Restaurant Reviews

Nickel and Dining

Sometimes, no matter how charmed you are by a place, a restaurant will have one waiter or one habit or one dish that's so irritating it colors an otherwise pleasant experience. Café Toulouse is such a place. It's the first restaurant I've ever known to charge for bread.

And let me be clear about this: We're not talking about fresh garlicky cheese bread. We're talking about plain old fill-up-the-basket-to-keep-you-
the-appetizers-arrive bread, 75 cents for a half order, $1.50 for a full order. When I saw this, my first thought -- besides you've got to be kidding -- was that it must be damn good bread. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be perfectly common French bread, not particularly crusty, kind of mushy, nothing at all special. (The menu says it's homemade, but considering its utter ordinariness, I wouldn't boast about that.) To make matters worse, the bread wasn't even warm and was served with a dish of melted butter with shreds of dry, waxy grated Parmesan cheese sitting sadly on the bottom. I just don't get it.

What's odd is that Café Toulouse didn't strike me as the kind of restaurant that would pull a stunt like this. It's a small establishment with a few tables outside and a few more inside; copper pots and pans and travel posters from France hang on the walls. Yes, it's an upscale neighborhood joint, a bistro, if you will, but an American bistro with a menu offering things such as soups and salads, burgers, pizzas and pastas, as well as a nice selection of entrées. It has the coziness and familiarity that make you wish you were a regular customer.

If I ever become a regular, it will be because of the Toulouse Appetizer ($6.99). The same French bread is sliced and toasted (a vast improvement) and topped with goat cheese and smoked salmon (four pieces to an order). On the side is a jalapeño mint sauce. I'm not a huge fan of mint with seafood, so I was skeptical at first, but one bite blew me away. The warm cheese and rich salmon perfectly complemented the slight heat and subtle mint of the sauce.

If you want to turn up the heat even more, you should sample the buffalo shrimp ($6.99), a nice variation on the ubiquitous chicken wings. The shrimp are grilled and spicy; on the side is a mouthwateringly, lip-smackingly, deliciously hot "buffalo style" sauce, with another dish of blue cheese dressing handy to extinguish any fires. The hot sauce, though, was so good that long after the shrimp were gone, I found myself dipping the celery garnish, parsley decoration and finally that infamous bread into the sauce. (I considered using my fingers, but I do have some standards, at least while dining in public.)

There are four soups on the menu ($1.99 per cup, $3.99 for a bowl), and if the quality of the nine-bean soup is any indication (rich and hearty and thick with whole beans), the soups alone might be worth a return visit. I can easily envision myself dining on a bowl of French onion soup, sipping a glass of wine underneath a French poster, wearing my beretŠ

Less successful as an appetizer was the crawfish spinach linguine, served with a lime Creole cream sauce ($6.99). The dish was just blah -- no taste of lime, no Creole spices, but far too many shreds of that dried-out cheese (how long ago had it been grated, anyway?).

In fact, on the basis of that dish and the fettuccine Alfredo I sampled as an entrée, I'd probably skip the pastas altogether. The fettuccine's grilled shrimp were certainly tasty, as were the fresh spinach and mushrooms, but the sauce was bland, a problem that no amount of salt and pepper could fix. (Of course, that ubiquitous dessicated Parmesan wasn't helping matters much, either.)

The other entrées, though, were delicious. My favorite was the grilled salmon ($18.99). It was served on a bed of goat cheese with sun-dried tomatoes and was draped with a lovely lemon-butter sauce spiked with garlic and a slight hint of cilantro. This might sound like overkill, but the salmon had more than enough character to stand up to and benefit from all the other flavors. In short, it was wonderful; same goes for the side dishes that accompany most entrées: roasted potato wedges and a fresh sauté of spinach.

I was equally impressed with the delicious Toulouse mignon ($19.99), beef tenderloin wrapped in bacon and served with a rich sauce of Roquefort and red wine, although I must say it wasn't love at first sight. As tasty as the dish was, the mignon came with a whopper of a visual problem. When you combine red wine and blue cheese, you get, well, murk, and murky sauce is not the most appetizing sight. But don't let it daunt you.

The chicken breast with spicy crawfish sauce ($12.99) was another excellent entrée, if a little miscast. The sauce wasn't particularly spicy and was a bit too thick, but the crawfish were plentiful and the chicken was perfectly sautéed, piping hot and juicy, and altogether satisfying. Added bonus: Instead of the spinach sauté, the chicken was served with beautifully garlicky green beans.

A good selection of desserts rounds off the menu ($2.99 each). At first bite, I thought the key lime pie was way too sweet, but that initial impression quickly vanished with a tangy, nearly bitter aftertaste. Quite nice. My top choice, though, was the chocolate espresso cheesecake. Normally I'm about as fond of flavored cheesecake as I am of flavored beers, but this is different. It's rich and dense, with enough espresso flavor to balance out the chocolate sweetness. With a cup of good strong coffee, it's a terrific end to a meal.

All in all, Café Toulouse is a fine neighborhood restaurant, cafe, bistro, whatever, and if I lived in the area, I'd probably be a frequent visitor. With God as my witness, though, I'll never order the bread again. This is definitely not a practice I want to encourage.

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Dennis Abrams