Houstonians love a good French restaurant, and Toulouse, the new concept brought to Houston by Dallas-based Lombardi Family Concepts, is poised to become another runaway hit.
The first restaurant to debut in the ritzy River Oaks District development off of Westheimer, it has several things going for it, the first of which is that it is stunningly designed. The patio is so picturesque that it could be mistaken for a movie set, while the interiors channel old-world brasserie with a beautifully back-lit, curved bar, red banquettes, pearly white tiles and dark wood elements reminiscent of the very popular and enduring Balthazar in New York's Soho district.
Its prime location — right next to the newest Houston outposts of Dior, Hermès, Dolce & Gabbana and Cartier (Houston’s equivalent to Paris’s famed Avenue Montaigne) — imbues it with instant glamour. It’s the kind that attracts the movers and shakers on the Houston social scene, fashion plates dressed to the nines in designer everything. Local fashion maven Diane Lokey Farb was seated by the window the evening we were there, while fashion designer Stella McCartney — in town for the official grand opening party at her Houston store — dined on the patio.
The fact that Toulouse is a fully formed concept with a successful location already operating in Dallas gives it another edge. Having Master Chef of France Philippe Schmit as executive chef helps, too.
Schmit, whose résumé is well documented and includes stints at New York’s Le Bernardin, La Goulue and Orsay, as well as high-profile posts at Bistro Moderne and his namesake Philippe Restaurant + Lounge, is well-known for his classic French dishes. He puts many of them into play on the menu at Toulouse alongside hits taken from the Dallas outpost and classic French brasserie fare.
For starters, you can't go wrong with Schmit's terrine de foie gras, served with slices of crisped brioche bread and a rhubarb marmalade. The thick-cut tranche is smooth and decadent. Smeared onto the brioche, with a dollop of the marmalade, it was expertly prepared and oh so French, reminding me of a preparation I’d had at Brasserie Bofinger on the Rue de la Bastille in Paris.
In fact, with the exception of the crab cake, which was made with Texas blue crab — and was the best of all the dishes sampled — the menu at Toulouse seems intent on satisfying our yearning for true French classics with selections of grand plates of fruits de mer and offerings such as moules (mussels), steak tartare, steak frites, coquilles st. jacques (scallops) and boeuf bourguignon.
There’s a beautifully done lobster salad that combines Bibb lettuce, asparagus and baby kale in a cucumber dressing with juicy wedges of orange and vibrant chunks of lobster tail.
The bouillabaisse marseillaise is arguably the best you can find in Houston at the moment, the broth deep and bracing, redolent with the aromas of saffron and seafood.
A duck confit dish is also excellent, and so generous in portion that it’s almost like getting two dishes in one. Medium-rare duck breast with crispy skin, sliced and drizzled with an orange-ginger sauce, sits on one side, while a crisp confit (preserved) duck leg sits on the other. Grilled fennel and a carrot flan serve to enliven what will assuredly emerge as one of Toulouse's signature dishes.
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Desserts are a joy, as we found out when we tried the strawberry napoleon with its layers of thin-as-air puff pastry and cream interlaced with strawberry compote. A coffee pot de crème was equally delightful, served with fluffy puffs of just-crisped beignets. In fact, if you're shopping, or just need a break, this would be a propitious place to do so for a fine afternoon treat.
Toulouse is located at 4444 Westheimer in the River Oaks District. Hours of operation are Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to midnight.; Saturday 9 a.m. to midnight.; and Sunday 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Valet and garage parking. For more information, visit toulousecafeandbar.com.