When I was in my early 20s, my good buddy McGee generously moved to a penthouse apartment in Paris for three years. On the first of my (numerous) visits, we went out for "French" pizza, and when it arrived, I was a tad unnerved to find that it was crowned with a fried egg. Now, the two of us had eaten plenty of eggs together—but we usually did so at, say, 3 in the morning, at the Waffle House, and I was unaccustomed to seeing them on a plate with anything other than bacon and toast.
All that changed in France, where eggs are lavished on everything. With the addition of a fried egg and a bit of béchamel, a croque monsieur becomes a croque madame. Eggs top steaks, float in soups and nestle in frisée salads tossed with lardons. They come poached with red wine or bone-marrow sauces. They appear as omelets with fines herbes or ratatouille.
Twenty-five years later, Americans are finally catching on to the fact that eggs are not just for breakfast. The egg-and-frisée craze was the first to take hold on this side of the Atlantic (thanks, in large part, to Manhattan bistro-and-brasserie king Keith McNally), but now, in this era of belt tightening and green chic, chefs are getting more creative. Danny Meyer has been offering egg dishes at his six New York restaurants, with $2 from each dish going to City Harvest, an organization that helps feed the city's hungry. The egg, says Meyer, is "a universal symbol of hope and renewal, as well as a blank canvas on which each chef can express himself." At Meyer's upscale barbecue joint, Blue Smoke, there's a Fried Egg and Pea Shoot Salad With Candied Bacon and Pickled Ramps. At Gramercy Tavern, chef Michael Anthony serves a Norwich Meadow Farm Egg Crepe With Grilled Ramps and Crab.
With more conscientious restaurateurs, and the influx of farmers' markets, consumers are discovering the superior taste of farm-raised eggs—much in the way we were previously turned on to free-range chicken, grass-fed beef and heritage breeds of pork. Birmingham, Ala., chef Frank Stitt keeps 60 laying hens at his Paradise Farm, where they dine on grass, insects and vegetable scraps from his restaurants, as opposed to the grain that commercially bred caged chickens eat. (Chickens that are fed grass-based diets tend to lay eggs that are higher in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.) Stitt notices a big difference between the eggs from his happy chickens—he has one friend he calls the "chicken whisperer," who talks to the birds and holds them in his lap—and those that are mass produced. "The yolk," he says, "is taller and stronger and such a vibrant orange, and the flavor is so pure and wholesome." Not to mention that his Araucanas, Buff Orpingtons and Rhode Island Reds produce "wonderful sounds," says Stitt, "like the roosters crowing in the background of Tom Waits records."
On the bar at one of Stitt's establishments, Chez Fonfon, he offers hard-boiled eggs, free, in the style of French bistros; diners peel them and sprinkle them with kosher salt. Stitt's new cookbook, Bottega Favorita, contains a recipe for a fabulous salad in which pancetta-spiked scrambled eggs are tossed with young lettuces in a sherry vinaigrette. Even the lowly stuffed egg, long a Deep South staple at picnics and church suppers, is now appearing on menus. At my friend Joe Ledbetter's new Nashville-based chain, Bricktop's, you can order a plate of stuffed (or deviled) eggs as a side, and in New Orleans, chef Donald Link offers eggs stuffed with shrimp alongside a salad. "Stuffed eggs are everybody's favorite," says Link, who grew up in southwest Louisiana. "What party have you ever been to when there were any left on the table?" Link is branching out. At his flagship, Herbsaint, there's an amazing spaghetti with guanciale and a fried poached farm egg. The secret: refrigerate a soft-poached egg before dipping it in flour, beaten eggs and bread crumbs—and then put it in the deep fryer.