The beef bourguignon with three boneless short ribs, braised to tender perfection and set atop delicate paper-thin sheets of cut pappardelle, was the evening’s star at Toulouse Cafe and Bar. With fresh pasta made in-house at Toulouse’s sister restaurant, Taverna, this flagship dish of French bourgeois cooking had incredible depth from the first to the last bite. Each pearl onion was sweated through, yet still managed to burst with flavor. Halved baby carrots, green tops and all, were sweet and tender, yet had enough tooth to keep them interesting. The lardon (a fancy word for thick cubes of bacon) was only made more decadent when enveloped by the beef’s dark brown, savory sauce.
There is no shortage of French restaurants in Houston, and with places like Le Mistral, Bistro Provence and Etoile to satiate the desire for classic French cuisine, Toulouse needs to hit more marks to stand out above the rest. Opened earlier this year in April in the posh River Oaks District, this eatery, from Dallas-based Lombardi Family Concepts, is still finding its legs here in Houston. Having made a few minor errors in execution and delivery, Toulouse could use some improvements to make it more upscale-worthy.
The menu online said that pomme purée is served with the beef bourguignon. For a few minutes, I panicked, unable to remember a mashed potato of any kind on the plate or the table. A follow-up call to the restaurant cleared up the confusion. An employee explained that the online menu had not yet been updated since the departure of chef Philippe Schmit in June. The employee added that the menus at the restaurant already reflect the items revamped by the new chef, Laurent Dubourg.
Walking up to Toulouse feels like stepping into a Parisian sidewalk-cafe postcard. One side of the restaurant opens up to a patio that seamlessly spills into the promenade with shrubbery, potted plants, flowers and a sidewalk carefully situated with small, round tables and chairs. Inside, the curved marble bar top draws the eyes immediately, and the dark wood cabinetry, backlit to display its wealth of fine wine and spirits, is beautifully designed.
Reservations are highly recommended. The dining area filled steadily after 7:30 p.m. It’s very European to have supper later in the evening, and sitting in the middle of Toulouse, a diner can easily feel transported across the pond. The bartender mentioned that between Thursdays and Sundays, the dining room is usually packed after 8 p.m. We were thrilled to be seated at one of the cozier corner booth tables in the cafe area, where conversation would not be a challenge. The main dining room is white-tablecloth, but the cafe has more of a casual feel, with an upfront view of the open-concept kitchen, and runners picking up and dropping off plates, creating an exciting hustle-and-bustle atmosphere.
The list of pre-dinner cocktails included eight fancifully named concoctions along with an impressive selection of red, white and rosé wines and Champagne. We ordered the French 77 and the Red Dragon. The French 77 is a mixture of spirit, citrus, sugar and champagne. Not to be confused with the French 75 (which dates back to the days of Prohibition and is named for a rapid-firing French cannon of the World War I era), the French 77 is crafted with elderflower liqueur instead of simple syrup, and Toulouse’s version is finished with grapefruit, lemon and raspberry. This boozy, bubbly cocktail is a luscious way to kiss away the worries of the day.
The Red Dragon, however, did not deliver the mystique promised by the list of ingredients: Casa Dragones Blanco tequila, génépi, Thai chile syrup, lime juice and Peychaud’s bitters. The génépi (an herbal aperitif) seemed to overpower the mixture, and the chile syrup was subtle and failed to bring the punch.
The escargot and onion soup arrived shortly after our cocktails. The snails were cooked well in garlic, parsley butter and Pernod, and the garlicky butter made for a great table bread companion. There was nothing terribly extraordinary about the onion soup. In fact, we thought it was a bit thin and could’ve benefited from more melted Gruyère.
In the midst of appetizers, the server came over to remind us that it was time to plan for dessert, if dessert plans included a soufflé, which requires more time to cook. We opted for the Grand Marnier over the white chocolate sauce and went back to sopping up the delicious butter sauce with the bread.
My companion ordered the diver scallops, whose description on the menu included a promise that they would be seared and presented with risotto blessed with black truffles. My hi-how-do-you-do pleasantries with dishes at the table include holding plates up or lowering my face to take in the aroma. The smells of a dish are usually the best and most accurate memory and testament to the success or failure of that dish. Unfortunately, at first whiff, the scallops smelled fishy. To be fair, I waited, sipped on my French 77 and tried again. The sea was clearly the overwhelming sensation. The scallops also fell short in appearance and texture. There were no visible sear marks, and one of the three scallops needed more cooking time. After a second bite, I left the plate to my date to finish. I love when asparagus and peas are components in risotto. The sweetness of the peas is generally a perfect addition to balance the creaminess. Again, sadly, another promise was broken when neither of us could find the black truffle in the mix, but the risotto was enjoyable nonetheless.
With exquisite timing, the perfectly fashioned soufflé arrived to close out the meal. The server poured the Grand Marnier sauce carefully over it, and the magical dance of citrus liquor, sugary sweetness and buttery, baked goodness ensued. We waited anxiously, spoons in hand, to dig into that fluffiness. All meals should end with a soufflé of this caliber.
For our second visit, we decided to dine at the bar. The leather-backed stools were a welcome luxury, and a purse stand is brought over for bags that require their own seat. The bar area makes for great people-watching, with an unobstructed view of the entrance.
We ordered the charcuterie and fromage plateau and asked the bartender to recommend a glass of red and white that would complement accordingly. The Chalk Hill Pinot Noir and the Newton Red Label Claret were great choices. He showed us a happy hour menu after we had ordered the wine. Happy hour is available only at the bar, Monday through Friday between 4 and 7 p.m. The menu looks promising, with a few choices for petites bouchées and boissons (mini-pastries, both sweet and savory, and drinks), each item for $7.
Charcuterie is a mainstay in French cuisine. Bring together cured meats, cheeses and nuts, and a delightfully low-maintenance, high-end meal is born. This should’ve been executed flawlessly, especially at a place that touts itself as a casual French bistro, or so I thought. We have serious, mad love for the art of charcuterie and have found numerous places in this city besides our own picnic basket in the park to enjoy it. The presentation was nice, but somehow, between the kitchen and the server and the bartender, no one managed to see one glaring no-no when serving cured meats.
On the menu, the charcuterie reads like a gastric dream: prosciutto, saucisson sec, pâté de campagne, smoked duck breast, chicken liver mousse, onion marmalade, cornichons, mustards and a toasted baguette. Smoked duck breast is a treat not usually found on many charcuterie boards. Again, the nose test was engaged. The duck smelled off, yet we braved the scent and decided to try it. The taste was off-putting and sour. Judging from sight alone, the duck looked fantastic; both the server and the bartender could’ve easily missed this problem, but for the kitchen to plate meat of this quality is very questionable.
The real rub was the pâté de campagne, a country terrine of liver, pork, fat and herbs. Two generous slices adorned the board. One looked as would be expected; the other, grayed and hardened from lack of proper storage. As the bartender set the platter in front of us, I could tell right away that one sad piece should’ve been left in the kitchen and not placed on a $22 charcuterie plate.
The cheese plate was wonderful. Each of the four cheeses, along with the candied walnuts and olive tapenade, was enjoyable. The accompanying fruit bread was a strange choice. What looked like a slice of pound cake had the consistency and fortitude of an everyday white bread. The wine recommended as an accompaniment suited the meats and cheeses very well. The Chalk Hill was especially good, rounding out the flavors with a slight hint of fruitiness, yet was not too sweet.
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We waited until near the end of the meal to mention (quietly) to the bartender the quality of the smoked duck in hopes that the restaurant would pull it from the charcuterie until the problem was fixed. He apologized while attempting to pick up the platter, and asked if we were finished with it. Of course not — there was still good prosciutto and two cornichons to nibble on.
For being such a beautiful eatery with a reputation that draws socialites and somebodies, Toulouse is not living up to the hype. Although there is a sense of magical nostalgia, whether real or idealized, while you’re sitting among men in suit jackets and ladies in pearls, surrounded by 1920s vintage art deco framed posters, white orchids and the smell of fresh brioche, the execution of a few items on the menu did not hit the mark. Certain expectations come with fine dining, and based on the errors in judgment and delivery from these visits, Toulouse comes across more casual than classic. Still, I’d happily come back for a seat on one of the cushy stools at the bar, with a pinky out and ready to sip on a French 77.
Toulouse Cafe and Bar
4444 Westheimer, Suite E-100, 713-871-0768, toulousecafeandbar.com. Hours: Monday through Thursday, lunch: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., dinner: 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, lunch: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., dinner: 4 p.m. to midnight. Saturday, brunch: 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., dinner: 3:30 p.m. to midnight. Sunday, brunch: 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., dinner: 3:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
French 77 $13
Red Dragon $15
Chalk Hill Pinot Noir $15
Newton Red Label Claret $14
Onion soup $11
Diver scallops $32
Boeuf Bourguignon $32
Plateau de fromages $18
Plateau de charcuterie $22
Soufflé Grand Marnier $12