One of the best things about my day job is that it isn't. Midweek days off are a common occurrence, even if they're usually whittled away by my sneaking back into bed to snuggle with the baby (and his mom) after I drop his sisters off at school. We've been trying to take better advantage of these days off, though, or at least more practical advantage. Sometimes, that means hitting the grocery store at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday; it's as empty as six months into a postapocalyptic TV drama, and we're free to roam about at our leisure.
Lately, we've been trying to do something a little more exciting. We're boring and old now, so that means breakfast. As with that postapocalyptic grocery store, though, 9 a.m. on a Wednesday is a great time to go to a popular restaurant, especially if you have a baby with you.
Tout Suite is great for babies, on account of the acoustics. Every chirp, every piercing shriek, every babbling declaration of burgeoning personality bounces around the cavernous space, amplified and echoed to the great delight of their maker. Consequently, Tout Suite is also a terrible place for babies. Of course, being early on a Wednesday, we had the place largely to ourselves. There were no dates to spoil, no quietly studious reading sessions to interrupt. We were free to eat, and to chirp, without fear of non-parent-side-eye.
We did so in the lower level of the sprawling space, a sort of sunken living room set in polished concrete and darkly gleaming wood tables, awash in the morning light let in by 12-foot windows that offer an off-kilter view of downtown as translated through the frame of a freeway underpass. A fitting tableau, given the new-ish hot spot's build-out in a converted warehouse in a potholed, industrial section of town, part of the recent spate of multi-use restaurants giving new life to old spaces.
The cornerstone concept at Tout Suite is coffee, as evidenced by the prominent peninsula containing the coffee bar, flanked on each side by ordering stations for dine-in and to-go orders. The coffee -- Greenway beans pulled into delicately nutty cortados, flat whites and cappuccinos by a troop of baristas many of whom you've seen behind some of Houston's best-loved bars -- is certainly worth a visit. While it is consistently excellent, the food hasn't quite found its footing.
The minefield can be unfortunately difficult to navigate, with appealing menu language fizzling into reality on the plate. Take, for example, the duck confit hoagie. Its promise of decadent duck complemented by caramelized onions and charred peppers, provolone cheese, pickled currants and red onions on a pretzel bun certainly drew us in, but we ended up pushing the plate to the side, the duck left to wallow forlornly in a quickly cooling pool of grease.
At the same time, there were strokes of genius that showed a thoughtful touch that just didn't quite click here. Those pickled currants were pinpricks of delight, offering a little starburst of tart sweetness and texture that could have offset a more delicate application of duck. Likewise, the charred peppers brought a smoky edge to the nearly raw peppers' vegetal sweetness. Their crunch would have played nicely against the lushness of duck confit, had it not been so sadly sodden.
The burger showcases some of those same touches in much defter fashion. Against a big, beefy bloom, the unexpected pop of tart golden raisins italicizes the meaty oomph and aggressive sear of the burger. Likewise, a sweet slick of caramelized onions adds another luxe dimension, and the egg-adder oozes decadence into all those nooks and crannies, rather than simply sluicing ineffectually onto the plate. The pile of nicely fried skin-on fries needs a dash of salt but perks up when dragged through a brightly fruity house ketchup worthy of notice.
There's a slate of salads on the all-day menu, along with the promise of a half-sandwich combo for $9. The menu doesn't mention that the only salad option allowed is the house Caesar, even if it does point out the sandwich exclusions. It's an odd approach, but you'd rather have the Caesar anyway. It's a simple but effective bowl, its crisp romaine buttressed by heartier kale, all of it slicked with a creamy and punchy dressing that stands up nicely against the hearty greens. A full order of a "winter salad" seemed more interesting on paper but came out underdressed, its "roasted roots, beets and cauliflower" rendered as an odd jumble of nearly raw parsnips along with the other players, most of which were buried at the bottom of the bowl along with a handful of pistachios and pepitas. If you work a bit, mining out a hunk of beet and a swipe of the "whipped herb goat mascarpone" to complement the tumble of greens, there are some interesting bites, but it's a bit confounding as a whole.
Far better were a couple of cafe-service staples, the grilled cheese and BLT. Where the grilled cheese fails to deliver the melty, gooey thrills you may be after, it makes up for it with the nutty nuance offered by a blend of cheeses from Houston Dairymaids (they tell me provolone and Gouda are common elements, but I've got my finger on Gruyère). Slow Dough sourdough highlights the slight tang of the cheese, its butter-griddled crunch simple but addictive. The BLT is similarly spartan, allowing focus on properly crisp bacon, peppery arugula and admirably summery tomatoes. A slick of sriracha mayo reads more savory than hot, but adds to the whole affair quite nicely.
It's often in such simple frameworks that Tout Suite hits its highest notes. Most piercing of these, perhaps, is the eggs Norwegian, an occasional item on Tout Suite's weekend brunch. At a quarter to one, Sunday brunch is hopping. Mind the lines; they don't seem to matter much on most days, but they do help keep the wheels greased when the place is packed.
On top of a toasted slab of baguette, a smear of crème fraîche anchors a generous helping of loosely scrambled eggs, still gently quivering. Folds of smoked salmon stagger-step across the top, hiding half-moon slivers of fennel. The smoke is a gentle waft, accentuated by a sharp pop from a scatter of pickled fennel stalk, reinforcing the notes of their raw counterpoint underneath, which in turn add crunchy contrast with those custardy eggs and svelte fish. It makes for a lovely bite, perfectly composed and immensely pleasurable.
The migas is similarly well appointed, owing in large part to an assertive, peppery salsa that boasts a freshness matched by its smoky chipotle backbone. Again, the eggs are kept loose, giving greater contrast to the scatter of pico, offering gentle crunch and heat amid the acidic pop of tomato. It's swell stuff.
Where Tout Suite seems to nail a scramble, fried eggs turn up routinely overcooked, as on their rendition of Vietnamese steak and eggs. A comal comes bearing chunks of beef that are not quite tender enough, their pallid color an indicator of incomplete sear. A tangle of sweetly intense onions is nice, as is the rough-hewn pâté, even if it is a shade on the dry side. It has the perfect thrum of livery richness. A pair of fried eggs top the pile, their lac-frizzled edges just hinting at brown, but their yolks a bit firm, refusing to run into an impromptu sauce over the meat. The tiny toast accompaniment shatters under the application of pressure.
It's important to note that, even when the dishes don't quite land their punches, they manage to be pretty agreeable. When they do hit home, they can be knockouts. That extends to the dessert case, resplendently laid out in dark gloss and shimmering jewel tones, rainbow ribbons of macarons beckoning alluringly.
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The macarons don't quite manage the ethereally shifting textures of the best versions; their fillings are just a shade too sweet, their exteriors too yielding and the inner cookie needing a few more minutes in the oven. They're a nice nibble, but not destination fare.
Serendipitously, the most visually alluring dessert, a tart of mango and passion fruit, makes good on its sunny-hued promise, tasting like semi-liquid light. The custard is delicate and smooth, with a pleasantly restrained sweetness and enough earthy floor from its pistachio crust to announce the passion fruit. It would be a lovely dessert in any room but is particularly appealing when bathed in the gorgeous light of Tout Suite's lower level, popping against the dark wood of the communal table and followed by a finely calibrated cup of coffee. It's a great way to end a meal carefully culled from Tout Suite's charming but imperfect menu, even if you do have to figure out which line to order from yet again.
Ultimately, Tout Suite isn't the type of place you'll define by what doesn't work because enough things work so well that you'll keep coming back. I've already compiled a handy list of favorites, and they'll be the things I come back for. I won't be too bothered by a French toast that hasn't soaked up enough of its custard bath because I know there are other gems. Even on the occasions one fails to sparkle, it's easy enough to cross it off the list, chalk it up to experience and settle back against one of Tout Suite's comfortably plush seat cushions to enjoy the rest of your coffee. Tout Suite's offerings may sometimes seem like diamonds in the rough, but in that room, they sparkle.
Brioche burger $14 (add $2 for a fried egg) Duck confit hoagie $13 Winter salad $12 2 Suite (half sandwich, soup, salad -- choice of two) $10 Side suite fries $2 French toast $10 Vietnamese steak and eggs $16 Migas $9 Eggs Norwegian $14 Latte $4 Flat white $3.50 8-box macarons $16 Mango pistachio passion $5.75