Ziggy's No. 73: Chili Cheese Mac from Jus' Mac No. 74: Taco al Pastor at Taco Keto No. 75: 'Date With a Pig' at Sparrow Bar + Cookshop No. 76: The Heights Burger at Gratifi No. 77: Lamb Lollipops at Américas No. 78: Mortadella Sandwich at 13 Celsius No. 79: Carnissima Pizza at Coppa Osteria No. 80: The Marie Laveau Sandwich at Sandy Witch No. 81: Catfish and Grits at The Breakfast Klub No. 82: Grilled Ahi Tuna at St. John's Fire No. 83: Lobster Roll at Maine-ly Sandwiches No. 84: Greek Burger at Hubcap Grill No. 85: Pork Tamales at Irma's No. 86: Ham, Egg & Cheese Crepe at Melange Creperie No. 87: Crab Daddy Bao at Fat Bao No. 88: Sesame Soft Balls at Golden Dim Sum No. 89: Porchetta e Fagioli at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino No. 90: Uncle Daryl's Cake at The Chocolate Bar No. 91: Lobster Cake Benedict at Sorrel Urban Bistro No. 92: Homeroom at Bernie's Burger Bus No. 93: Vuelve a la Vida Soup at Connie's Seafood No. 94: Foie Gras Mac & Cheese at BRC Gastropub No. 95: Sweet Potato Gnocchi at Brooklyn Athletic Club No. 96: Chicken and Waffles at Adair Kitchen No. 97: Soft Pretzel from Mongoose Versus Cobra No. 98: Bulgogi Tacos with Kimchi at Chi'Lantro No. 99: Almond Croissant at Phoenicia No. 100: Bangkok Fries at Boheme
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.