Culinary terminology has slipped through the looking glass into that ambiguous place where a word means just what someone intends it to mean. For instance, some restaurants advertise "new American" cuisine, an imprecise catchall phrase referring to menus featuring, oh, French, Italian, Southwestern and whatever else the chef wishes to throw into the mix. Another example is "global tapas," which presumably signifies smaller portions from the new American list.
With that in mind, we've heard people describe Café Toulouse and Bar as a brasserie, a bistro (indeed, the printed receipts read "Toulouse Bistro") or a sidewalk café. And really, befitting the babble of culinary phrases these days, it's all of these at once. Small tables balance a selection of appetizers or entrées precariously, and the arrival of new items often requires guests to rearrange plates and glasses. Neighbors crowd within whisper distance, decked in every form of fashion statement from jeans to designer suits. There's a constant buzz as dozens of conversations mingle and battle for domination, building to rock 'n' roll decibel levels. Looking around, it's easy to imagine yourself nibbling at some little spot in Brugge or Lyon or, for that matter, Toulouse. The restaurant screams authenticity, down to accordion doors that open up the cramped space for a true sidewalk feel, at least in warmer months. Currently, plastic sheeting and a patio heater interrupt the atmosphere, but so be it. Only a few other American touches mar the scene: Servers warm quickly to each table, a valet stand protects visitors from tiresome block-long walks and a single flat-panel TV near the bar flashes brightly.
But what does one expect from a brasstrofé menu? (Like that word? We made it up.) Perhaps "elegant simplicity" best describes food offerings at Toulouse. They emphasize comfortable versions of duck, mussels, trout and other things usually familiar to patrons of upscale restaurants, prepared in a classic manner. Bold, inventive flavors are not their forte. As a result, few items really stand out, but few fail to satisfy.
Caf Toulouse and Bar
Mussels (appetizer) $10
Steak tartare (appetizer ) $10
Goat cheese tarte $9
Yellowfin tuna carpaccio $10
Duck confit $15
Dover sole market price
Yellowfin tuna $19
Almond trout $17
Filet au poivre et cognac $21
Marnier souffl $8
Poached pear/port ice cream $7
Duck confit is an example of this modest achievement. The kitchen follows tradition by plating cured and slowly cooked meat on a bed of lentils, resulting in an earthy, tender but one-dimensional dish. Only shards of crispy skin add texture and bursts of saltiness, a reminder of the classic preservation method where duck sits covered in salt and fat for an extended period--in this case overnight. They prepare a delicate Dover sole meunière, lightly floured, and season it sparsely so the fish itself strides forward across the palate, teased by a common sauce of butter and lemon. Aside from a couple of gimmicky presentations, their selection of mussels shine in austerity: poulette, a mix of white wine, shallots and cream with a squeeze of lemon; mariniere blends butter into the white wine and shallot combination; provençal sets mussels in a mildly herbal tomato base spiked by a scattering of olives. None of these are heavy recipes. The sauce lurks in the background, allowing plump, musty Mediterranean shellfish space to roam.
This is unassuming fare, something perfect for those evenings when banter with friends matters more than an exquisite gourmet dinner. Sure, goat cheese tarte sounds interesting, but it's nothing more than plain curd encased by a far too chewy pastry shell. A pâté resembling cat food--steak tartare in a mushy and pale pink form--smacked more of capers than beef. The addition of Dijon expands on the dominant tart sensation without threatening to deepen the flavors. Flimsy frites hold a prominent spot on the one-page menu. Let's face it--despite their popularity in Old World circles and despite the devastation wrought by fast food chains committed more to efficiency than taste--Americans perfected deep-fried potato strips. We've been underwhelmed each time we ordered fries at some humble European brasserie/bistro/café, and Toulouse, well, strives for nothing more. There's a clear difference between, say, seared foie gras at a Michelin three-star destination and a loaf of cold goose liver slapped on toast in some neighborhood joint in Liège. Nothing against the latter; it just is what it is.
Then you find yourself spooning up something complex: a spicy, savory broth with a subdued pepper kick filled with bits of fish, scallops, whole shrimp and shellfish. The bouillabaisse is hearty and satisfying, although not something we could label "brilliant." One shortcoming: seafood drifting in the bowl carried little more than a firm texture and subdued flavors. A liberal rub of sharp green peppercorn provides a burning backdrop to fillet au poivre et cognac, or steak in a well-balanced brandy cream sauce. It's a worthy entrée but nothing more. Bite-sized garden pests, otherwise known as escargot, sit in a viscous blend of butter and garlic. Lots of garlic. Fend-off-traffic-cops-with-your-breath amounts of garlic. We were tempted to order more bread just to finish off the rich and bitter sauce but ended up digging in with utensils.
For dessert, a bowl of port ice cream topped by poached pear and blue cheese engages the mental sensors attuned to sugary, salty and rich. The pungent bite of moldy cheese introduces itself casually then starts to insist on an undivided audience. Just as quickly, however, it quiets down, point made, allowing the subtle sweetness of ice cream and fruit, along with the more pronounced sugars in a tacky port sauce, to resume their role.
Ah, something memorable.
Sure, some items falter. Razor-thin, melt-in-your-mouth slices of yellowfin tuna carpaccio evaporate under the more complicated flavors of tapenade oil applied with a heavy hand. The entrée version of the same tuna turns out to be several hunks of (on one visit, at least) slightly overcooked fish accompanied by braised endive. The dish contrasts a biting and somewhat savory veneer of pepper and thyme with a mellow swath of aged balsamic vinegar. But that bolt of pepper eventually overwhelms any effort to beat it back with wine or water.
Almond trout gasped for life in a pool of butter threatening, like the biblical flood, to destroy everything in its ever-spreading path. Good, flaky fish, certainly, but we barely picked out key flavors. You know, trout, almond, that sort of thing.
For the most part, however, Toulouse is a welcoming place. Owner Alberto Lombardi and his team of consulting chefs revisited French and Belgian roots before opening the place and successfully mimicked the casual sophistication of one of those charming places you find on foreign travels. They open for lunch and the breakfast/lunch equivalent. Post-meal coffee is piping and bitter. Soufflé emerges steaming from the kitchen. The bar features a surprising list of classic cocktails long forgotten in the Dallas market. Kir, champagne cocktails and French 75s are beautiful things, although the latter seems a tad light on gin, perhaps bending to local tastes, and staff can't figure out the difference between kir and kir royale. (The former uses white wine, the latter sparkling wine.)
If you enjoy a comfortable meal in a vivacious setting, Toulouse may end up being your favorite destination. Call it whatever you want--brasserie, bistro or noisy little sidewalk café--just bask in the laid-back elegance.
Yet if you expect culinary genius, you'll find the brasstrofé somewhat wanting. 3314 Knox St., 214-748-5566. Open 11 a.m.-midnight Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-midnight Saturday and 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday. $$$
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Dallas dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.